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The Krakatoa Eruption


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Not since the earth was young and in the agony of its volcanic birth pains has it suffered such a devastating shock as the calamitous eruption of Krakatoa in 1883. No disaster in history can rival the intensity of its alarm or the spectacle of its ruthless destruction. It was an epic of omnipotence, overpowering, complete. The dreadest machinations of nature in revolt violated the peace and grandeur of the Tropics. The sun was blotted out. The crust of the earth was torn. The sea rose in a towering wall of water. A noise like the massed guns of a dozen wars and the rumble of a year's untied thunderstorms split the ether. Flame spurted and wove into a myriad of evil yet awe-inspiring patterns. And amid all these ghastly phenomena thousands were drowned, burnt to death, slaughtered without mercy. Towns and villages were wiped out. Ships vanished from the face of the sea. The echo of the world's assault on its own life and beauty was heard thousands of miles away.

The scene of the disaster was the Krakatoa group of islands in the Straits of Sunda, between Java and Sumatra, in the Dutch East Indies. They enjoyed little prominence in the eyes of the world. Men of science knew of them because of their volcanic history and significance, sailors recognised them as a gay landmark in a lonely stretch of water, but to ordinary men and women, particularly in Europe, they were nothing more interesting than tiny dots on the map of the eastern hemisphere.

Krakatoa, the biggest of the islands, was crested towards its southern end by the Rakata, a volcanic cone of nearly 3,000 feet that had for a long time controlled its temper. Northward lay a little chain of minor craters, also dormant, including the Danan and the Perbuwatan. About five and a half miles long, Krakatoa had for its neighbours Lang Island and Verlaten Island, both little more than two miles in length, and a team of picturesque islets that included White Rock and Polish Hat - a curious name owing its origin, probably, to the tiny island's quaint, deformed shape. For two hundred years Krakatoa had known no eruption. Time had erased the memories of its last spate of wrath in 1680, when, from what can be gathered from the scanty evidence available, it had demonstrated its terror in a manner which was a warning prelude to the tragedy which was to come so many years afterwards. The natives of the mainland had grown to regard the uninhabited island almost with effection. Any stories of its menace that may have been, handed down from preceding generations had become legends with little fear or threat in them. They visited the island in their rough boats and canoes, rambling in its miniature forest jungle to gather favourite wild fruits. The more venturesome had climbed the sides of the Rakata itself, to watch with "a mild surmise" the spiral of steam which rose to the sky from the jaws of the sleeping demon. Europeans explored it, too, a little more apprehensive, but without trepidation, fascinated by the island's green and warm luxuriance, intrigued by the stories they had heard of its black and destructive past.

But Krakatoa was a mock innocent. She was as ready to boil over as a kettle too long on the hob. For all her long years of docility, for all the richness of her vegetation, she was maturing towards a new and surpassing upheaval. It was not, after all, surprising. Krakatoa was the predestined setting for a major eruption, lying in the very heart of a region that was recognised as being one of the vital points of volcanic activity on earth. The Straits of Sunda were the break in a line of volcanic mountains studded across both Java and Sumatra. Java alone - a territory about the size of England - contained about fifty, running from one end of this big island to the other. It is certain that in early times this region was an inferno. Even since the European occupation there had been the constant threat of smoke and detonation from the craters. Geologists believe that Java and Sumatra were once united, that the Krakatoa islands were the legacy of a titanic eruption in the dawn of history, when a vast area of land was blasted into chaos, and the sea rushed in to form what is now the Straits.

Still, in 1883, when the year began, Krakatoa was not suspect. The last thought that entered the heads of those in Java and Sumatra was that the island was about to stage a disastrous revival of its dynamic powers. Not until May did the island issue any adequate warning of the wrath to come. Sounds of a deep rumbling were heard at Batavia and Buitenzorg, a hundred miles or more away. At first they were believed to be thunder over the sea; some even, believed them to be the sounds of gun-fire. Then came rumours that Krakatoa was stirring in its sleep that the calm of the island was being ravaged. The "thunder" that had been heard was the echo of violent explosions, it was said. While the Rakata was as yet still subdued, as it had been for so many years, its smaller brother, the Perbuwatan, was boiling and bubbling over, spouting dust and pumice to a great height, amid flashes of vivid lightning.

