Simon Winchester, Krakatoa: the Day the World Exploded

I felt rather guilty about enjoying reading this, as it isn’t a disaster movie but a real-life event that killed tens of thousands of people. However, if you want to find out about the cataclysm of 1883, then this is the place to go.

The book takes quite a while to get going and throughout there is a large amount, rather too much, of incidental detail. When I was told at length about the biographies of the discoverers of continental drift, I found my attention began to drift a bit too. And once I’d been made aware that Dutch colonials drank jenever much as their British counterparts did gin & tonic, I didn’t need to have repeated descriptions of them doing it. Once the eruption is imminent the pace quickens.

I don’t know much about the East Indies or about vulcanology and when it comes to fact-checking, I can only really go by measuring the book against what I do know. In this case, I found inaccuracies relating to classical languages. Palaeomagnetism is a word of wholly Greek formation, not a mixture of Greek and Latin, and while the pseudonym ‘Multatuli’ does indeed mean ‘I have endured much’, it does so in Latin, not Javanese.

A particularly interesting section was that on the worldwide observation of the atmospheric effects of the eruption. Descriptions of these were solicited from the public, and this is attributed to a Victorian ‘almost obsessive need for the complete’; I prefer to see it, less perjoratively, as an early instance of crowdsourcing, or ‘citizen science’. Certainly it produced a lot of documentary evidence, including an elegantly worded description from Gerard Manley Hopkins.

The map on p. xv really ought to show the town of Anjer, which features prominently in the text.

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