on 30 September 2012
This is a well-written, enjoyable and - seemingly - (the 'but' of my title, which I will come back to later) thoroughly researched book that covers a breath-takingly wide range of subjects and interests. The negative reviewers of this book make a fair point, if what you are looking for is a book that strictly focuses on the eruption of Krakatau (the correct spelling of the volcano) in 1883 then this is not the book for you.
Winchester sweeps across continents and time-zones, academic subjects, eras and eons, technical developments, potted biographies (including frequently details of his own) and theoretical debates throwing out fascinating and easily comprehensible facts and histories. It is an eclectic mix and written in an engaging style centering, often elliptically, on the volcano itself.
So what is the 'but'? Why withhold two stars from a book that ordinarily would deserve five?
It is simply this; Winchester presents a wide-range of topics and he comes across as, while not an expert certainly, a man on top of his subject who has researched and understood that which he is writing about. However as I read, two glaringly obvious gaffes jumped out at me, two things presented as facts that are simply not so, two things about which I know that Winchester writes about incorrectly and which if you were unaware of them you might simply take as face value.
They thus led me to ask, if he got these two, very basic and easily verifiable, facts so badly wrong, how can I so sure he is correct on all the multitude of other facts he so liberally dispenses and about which I have little or no prior knowledge?
So what are these two egregious errors that so spoiled the book for me?
The first one appears in a footnote on page 142. It states in part that former Indonesian president Sukarno was "replaced by General Suharto in an American-backed coup d'etat, which led to the corruption and civil strife that disfigure Indonesia still." There are so many factual inaccuracies and blatantly biased editorialising in those few lines that it is actually difficult to know where to start. First off Suharto, actually a Lieutenant-General, did not take over the presidency of Indonesia in a US-backed coup, simple. The events of October 1 1965 remain vague to this day but unless you are Lyndon Larouche or Pravda circa 1974 (and in fairness to the latter probably not even them) no one seriously believes that the CIA organised the putsch against the right-wing Indonesian general staff on that day. It is absurd to put such a hare-brained theory forward as historical fact and discredits the veracity of any writer who does so.
Secondly Suharto did not get into power as an immediate result of the putsch, on the contrary while it certainly helped him, the fact remains that it took Suharto another two-and-a-half years of careful manipulating against the still very much leftist dominated government of Sukarno before Suharto finally became president in 1968.
Thirdly, Indonesia was racked by corruption and civil strife long before Suharto came to power, to somehow believe that Indonesia was some sort of Garden of Eden that was corrupted by the evil Suharto is childish and not worthy of serious consideration.
What is the other error then? It does not appear in a footnote but rather in teeth-gratingly irritating fashion throughout the book. Winchester continuously refers to the people across the Sunda Strait from Krakatau on the Banten coast as "Javanese", there undoubtedly were some Javanese among them but overwhelmingly those people were Sundanese. Ah, Javanese, Sundanese, you say tomato, so what? Well it is as absurd to write of the harbour-master walking among the terrified "Javanese" of Anyer as it would be for a writer discussing the Great Potato Famine of 1847 to describe walking among the starving "English" peasants on the hillsides of Donegal.
The Sundanese live on Java but anyone with even the most minimal knowledge of Indonesia would know that they are no more Javanese than the Irish are English. They are a separate people, with a different culture and language. The thing is Winchester knows this, he mentions the Sundanese in a footnote and then simply ignores them preferring instead to call them Javanese. No doubt he thinks Javanese sounds more exotic, and certainly more understandable to his readers than Sundanese, after all who's ever heard of them eh? But in doing so Winchester is making the same error that makers of the movie "Krakatoa East of Java" made, who cares if the volcano is actually west of Java? East sounds more exotic right?
Two small errors, but fundamental errors, errors that with a minimum of checking could have been avoided, but two errors on subjects that I actually know something about. The book is full of fascinating facts about a wide variety of subjects about which I am not knowledgeable and which I am supposed to take at face value.
