“Krakatoa was a terrifying glory….it looked like an immense wall, with bursts of forked lightening darting through it, and blazing serpents playing over it. These bursts of brilliancy were the regular un-coverings of the angry fires. (Later) the sea gained an advantage through fresh breaks in the crater walls that offered new points of attack.” – Captain Woolridge, Aug. 25, 1883
“There came an explosion so loud, so violent, and with such far-reaching effects, that it made all that had gone before seem as child’s play in comparison, and made all other explosions known to earth in historic times dwindle into insignificance.” – Local Historian, Aug. 27, 1883
As these two eyewitness accounts make clear, the eruption of the Volcanic Island of Krakatoa on August 27, in the year 1883 was no small affair. In fact, even though it had been giving off warning blasts of no small intensity for some days prior, as the second account makes clear, the blast which finally occurred on the 27’th of August was far beyond anything previously seen or recorded by man. And it shot volcanic ash high into the air which proved to be a menace to navigation. But this ash also produced strange effects around the world for months after.
Krakatoa – Ready to Blow…
Krakatoa, a large volcanic island lying in the Sunda Strait that is between Sumatra and Java, in Indonesia, was discovered in the 1500’s, and it’s first recorded eruption was in 1680. By the time of it’s eruption of two centuries later, it was covered with lush jungle vegetation, and while it was uninhabited, it was frequently visited by local islanders from Java. As was noted above, Krakatoa had been giving off signals of impending eruption for some time prior to the big eruption. But these signs had been coming and going for a long time, and nobody could know what was coming next.
Then on August 27 four vast explosions occurred at 5:30, 6:44, 10:02, and 10:41 a.m. local time. These blasts were so violent that they could be heard 2,200 miles away in Perth, Australia and the Indian Ocean island of Rodrigues near Mauritius, 3,000 miles away, where they were thought to be cannons being fired from a nearby ship. In fact the sounds reported as coming from Krakatoa were many times described in just that way. The pressure wave caused by the huge final explosion
radiated from Krakatoa at 675 mph. It was so powerful that it broke the eardrums of sailors on ships in the Sunda Strait and brought (Above: The tsunami(s) from the August 27, 1883 explosions and collapse of the volcano of Krakatoa as recorded by the tide gauge at Jakarta. Superimposed on the tide gauge record is a barograph record, recorded by the tide gauge prior and after the arrival of the tsunami.)about a jump of more than two and half inches of mercury in pressure gauges attached to gasometers in the Jakarta gasworks, causing them to go off their normal scale. This huge and powerful pressure wave radiated around the world and was recorded on barographs all over the globe, which continued to register it for a full five days following the explosion. Barograph recordings show that the shockwave from the last and most violent explosion reverberated around the world a total of seven times. And of course the tsunami that cane about as a result of Krakatoa’s eruption proved to be highly lethal indeed. This killer wave which was variously estimated to have been 50, 90, even 135 feet high and which was moving at a speed of 600 mph, wiped out the towns of Negery Babawang and Negerey with a total of 15,000 inhabitants.
Tsunami Kills Thousands
More than 300 villages and towns throughout the East Indies were totally flooded and obliterated. The ship “Loudon” was near Java when Krakatoa erupted, and was just barely able to turn her keel into the path of the wave, and ride it out as it tossed her into the air like a toy. But the coastal towns of Java were not so fortunate as to survive. As N. van Sandick, the engineer on board the “Loudon” recorded, the villages were wiped out:
“Like a high mountain, the monstrous wave precipitated its journey towards the land. Immediately afterwards another three waves of colossal size appeared. And before our eyes this terrifying upheaval of the sea, in a sweeping transit, consumed in one instant the ruin of the town; the lighthouse fell in one piece, and all the houses of the town in a blow like a castle of cards. All was finished. There, where a few moments ago lived the town of Telok Bekong was nothing but open sea.”
Volcanic Ash “Screams” Around the Globe
Volcanic ash, pumice and black smoke was propelled into the air to a height of over fifty miles. For months after the blast, this pumice settled onto the sea, and floating on the water sometimes as much as seven feet thick, thus causing a definite hazard to navigation of the sea lanes. Further, the fine dust which was shot into the air from the eruption of Krakatoa remained there for more than two years,
circling the globe like a kind of morbid doomsday shroud in the upper atmosphere and bringing about the bizarre phenomenon of odd colored sunsets and sky glows. In locations as distant as New Haven Connecticut, fire wagons were called out to fight what looked like fires in the distance, but which turned out to be simply brilliant orange sunsets. This strange sight also occurred in Norway, and in fact is believed to be responsible for the dramatic orange colored sky that is depicted in Edvard Munch’s famous painting “The Scream” (above). The Royal Society of London brought together such reports from around the world. At Mauritius: “Crimson dawn, sun red after rising, gorgeous sunset, sky and clouds yellow up to the zenith,” In Trinidad, “The sun looked like a blue ball, and after sunset, the sky became so red, that there was supposed to be a big fire.”
The Eruption Literally Changes the Map
As to the island of Krakatoa itself and the immediate region around it, the results were more serious. The combined effects of lava flows, volcanic ashes and tsunamis had results for the region which were clearly disastrous. There were no survivors from 3,000 people who lived on the island of Sebesi, about 8 miles from Krakatoa. Lava flows killed around 1,000 people at Ketimbang on the coast of Sumatra which
lay 25 miles north of Krakatoa. The death toll recorded officially by the Dutch authorities was 36,417, although some have estimated the loss of life at 120,000 or more. Many settlements and villages were wiped out, including Teluk Betung and Ketimbang in Sumatra, and Sirik and Semarang in Java. The areas of Banten on Java and the Lampung on Sumatra were devastated. There were many well-documented reports of groups of human skeletons floating across the Indian Ocean on rafts of volcanic pumice and washing up on the east coast of Africa. The island which had been Krakatoa literally blew up and sunk into the sea, ceasing to exist altogether, and only remaining as several smaller islands. And some land on Java was never re-inhabited; it reverted to jungle and is now the Ujung Kulon National Park.
“Darkest Hours” by Jay Robert Nash, Wallaby Books, New York, 1977.