Confirmation of the truth of the reports came soon afterwards. The captains of ships that had sailed near the island declared that it was active and threatening. Those on the nearest shores could see with the naked eye that fountains of destruction were rising. Within a few days showers of white dust were falling over a radius of several hundreds of miles. Here was evidence not to be disputed. There was consternation on both sides of the Straits, grim speculation as to what effect this ominous series of events would have upon the mainland. A steamboat expedition to the island returned with the report that Krakatoa had the appearance of having been visited by a freak snowstorm, was covered by a greyish-white dust, while leaves and twigs had been torn from the trees. Not within living memory had the island ever exhibited such wayward activity, and the general alarm spread.

As the summer advanced Krakatoa lessened its mad ejaculations. It was false consolation, however, and by August the fears of those on Java and Sumatra were again mounting. Constant rumblings were heard, for ever increasing in their intensity. Earth tremors were felt, earthquakes in miniature that circulated an abiding sense of uneasiness in the towns and villages. The reports from ships were more than ever disquieting. The island was said to be completely stripped of its foliage. Its surface was buried under a cloak of dust and pumice nearly two feet deep. Trees stood in black, stark nakedness. No sign of animal life could be seen. Great fountains of dust and vapour were gushing miles high from craters old and new. The cones in the north-central region, moreover, were belching lumps of more sinister matter. Explosion followed explosion at intervals of every ten or fifteen minutes. Nature was at war with nature; it seemed that nothing now could avert the inevitable crisis.

It came on Sunday, August 26. At Batavia and Buitenzorg, at Anjer and Telok Betong, on both sides of the Straits, in towns and villages and homesteads for hundreds of miles around natives and Europeans shared a common fear. The noise of the detonations was now like an artillery duel. Doors and windows rattled. The air was heavy with suspense a hundred times more depressing than the atmosphere of a thunderstorm, and was thickening with the particles of dust shed by the world's deadliest isle. Those close to the shores, and in ships at sea, could see tapering to heaven from over Krakatoa a massive, black pillar of smoke, afterwards said to have attained to a height of twenty miles or more. The great, shifting clouds spread like a curtain to hide the catastrophe planned below. By the early afternoon the explosions were heard in Bandung, a hundred and fifty miles away, and news of havoc was cried through Java. At Batavia and Buitenzorg, nearer to the theatre of the disaster, real terror grew. Many took to the hills.

Those in ships in the Straits - and there were several European vessels in the vicinity of Krakatoa - had an incomparable view and impression of the calamity that did literally shake the world. In the early Sunday evening, between 5 and 6 p.m., Captain Watson, of the Charles Bal, was within twelve miles of the volcano when huge lumps of pumice fell on the decks of his ship. When he felt them, many were still warm. And what a sunset followed! It has since been painted in all the tints commanded by the artist, with all the abandon of an imagination stirred by records of the master-calamity, but no brush can transfer to canvas the terror yet overwhelming beauty of the spectacle. Captain Wooldridge, of the Sir R. Sale described the sky as having "a most terrible appearance, the dense mass of clouds being covered with a murky tinge, with fierce flashes of lightning." At 7 p.m., when dense vapour and dust clouds rendered it as dark almost as midnight, the whole scene was lighted up from time to time by electrical flashes, and the mountain resembled an illuminated pine tree, with the forks of the lightning as branches, or "like large serpents rushing through the air." The air itself was heavy with dust and small ashes. There was a strong sulphurous smell. Later, as a sunset climax, the captain saw "a blood-red curtain" fringed with multi-shades of yellow. At one moment the sky would be of stygian gloom, at another a blaze of flame. These worthy men of the sea missed little of the awe and majesty of the scene, and their words have been handed down as probably the only existing record of an impression of that fateful Sunday afternoon so near at hand.