If he can make such glaring mistakes about things that I know about, how can I be so sure that when he writes about gutta-percha, or Surtsee, or the Wallace Line he actually knows what he's talking about?
on 2 March 2006
This is a marvelous book. Winchester not only covers the explosion of Krakatao in 1883 but also every event surrounding and leading up to it. He sets off with telling us, why Krakatao (and every other volcano) happen to be there in the first place. There is also a full history on the mountain itself, which I found rather intriguing given that it cannot be easy unearthing non-geological (I don’t want to call it eye-witness) evidence going as far back as the fourth and fifth century AD. He then covers the ‘human’ history and settlement of the area before setting off on a very detailed description on what precisely happened in 1883. This includes a rather detailed description on the effects of all this on the local population – at times you may feel that the Tsunami recorded off Indonesia in December 2004 was a rather benign event compared to Krakatao. The most fascinating to me personally are the eye-witness reports made by captains passing within the vicinity (if you can call it that) of Krakatao.
The rising of Baby-Krakatao from 1928 sort of gives me a dubious feeling because every island previously had exploded at some point and it is all too predictable that Baby-Krakatao will do so, too.
Similarly to others here, I found the chapter on the ‘rebellion of the ruined people’ a bit out of place because there is no obvious link to the explosion of Krakatao and I couldn’t understand why there should be.
Apart from that reservation, this is an excellent book. You will enjoy every bit of it.
on 4 January 2005
In times which are beset by profound natural disasters such as the 2004 Asian tsunami, works such as Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded have all the more relevance as a stand-alone study of what happens when the vast geological powers of the earth are brought to bear on the surrounding environment.
Winchester incorporates a slowly building sense of adventure and anticipation in his book, setting up a sense of colonial life with a sometimes over extended history of Dutch occupation of large areas of Indonesia following the departure of the Portuguese in the 1600s. The city of Batavia is described in full development from the most primitive of coastal villages up to its prime position on the coast at the time of the eruption in 1883. He also develops our understanding of the geological forces which worked against each other to cause the volcanic cataclysm. He looks, too, at the research of various scientists, equally lauded and rebuffed throughout the ages, such as Alfred Russel Wallace (who pre-empted Darwin's theories of evolution with extensive studies of Indonesian wildlife but was beaten to it by his contemporary) and Alfred Wegener (who devised the theory of continental drift years ahead of this process being fully understood).
But what the book really excels at is its depiction of the building explosions which destroyed an entire volcanic area, created 120 foot high tidal waves (the 2004 Asian tsunami waves were only 20 feet high, to put this into perspective) and wiped out entire coastal towns, villages and societies and even contributed to the growing political unease of the area which exists as Islamic-influenced tension today.
Krakatoa, the event, is all the more fascinating for the statistics: the pressure wave caused by the cataclysm circled the earth a full seven times, recorded on barometric pressure graphs the world over. The booms were heard as far as the eastern coasts of Africa; its recipients supposing gunboats were firing out at sea. Artists in Europe painted an endlessly fascinating series of works revealing glowing sunsets due to the atmospheric fallout for months after the eruption. But it is the scale of localised destruction which, as in recent news events, brings the names of towns such as Aceh to the fore once again. It can only be realised after completing this book that the death toll in 1883 would have been catastrophically high if the area was as heavily populated as it is today.
It is uncanny that the consequences of the destruction of Krakatoa have been mirrored so recently in the Asian subcontinent. However, this area of the world has been historically plagued with super-destructive events as it is placed within the Pacific "ring of fire", and Winchester's explanation that Krakatoa was only the 5th greatest volcanic event in known history sends shivers down the spine as we read of its destructive results.
If the book suffers a failing, it is that Winchester tends to prolong descriptions of the political ramifications of the geological events at Krakatoa in 1883 and, after such a vivid description of the environmental events, this comes as a something of a damp squib at the end of the text.
Even so, this work is a wonderful read and we are left to wonder when Krakatoa will breathe fire once again, as Anak Krakatoa slowly builds up again, year upon year, its cone reaching slowly towards the sky . . .
on 5 December 2003
Despite the title, "Krakatoa" isn't just about the "day the world exploded." Perhaps a third of the book is devoted to the cataclysmic detonations that took place on August 27, 1883 and their immediate aftermath. This part of the story is gripping and hard to put down, but the rest of the book is fascinating in its own right.
