What I've been reading
I read one of Winchester's books (The Professor and the Madman) a while back and enjoyed it, and I've always been fascinated with Krakatoa, so getting this book was a no-brainer. Winchester is a very good writer; he keeps things lively and engaging while going over a ton of information, and although I don't know enough to know if he's getting all the facts right, his bibliography is quite extensive and I haven't seen anyone challenging his conclusions. It's a fascinating book about a horrific event that, Winchester argues, was more helpful to our understanding of how the world works that it might seem, and also may have sped up the independence movement in Indonesia.
Winchester circles around the eruption, as he goes over the long history of the Dutch in the East Indies and their government in Batavia, which is now the city called Jakarta. The Dutch empire was a weird entity, and Indonesia, their crown jewel, was a major entrepôt for them. We then jump to the history of geology, as scientists discover such strange anomalies as the Wallace Line, named for biologist Alfred Russel Wallace, who discovered something odd in Indonesia: in the western half of the archipelago, the flora and fauna was distinctly Asian, while to the east, the plants and animals were Australian. Wallace was one of the first to realize that this was because the continents were once further away from each other, but in his time, he was excoriated for his beliefs. Winchester takes us into the twentieth century and the development of the continental drift theory and plate tectonics, which finally redeemed Wallace (but not until the mid-1960s, when the theory was finally accepted). Winchester brings up things that are amazingly apparent today, like the creation of the Hawaiian Islands and the way South America and Africa fit together, but blinded scientists for decades, mostly because they were Christians and couldn't conceive of a world that changed, because that's not how God made it (to be fair, Winchester doesn't belabor this point; it's my interpretation). Winchester's chapters on geology are detailed but not confusing; he goes over the research well and takes us back to Krakatoa, showing how this volcano could have exploded so violently - it was a combination of location on the border of two plates, but also in a spot where it was being squeezed between the two islands of Sumatra and Java, which created even greater pressure.
The longest chapter in the book, not surprisingly, is about the eruption itself. Krakatoa began to rumble in May 1883, and Winchester uses the many eyewitness accounts of the minor eruptions throughout the next months. Throughout Sunday, 26 August, the eruptions got more and more intense, until the mountain exploded at 10.02 a.m. on Monday, 27 August. Winchester not only goes over the astonishing statistics associated with the explosion, but provides a nice context to them as well. The facts are quite amazing: a boat lifted by the tsunami and deposited two miles up a Sumatran river; the explosion heard 3000 miles away; the sound wave traveling seven times around the planet. His account, surprisingly, is remarkably bloodless: he tells us that 30,000 people died, but there are few gruesome stories, possibly because most of the dead were washed out to sea. The one horrific detail he adds is that corpses embedded in pumice arrived on beaches for weeks after the explosion, but that's mentioned almost in passing. It's not that I wanted gruesome details, because it would trivialize the book, but it's odd that they're missing. Again, perhaps there just weren't any.
Winchester explains how Krakatoa vanished and then how, in the past century, it has been reborn. There's a new island at the location, and it's not terribly stable. Winchester's final chapter takes him to the island, and he does another good job showing how life has returned to Anak Krakatoa - "son of Krakatoa" - and how it has given biologists a living laboratory to study. He also goes into the most controversial part of his thesis. In the aftermath of the explosion, he argues, militant Islam grew in strength in the country. Fundamental Muslims in the latter half of the nineteenth century argued that the end of the world was coming, and this led to, among other things, the Mahdist movement in Sudan. It also led to, he argues, the fomenting of revolution in Indonesia. One of the signs of the end was an eruption of apocalyptic proportions, and radical clerics used it to preach rebellion. There was an uprising against the Dutch in 1889, but Winchester stretches the connection a bit. Luckily, he doesn't really push it too much. It's an intriguing idea, but I'm not sure if there's enough for Winchester to make his case. I wonder if someone else wants to pick up the ball and run with it!
Even with that odd idea, Winchester writes confidently and forcefully, and he does a very good job bringing in his own experiences to help personalize the story. It's a broad-reaching book, and Winchester is on top of everything and makes sure we can keep up. It's a fascinating book about one of the most traumatic events in recent history, and Winchester does an excellent job with it. Even if you don't care about mountains blowing up, I still recommend this book. But who doesn't love mountains blowing up?