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The day the world exploded

Author looks at 'Krakatoa,' then and now

By Adam Dunn
Special to CNN

Author looks at 'Krakatoa,' then and now

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• Interactive: Krakatoa and environs 
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NEW YORK (CNN) -- Krakatoa, a volcanic island in the Sunda Strait between the Indonesian islands of Java and Sumatra, was said by natives to be the property of Orang Aliyeh, a Javan god who was said to breathe sulfur from his nostrils when all was not well on earth.

Apparently Orang was in a truly foul mood on the morning of August 27, 1883, when seismic forces long building beneath the mountain exploded with a force hitherto unknown to mankind, obliterating the island and triggering two tsunamis which killed over 35,000 people in the region.

The explosion, one of the loudest in recorded history, was heard thousands of miles away and recorded by seismographs all over the world. Its power has been estimated to be equivalent to that of 150 megatons of TNT, almost 10,000 times that of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima.

The eruption didn't just wipe out an island and its people; it was also a break between a centuries-old colonial economy and a new, more globalized one, says Simon Winchester, author of the new book "Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded, August 27, 1883" (HarperCollins).

The telegraph and extensive connections that existed by 1883 allowed news of the eruption to travel worldwide almost instantly, he says in an interview from his Massachusetts home.

"The fact that people in Boston were reading about it the following morning, whereas in 1865 it had taken two weeks for news to reach London, was, to use a somewhat overworked phrase, a paradigm shift," he says. "The world changed around the 1880s, and Krakatoa was the event and the cables were the agency of this change, I think."

'A sort of pointillist portrait'

Author Simon Winchester

Winchester, a trained geologist, is a glutton for research, and had a field day with the volume of correspondence between the then Dutch colony and its mother country.

"All I had to do was advertise in Holland for anyone who had letters or journals or anything that was relevant to the Krakatoa eruption," he said. "Literally out of the woodwork of drawers in long-unused bedrooms came thousands of letters ... which enabled me to do a sort of pointillist portrait of lots and lots of viewpoints of what happened at the time leading up to and immediately following the eruption."

He also traveled to the area of the island's ruins (which he has been visiting since the 1970s) and did research in the local language. What emerges is a book full of detail, such as noting the sort of creatures now living in the rent in the earth caused by the eruption, "magnificently called chemolithoautotrophic hyperthermophilic archaebacteria," he writes.

In the book, science intermingles with history -- a trademark of the author, who's also the author of "The Professor and the Madman," about the origins of the Oxford English Dictionary. In "Krakatoa," the science includes cameos by Alfred Russel Wallace and Alfred Wegener, whose theories presaged modern plate tectonics and geophysics, which Krakatoa itself proved.

"No one knew in those days that [parts of the world] were moving," Winchester says, "but simply that juxtaposed close to Krakatoa were two distinct bird kingdoms, animal kingdoms -- then it turned out that these were two distinct plates ... and they were colliding at the rate of about four inches a year, and had been doing so for the past 60 million years, leading to the kind of stresses and strains that eventually gave rise to the volcano." The theory of plate tectonics, which came into wide acceptance in the 1960s, could point to Krakatoa as evidence.

Eruption of religion and politics

Then there's the history of the place, which becomes entangled with religion -- and modern-day politics.

The area was colonized by the Dutch in the 1600s, and the administration was not always benevolent. In the 1870s, a militant anti-colonial Muslim named Hajji Abdul Karim came on the scene, to be followed by Arabian missionaries of a similar bent. (Islam had been present since the 13th century, but it was a mild, diluted form.)

start quoteThe world changed around the 1880s, and Krakatoa was the event and the cables were the agency of this change, I think.end quote
-- Simon Winchester

This is where, the author maintains, politics mixed with Krakatoa's explosive fallout.

"The Muslim missionaries ... [were] very fiery young men," Winchester says. "They told the Javanese (who were clearly in the mood to believe it) that Krakatoa's eruption was a sign from Allah that he was furious with them for allowing themselves to be ruled by white, western, Dutch, infidel colonials. The mullahs from Arabia advised them [the Javans] to rise up and kill them [the Dutch]."

In one chapter, "Rebellion of a Ruined People," Winchester describes how the aftermath of the eruption spawned a rising anti-Dutch sentiment, culminating in the slaughter of 24 colonial workers and their families on July 9, 1888, by "hajjis." "It was essentially the beginning of the end of Dutch rule," Winchester says, "and the beginning of the beginning of what is now the most populous Islamic state on earth, Indonesia."

Not everyone buys Winchester's interpretation; at least one outspoken critic has taken issue with Winchester's linking of Islam with explosions and violence.

Winchester's next book is a broader history of the OED. But after that, he returns to explosions and their impact with a project on the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. He hopes to catch up with witnesses.

"There are still survivors of 18 April 1906 left," he says, "and the idea is to have it published in time for the centenary in 2006."

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