Winchester is a master of elegant digression. "Krakatoa" chronicles the Portuguese and Dutch exploitation of the East Indies, the spread of Islam as a political force in Indonesia, plate tectonics, subduction zones, the ice in Greenland, the post-eruption growth and re-vegetation of Anak Krakatoa (the "child of Krakatoa"), the evolutionary theories of Alfred Russell Wallace and Charles Darwin, and a host of interesting topics and characters in between. In its amiable style, "Krakatoa" reminded me of Nicholas Clapp's "Road to Ubar" and "Sheba"--although neither have anything to do with volcanoes, both books resemble "Kraktoa" in that they are travelogues that explore history in a well-written and entertaining way. It's all in the journey, not in the destination.
If you are looking for a book about how volcanoes blow up and destroy the things around them, you'll probably enjoy only a few chapters of Winchester's book (although I think you will enjoy them a great deal). For those who want to learn about how volcanoes have changed history (which is at least part of Winchester's thesis), check out David Keys' "Catastrophe" and the fascinating companion video of the same name, as well as De Boer & Sanders, "Volcanoes in Human History" and Pellegrino's "Unearthing Atlantis." For a book about the destruction wrought by volcanoes, try "Vulcan's Fury: Man Against the Volcano," by Alwyn Scarth.
on 31 March 2009
This book is richly laden with information, history and anecdote, with description, scientific explanation and speculation regarding the 1883 volcanic eruption - and destruction - of the island of Krakatoa which killed nearly 37,000 people, mainly owing to the ensuing immense tsunamis which ravaged the coastal regions of Java and Sumatra in Indonesia. The sound of the climactic eruption was heard, and mistaken for distant cannon-fire, 3,000 miles away.
The author goes to great lengths and into much depth to prepare the reader for the astonishing, shocking and often poignant chapters which describe the final and climactic phases of the eruption itself and the devastation which followed. As a childhood lover of horror fiction I can honestly say that I've rarely - if ever - read a book which builds up an atmosphere of suspense as successfully as this does. And yet we know that this all really happened, coinciding as it did with the beginning of global communications systems, which made the world almost instantly and universally aware for the first time of a major disaster and encouraged scores of people from many different backgrounds to conduct investigations into the event.
There is so much packed into this mesmerisingly presented account of the most lethal catastrophe known for certain to have occurred in historic times (Tambora, also in Indonesia, was almost certainly even more destructive) that it is hard to know how to sum it up. At times it is written almost like a novel, at others like a historical account, at others still like a scientific essay (with the layperson very much in mind). One word of caution to the casual reader : the author does not plunge straight into the dramatic stuff - but this only serves to render the account of the cataclysm itself more vivid and meaningful.
The book ends on an ominous note. Out of the sea into which the old island of Krakatoa collapsed, a new volcano emerged : Anak Krakatau (Son of Krakatoa), which today rises over 1,500 feet above sea level and is almost continually active. Plant and animal life gradually returned to the remnant of the old island and - with many setbacks owing to repeated eruptions - established itself for the first time on Anak Krakatau. But how long will this new peace last for ? There have been suggestions that a previous, ancient Krakatoan eruption of immense proportions may have been the primary cause of the Dark Ages. All of these speculations and much else besides are contained within the pages of Simon Winchester's memorable book, which I thoroughly enjoyed.
In "Krakatoa" author Simon Winchester examines the great explosion of August 27, 1883 from all angles, including historical, scientific, social, political and religious. He starts by explaining the social structure in the Dutch East Indies at the time. He then goes on to explain the scientific explanations for what happened and why. A fascinating portion is the story of the scientific studies which recorded the effects of the blast including water waves thousands of miles away and the air wave which circled the globe seven times during the first fifteen days. As the book progresses he impact the blast had on the natives and Europeans living in the area. He eventually suggests that the rise in Muslim devotion in the Dutch East Indies may have been the result of a fundamentalist turn to Allah after the catastrophe. The book ends by chronicling the volcanic activity and the island at the site of Krakatoa in the years since the explosion.
