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The Krakatoa Eruption page 2


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The noise of that explosion penetrated for thousands of miles. It was heard in New Guinea, South Australia and Ceylon. Nearer to the scene of the calamity, on Java and Sumatra, the detonation was deafening, its effect on the towns alarming. Windows were shattered in their frames, pictures and chandeliers crashed to the floors of houses, even solid walls of stone cracked under the concussion.

One man has left a particularly graphic word-picture of the awful moment when Krakatoa proved that she was still as strong after her long sleep. He was Von Gestle, a Dutch scientist, who was observing, it is believed, from high up on a mountain at Anjer, thirty miles from the volcano. "A glare of fire right in the midst of the water caught my eyes, and all along the Straits, in a line of flame, straight to Krakatoa, the bottom of the sea seemed to have cracked open so that the subterranean fires belched out. There were twin cataracts, and, between the two, rose a great crackling wall of fire. Down this chasm the waters of the Straits were pouring with a tremendous hissing sound, which seemed as if the flames would be extinguished, but they were not."

He could not, from his lofty mountain perch, have seen much more, for visibility was soon blotted out over an area of about a thousand miles by a screen of dust and ashes which, mixed with moisture, eventually turned to a sort of muddy rain. It was under cover of this black-out that the eruption executed the more devastating side of its work. The noise of the explosion itself and the night-by-day were as nothing compared with the tidal waves that accompanied them. If the end of the world had come the sea could not have surged into more appalling chaos. Great masses of water mounted to over a hundred feet high and rolled and raced towards the shores of Java and Sumatra. Incredible as it may seem, the last ripples of them reached as far as London's own River Thames.

Small boats in their path simply vanished and were never seen again. How many of the larger craft rode such seas and survived seems a miracle. As it was, some were lifted and flung like toys on the shore. The stately man-of-war Berouw was actually carried over a mile inland and left high and dry about thirty feet above sea-level. When the disaster was over tons of dust-mud was shovelled from the decks of all the vessels that had been spared.

Two lighthouses toppled and fell before the watery avalanche. The huge waves swept inland, parts of the coasts of Java and Sumatra irrevocably at their mercy. Nothing could stop the invader. As it roared out of the blackness that hid the sea it killed and destroyed almost without warning. The beautiful little city of Anger, a tropical paradise, was completely overwhelmed, and the nearby village of Sirik submerged. At Merak a Chinese camp was swept away. Over on the Sumatra side a formidable slice of Telok Betong, capital of the Lampong district, vanished in the path of the tidal waters.

And how many perished in the throes of this disaster? A popularly accepted figure is 36,380, including 37 Europeans, but the casualty list has been an elastic one, stretched as high as 100,000. It is certain, however, that any exact estimate was impossible. Many small boats may have been swallowed up in the chasm of fire that, for a flash, spanned the Straits as the volcano cracked and exploded. Again, native populations were at that time more speculative than statistical, and an accurate tally would have been out of the question.

For some time after the eruption the Sanda Straits were almost impassable. The lighthouses, as already stated, had been swept away. All the old familiar landmarks on the shore were obscured by a vast deposit of volcanic dust. The sea itself was coated with such masses of floating pumice that in places a vessel could scarcely force its way through. The mainland on both sides of the Straits bore scars of ghastly desolation. Mr. R. J. Dalby, who was aboard the British sailing ship Hope, anchored off Anger at the time of the disaster, has said: "Not until next morning did we get a glimpse of the coast - and what a sight! In place of luxuriant vegetation there was nothing but a brown sterile barrenness. The shores both of Java and Sumatra seemed to have been battered and burnt up. All sorts of wreckage was flying past us. And huge masses of vegetation floated by on which we could see huge frogs, snakes and other strange reptiles - and sharks! It was sickening to see them."

The Krakatoa group of islands had paid in strange ways for the great eruption. So far as Krakatoa itself was concerned, the whole of the northern and lower portion of the island had disappeared. The Rakata itself had been shattered from base to peak by the final great explosion, and was now little more than a helpless cliff of rock. The island with the curious name - the Polish Hat - had vanished completely. Verlaten Island had increased in both area and height, and several new islands had been thrown up from the sea-bed. The sea base around the main island, it was afterwards estimated, had been elevated in places from ten to sixty feet.

The depth of the great crateral hollow which was found where once the northern part of the island rose to great heights sank to 1,000 feet below sea-level. And some idea of the awful force of the explosion which blew over two-thirds of Krakatoa to bits may be gathered from the estimate that the missing bulk of Krakatoa was about 200,000,000,000 (two hundred thousand million) cubic feet. A fiftieth part of this mass dropping into the water would, by its displacement, furnish sufficient liquid to form a wave circle of 100 miles in circumference, 20 feet high and 350 feet wide.

Such figures as these - and thousands more - found their way into the report of the Royal Society, compiled and presented several years afterwards. There was no doubt that the disaster of Krakatoa had awakened the keenest scientific interest. Hundreds of reports in many different languages have since found their way into print.

One thing is very certain: The eruption of Krakatoa was the biggest noise ever heard on earth, and probably the most terrible convulsion of its kind since prehistoric times. How the great tidal waves that did most of the destruction were formed must for ever remain, to some extent, uncertain. It may have been by the large masses of the bulk of the island falling into the sea, by the sudden submarine explosion, by the violent movement of the crust of the earth under water, or by a sudden rush of water into the very cavity of the explosion.

The news of the disaster was carried by telegraph-cable from Batavia to Singapore, and thence round the world. Expeditions and excursions set out from many lands to examine the scene of such awe-inspiring events. For years the coasts along the Straits of Sunda bore evidence of the tragedy. Not for a long time did the grass wave green again, or the glamour of the Tropics shine again through the dark desolation.

And for years afterwards, as a sequel to the eruption, the sun played kaleidoscopic tricks not only in the eastern hemisphere, but hi every part of the world. Its glory was enhanced by colour schemes that were weird and wonderful and beautiful. There were blue suns and green suns seen. Here in England strange twilights and sunsets were observed. To-day, the calamity that thus made itself so vividly remembered is forgotten. Krakatoa is a silent voice.

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