The Krakatoa eruption
Singapore, September 4, 1883 – The details of the Krakatoa eruption of last Sunday week read like a page from the earthquake of Lisbon, or yet the blacker horror which Lord Lytton’s genius cast around the fall of Pompeii. Even in this grim region, whose very soil seems forever quaking with the struggles of the unquenchable fires below, so widespread and overwhelming a ruin has had no parallel since the Island of Sumbawa exploded like a powder mine in 1815, shaking land and sea for hundreds of miles around, and hurling forth ashes and lava enough to “cover two feet deep the whole surface of Germany.”
On the night of Sunday, the 26th of August last, various sea Captains far away from land paused in their measured pacing of the deck to listen in wonder to the sound of a heavy cannonade (as they thought) coming from the direction of the Sunda Strait, at the western extremity of Java. During the same night, several residents in Singapore were surprised by the appearance of a floating black dust, pungent, stifling and so fine that even a mosquito net was not proof against it.
Great explosive chain
In Java itself, the tokens of evil were even more awfully manifest. The sun rose in vain for Batavia on the morning after that fatal Sabbath. A thick black cloud — a cloud of “darkness which might be felt” — encompassed the affrightened city. In that tainted air, the flickering lamp quivered and died. The few men who returned to grope their way about the darkened town fell fainting in its streets. Houses and shops were shut and barred, and the inhabitants sat trembling within, thinking that the last day was at hand.
But the real nature of the calamity soon became terribly clear. The volcanic system of the Malay Archipelago may be best compared to an electric cable traversing the whole length of Sumatra and Java, continued to the eastward through the smaller islands of Lombock and Sumbawa to Floris and Timor, and thence making a sudden bend northward to Amboyna and the Moluccas.
One of the most important links in this great explosive chain is the volcanic islet of Krakatoa, in the strait dividing Java from Sumatra, which was quickly discovered to be in a state of furious eruption. And now tidings of disaster began to come thick and fast from every side. Miles of flourishing plantations had been blasted by the burning ashes and the labors of years were destroyed in one night. The sea, shaken to its lowest depths, rose and fell like a fountain jet, flinging boats and even large ships far up on the shore.
Neither chart nor compass could save the bewildered seamen, who, voyaging over perfectly familiar waters, found sea in the place of land and land in the place of sea. In Batavia itself the streets were heaped with volcanic ashes and lava dust, while a succession of mountain waves, bursting upon the shore, rendered any approach from that side impossible.
But worse was still to come. The fatal mountain stood right in the center of a group of native towns and villages lying along either side of the strait, and upon these fell the utmost fury of the destruction. One great wave sufficed to lay in ruins the Javanese village of Tjeringin. The district inspector of telegraphs, while engaged in repairing the broken wires between Serang and Anjer, a few miles farther up the Javanese coast, suddenly descried far out to seaward a piled-up wall of water “standing up like a high column,” and coming in upon the shore with inconceivable swiftness. When it subsided, Anjer was gone.
Even worse did it fare with Teluk Betong, a large Malay town on the Sumatran side of the channel. One line in a telegram formed its dismal epitaph: “Teluk Batong has disappeared with 10,000 inhabitants.”
>> Book suggestion: Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded: August 27, 1883
The Miltonic battle ended as suddenly as it began, but its grim work had been thoroughly done. All the light-houses had disappeared from the Sunda Strait. Three populous towns were gone as if they had never been. Upward of 30,000 human beings lay buried under the falling ashes or in the depths of the devouring sea. The dust and volcanic cinders descended thickly all over Western Java as far as Cheribon. The flashes of the successive fire-spouts through the gloom were distinctly seen many leagues away, and, according to the concurrent testimony of several trustworthy witnesses, some of the explosions were plainly heard at a distance of 430 miles.
The whole conformation of the Sunda Strait has been altered in one night, and bold indeed will be he who shall dare to pass through it for many a day to come. Compared with the havoc of that fatal Sunday, all the destruction wrought by the overthrow of Pompeii and Herculaneum is nothing. But with the destroyed has perished the destroyer.
One sentence of a recent bulletin rounds off with tragic fitness this battle of the giants: “The sea now plays where Mount Krakatoa once stood.”
>> Book suggestion: The 21 Balloons, a fantasy tale of life on Krakatoa (1948)