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Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded: August 27, 1883    by Simon Winchester order for
by Simon Winchester
Order:  USA  Can
HarperCollins, 2004 (2003)
Hardcover, Softcover, Audio, CD

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* *   Reviewed by G. Hall

Simon Winchester has followed up his highly successful The Professor, the Madman and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary with an entirely different account. This new book chronicles the catastrophic 1883 explosion of Kratakoa, a volcanic island in the Dutch East Indies between Sumatra and Java. The eruption was one of the largest in history. Its sound was heard 3000 miles away and effects on tides and barometric pressure were felt around the world. More than 30,000 people perished, mostly by drowning in the resulting tsunamis.

Thanks to the newly invented telegraph and the widespread installation of underwater cables, Kratakoa's eruption was the first such event to be rapidly communicated around the world in the new global village. Winchester, a geologist by training and subsequently a journalist, displays a masterful ability to weave various strands of history and culture together in describing what happened and putting it into a larger context. One learns about much more than just the eruption in this book. Of course, as a geologist Winchester focuses on volcanic explosions in general and on the theory of plate tectonics. We find out that Kratakoa has a unique location along the Wallace line, a biogeographical boundary between flora and fauna of South Asia and Australia. This is where two geological plates collide, making the Indonesian archipelago very prone to volcanic eruptions.

Winchester also educates us about the history of the East Indies from the early Portuguese occupation to the later Dutch imperial period. We learn about colonial life and about the impact of growing Muslim power in Indonesia after independence. The best part of the book is the section on the actual eruption, with first-hand accounts of survivors that are both frightening and mesmerizing. When Winchester describes the background to the event and the after-effects, the book drags somewhat. Not surprisingly, there is more geological information than the average reader may want to absorb. In contrast, The Professor, the Madman and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary was a more tightly written account.

Nonetheless, I recommend Krakatoa to anyone who wishes to know more about the Dutch East Indies, late Victorian scientific history, this specific catastrophe, or volcanoes in general.

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