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  • Writer's pictureGeoff H.

Book Review: Krakatoa by Simon Winchester

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

August 1883. Events happening on a tiny island in the Sunda Strait between the Indonesian islands of Sumatra and Java were about to dramatically change the world. On the morning of August 27 the volcanic island of Krakatoa erupted in an earth-shattering explosion. Krakatoa’s eruption was dramatic on many scales. Tsunami and volcanic ash devastated many of the villages that sat on the coastline of the Sunda Strait on both Java and Sumatra. In the capital of the Dutch colony Batavia (present day Jakarta) day turned into night from ash. The sound of Krakatoa’s explosion was heard in Bangkok, Manila, Perth, and Rodriguez Island - nearly 3000 miles from its source! The pressure wave caused by the eruption displaced barometers in dozens of fashionable gentlemen’s clubs across Europe and was later found to have traveled around the globe at least seven times! Once it was over nothing but two small islands remained of the once mighty volcanic island. Krakatoa was the largest volcanic eruption in recorded human history and the recent connection of many countries by telegraph cable made it one of the first truly global events.

Winchester takes the reader on a wonderful journey, looking not only at the eruption of the volcano but also at the events that shaped the world at the time of the eruption. Winchester’s story focuses on the geology of Krakatoa and on the history of Indonesia and the lasting effects of Dutch colonization. The book begins with a look at the history of Indonesia. The islands of Indonesia, that today make up the most populous Islamic country in the world, were key to the ambitions of European countries during the height of the Colonial Era due to the riches brought by its spices – pepper, clove, and nutmeg, what Winchester calls the “holy trinity of the Asian spice trade.”

Winchester’s back-story and history of colonization set the stage for the dramatic events of 1883. Through this set-up the reader learns a great deal of geology. Indonesia sits at one of the crucial sites found on our Earth, located at a junction between two tectonic plates. To the south sits the Australian plate that is traveling north and subducting under the Eurasian plate. The results create one of the most tectonic and volcanically active regions on Earth. Winchester takes the reader through the thought processes that led to the unifying theory of geology, plate tectonics, and is the key to understanding how and why Krakatoa erupted.

As in Winchester’s other books his style is straightforward and easy to read. For many readers the thought of reading a book that covers both geology and history may seem daunting and dry, but Winchester envelopes the reader with a rich and vibrant writing style combined with over 50 illustrations, maps, and photos that keeps you turning page after page. We experience the eruption of Krakatoa from many perspectives, those of sailors traveling through the Sunda Strait at the time of the eruption, to colonial administrators living along the Straits. We are immersed in the lives of those people that experienced the eruption first hand and those that struggled to interpret and study the volcano’s activities. In the end Winchester takes us up to the summit of Anak Krakatoa – the child of Krakatoa, the volcano reborn from the sea to experience the rebirth of this amazing island first hand.

I highly recommend Krakatoa, The Day the World Exploded to anybody interested in geology, or history, or with a passion for both (like me). You will come away with a deeper understanding of the geology of plate tectonics and the area of the Java Trench as well as the history of Indonesia and how events on a small island on the morning of August 27, 1883 started us down a path to a connected, global community.

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