Krakatoa was the first major natural catastrophe to occur after the network of underground cables united the world. This made it a "World Event" which has fascinated readers ever since. I had long heard of Krakatoa and appreciate the opportunity to gain a better understanding it and its implications. It raised an interest in other scientific histories and the history of the Dutch East Indies. A book than can do that merits a recommendation.
on 10 May 2011
When I was a small boy my parents had among their books one entitled, 'The Readers Digest Reader', which was a collection of articles from past issues. One of my favorites, which I read over and over, was an account of the eruption of Krakatoa. Ever since then I have wanted to know more, and this book certainly provides all that I could have asked for. Winchester sets the eruption in its historical context, and gives a good discussion of the scientific, geological, background to the eruption, as well as a very vivid description of it, and of the accounts of the people who witnessed it, and its after-effects around the world. It is a beautifully written book, a 'cracking good read', and I can highly recommend it. Unfortunately, it is marred by one egregious error. In his righteous enthusiasm to remedy the unjust neglect of Alfred Russell Wallace, he repeats, on page 62 (in the paperback edition which I have read) the long discredited canard that Darwin stole the idea of natural selection from Wallace - that Darwin had not had the idea until he read Wallace's paper in 1859. In fact, Darwin had recorded the concept in his notebooks more than twenty years earlier, and, knowing the uproar which publication would unleash, had spent the intervening decades accumulating the evidence with which to demonstrate the workings of the theory. Wallace repeatedly recognized this verbally and in print for the rest of his life. To support this demonstrably false claim against Darwin, actually does an injustice to Wallace himself. In a book based on such extensive, detailed, and fruitful research, it seems a great pity that Winchester didn't bother to consult Adrian Desmond and James Moore's great biography of Darwin, published in 1992, fourteen years before this book, which contains a photographic reproduction of the crucial note in Darwin's notebook, and lengthy discussion of the researches he carried out to test his theory - he was one of the foremost experimental scientists of his time. Perhaps if there is ever a revised edition of the book,Winchester will correct this mistake.
on 15 August 2010
I have the immense good fortune to be setting foot on Anak Krakatau in a few weeks' time, and then moving on to other parts of Indonesia. So this book has been essential background reading for me. Others have commented on the wide context in which Simon Winchester sets the main events, which I have found terrific. And on the scientific side, I for one, although I understand the processes of subduction well, can never tire of reading about this geological phenomenon. The book's account of the explosion's (that word seems so tame!) historical setting, and its consequences have been invaluable for me.
But then I was blown away (perhaps that metaphor is not appropriate here?) by the epilogue - a description of S W's own journey across the Sunda Strait and climbing of the new baby, or not so baby now, volcano. An exciting preview for me, though I shall for sure not be going right to the top, so sadly I shall not be able to peer into the crater, though I hope at least to have some sulphurous odours in my nostrils...
I'm biased of course, but this book really does merit 5 stars. (I read the earlier edition - I hope the regional map had had a few additional town names added, and that perhaps the author or his editors had decided to break up his immense middle chapter into four, by the second.)
on 14 October 2005
On 27 August 1883 the volcano Krakatoa, located in the strait between Java and Sumatra, exploded, killing almost 100,000 people, wrecking the whole western part of Java and being the course of world-wide multicoloured sunsets that lasted for years due to the dust that was hurled into the atmosphere and leading to a shockwave that travelled around the earth seven (!) times before finally dying out. Simon Winchester describes the geological features that led to this catastrophe, as well as the events in 1883 from the first rumblings in May until the final explosion in August. He also describes the aftermath: the rise of a new volcano, "Anak Krakatoa" (the Child of Krakatoa), the repopulation of both the remnants of the previous volcano and the new volcano and a host of wider ranging subjects varying from the invention of water-proof telegraphic cables with which the news was sent to the rest of the world to the uprising of fundamentalist Islamic hadjis in the wake of the eruption. This is the main shortcoming of this book: sometimes the detours are too long-winded and the information provided does not add all that much to the main story. But all in all it was an interesting book to read.
on 8 October 2009
This is a great book for getting a grounding in the history of Krakatoa, both in terms of its infamous eruption as well as the societies that surrounded it at the time. It is more of a narrative than a scientific piece, although it touches on various elements on its way.
The book delivers an engaging tale of the social setup of the Dutch colonies providing a detailed backdrop to the drama of the eruption, with background on the Victorian characters who make the time period interesting.
Not only this, but it also hints at the beginnings of globalisation, and documents the spread of news around the world, with tidbits of information on the worldwide sensation the eruption caused.
The eruption itself is told both through the geological forces, and the after effects - those parts that could be (and were often) documented by intrepid Men of Science, bureaucrats, and various observers.
As a criticism, the link between the chapters can be fuzzy at times, and certainly if you wish for a detailed scientific look at the explosion itself the style could be somewhat rambling.
All in all, a great read and given it's length, one that I didn't tire with.