Night scarcely had to fall to blacken this tragic little corner of the world that night. There was gloom even in the hearts of the people, and a deep-rooted fear. Along the coasts of the Straits they huddled in anxious groups, simple people of simple ways and beliefs who could only look with wonder and dread. The dust, the smell, the heat, the darkness that was becoming even more intense, the lightning and fire-glow they could glimpse occasionally in the sky all conspired to heighten their apprehension.

At Batavia, Buitenzorg, Telok Betong and the bigger towns no one slept. Houses were still shaken by the detonations that echoed every few minutes. Here, too, the air was growing thicker with dust and fumes, the atmosphere becoming more electric.

Once again the European ships in the Straits were the unique observers of the phenomenon that has made history, of scenes and sounds that engaged the attention of men of science the world over for years afterwards. Strange episodes, adventure and danger have fallen to the lot of sailors through the ages, but few mariners can have experienced a thrill to rival that of the night of August 26, 1883.

Captain Watson, of the Charles Bal, declared that in the darkness the mast-head and yard-arm of his ship were covered with corposants - a sailor's name for a luminous electric body seen in the rigging on dark, stormy nights - on an unprecedented scale, and that a peculiar pink flame seemed to descend and touch them from the clouds. He also observed chains of fire and balls of flame - the reflection of the molten lava on the smoke screen over the volcano. When Captain Watson took his soundings during the night the lead returned warm from a depth of thirty fathoms.

The volcano literally rained mud on the decks of the nearest ships, a horrid conglomeration of pumice-dust and sea-water. This, however, was not particularly alarming in the darkness. What did puzzle and upset the more superstitious of the seamen was the clinging phosphorescence, a known phenomenon in such circumstances, due to atmospheric electricity, but never before - and probably never since - seen so vividly. It decorated entire vessels with its glow. One of the ships affected, the G. H. London, about fifty miles from Krakatoa, had considerable difficulty, because of it, with native members of the crew. In sweat and panic these men shouted that the "fires" were the work of devils, and that if they found their way below they would sink the ship. Feverishly they extinguished the phosphorescence with their hands and garments, only to find that it returned again - if not as evil spirits, then as very determined ones.

All night long Krakatoa roared and belched, tearing the earth, rending the sky, carpeting the sea, even, with the trade-marks of its devilish work. It filled the minutes with the crack and boom of explosions. When it had patterned the darkness with companion shadows of smoke and dust it shot through both succeeding volleys of flame. It was a carnival of calamity that would have been staggering and breathless in its power and beauty but for its challenge to human life and safety. Even Captain Watson, tough and commonplace sailor, who knew the peril of it all, admitted that it was a "wonderful spectacle."

Towards the early morning the audible anger of Krakatoa diminished. The detonations came at lengthening intervals. The fiery manifestations of the volcano lost a little of their fury. But if any believed that Krakatoa was weakening in its threat, if any hoped that the new day would witness its conversion back again to tranquillity, theirs was to be a bitter and a cruel disappointment. That lull represented a gathering of the deadliest forces of destruction, the charging of a battery that was to release power enough to shift and change the face of land and sea.

The Rakata, king crater of the island, which had been slower than its subjects to rise to the full ascendancy of its antagonism, was now a raging furnace within. Its sink of molten lava was bubbling impatiently almost to the rim of the cone, held back a little by the seal of pumice-dust above, but ready at any moment to rebel. Krakatoa was no longer a tropical island, but a mammoth bomb about to burst upon the earth that fashioned it, a weapon of nature so barbarous, so crippling in the blow it would strike, that every other force of nature would be helpless against its offensive. Every rumble of Krakatoa now was a warning, every tinge of flame a signal of disaster. The sleep of centuries was over, the doze of days ended. The sham menace of the last twenty-four hours was to last no longer. Krakatoa was ready to strike.

At about 10 a.m. that morning - Monday, August 27, 1883 - fell the blow that shook the world, rocked the sea in its bed, stirred and quickened the fires far under the sea-bed, obliterated the sky and took dreadful toll of human life. It was an explosion the like of which can neither be described nor imagined. It blew Krakatoa to smithereens. Its highest peak was hurtled for 800 miles through space and formed a new little island where it fell. It was as though - a vivid analogy recently drawn - one of the Orkney Islands had disappeared and landed on top of the Isle of Wight.

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