July 22, 2024
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Krakatau, the day the world exploded in 1883

Krakatau, the day the world exploded in 1883

Indonesia Sunda Straits

When you arrive in Java, head west, not east. The producers of the famous film Krakatoa, East of Java had clearly missed the geography lessons that dealt with the area where this volcano is located. Several powerful eruptions have been recorded throughout history – the eruption of Tambora on the island of Sumbawa in 1815 was 10 times more powerful – but due to the underground conditions around Krakatau, the eruption there was quite special.

The name comes from an ancient Sanskrit word, karkata, meaning crab (it is possible that this name was chosen based on the shape the atoll that the volcano’s crater once had). It is located in the middle of the Sunda Strait (about 40 kilometers from Java and 50 kilometers from Sumatra), on the elbow of the range of volcanic mountains in Sumatra that abruptly faces east and forms Java. Ancient Javanese chronicles tell of a mountain that lay here called Kapi, which in the year 416 was blown to pieces with a violent roar and sank to the bottom of the earth, and the sea rose and flooded inland. Whether Kapi is actually Krakatau we will probably never know, but geologists have proven that at least one massive eruption took place on Krakatau in pre-modern times.

The famous natural disaster of Krakatou in 1883
Although Krakatau had not seen human habitation in a very long time, it was a fertile and pleasant island at the end of the nineteenth century. Tropical jungle clothed the slopes of the three heights – Rakata (830 meters), Danan and Perbuatan. This was the place where European ships once filled their larders with giant tortoises, along with pepper and rice that they had bought from the small villages along the coast. It was not true that nature did not forewarn the Krakatau eruption. It began in early June 1883, a powerful earthquake caused destruction and confusion for several days in the small town of Anyer on the west coast of Java. But on an island where the earth regularly trembles a little, dozens of volcanoes from time to time emit smoke – and Krakatau had been completely quiet since 1680 and was almost considered dead – made people sit back in their armchairs and not investigate what was in ferment. However, at the end of June this year, Krakatau presented a fearful sight. Two plumes of smoke rose from the island, which was now covered in gray ash, and only the bare tree trunks remained of the tropical jungle. The sea that enveloped the island was whipped up and here and there floated carpets of pumice so thick that a man could walk on them. A company of eyewitnesses from Batavia (Jakarta) reported that “a fiery violet glow appears at regular intervals of 5 to 10 minutes, and out of it rains fire”.

The island of Krakatau.
The island of Krakatau.

The prelude to one of nature’s most famous natural disasters lasted over two months. Finally, on Monday morning, August 27, 1883, a violent explosion occurred at 05:30. Another one at 06:44, and finally the third at 10:02 – and this was the biggest bang recorded on Earth. The blast was so strong that it woke sleeping people in Australia, 3,000 kilometers away. In certain directions, the explosion could be heard as much as 5,000 kilometers away (this corresponds to the distance from Oslo to the Sahara). The air pressure wave moved around the globe 7 times, the first at a speed of 1140 kilometers per hour and the last at 1080 kilometers per hour. A pillar of ash and pumice stretched a full 26 kilometers straight up into the air.

There were eruptions in three craters so rock and dust rained down on the surrounding region and formed a blanket cloud that turned day into night over an area of ​​150 kilometers in all directions. Ash from the eruption gradually spread out into the atmosphere, creating spectacular sunsets around the world for more than two years. As a small curiosity, it can be mentioned that three months later the sunset was so red and yellow in the USA that the fire alarm was sounded several times for no reason. The energy was so great that it corresponds to all the munitions fired by all sides during World War II, including the two atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

The finale came the following morning when a gaping belly, hollowed out by the ejection of 18 cubic kilometers of ash and rock, collapsed in on itself. The sea rushed in and immediately began to boil when it came into contact with the burning rock, creating a violent tsunami (tide) that was as much as 10 meters high with a speed of over 550 kilometers per hour. In South Africa (8,000 kilometers away), the water rose 40-60 centimeters 14-15 hours later, and the wave could still be detected more than a day and a half later when it hit the coast of France.

The destruction near Krakatau was of enormous proportions. Anyer and Merak were two of the total of 165 coastal towns that were completely washed away. No one knows the exact number of how many people died, but a figure that is used a lot and which may well be correct is that more than 35,000 people had to make amends with their lives in this unusually large natural disaster. Eyewitnesses describe a wall of water “higher than a palm tree” that swept away everything in its path. In Teluk Betung, Sumatra, the effect of the water entering a small bay created waves that were over 30 meters high, and these waves carried a Dutch warship over 2 kilometers onto land. By the time the waves had begun to subside and the dust had settled a little, three quarters of Krakatau had disappeared.

Rakata was still close to its normal height but its northern half had disappeared. It had been cut away as if with the help of a knife and instead a precipitous cliff had been formed that lay 300 meters above sea level. Two of the islands, Panjang and Sertung, were completely reshaped, while pieces of the eruption had formed new islands further away. Krakatau and the surrounding area continued to change geologically for a long period afterwards. The new islands disappeared within a few years, but there was still volcanic activity below the sea surface. In January 1928, a new crater appeared close to where Perbuatan had erupted. Since then, Anak Krakatau (the child of Krakatau) has continued to grow and is now approximately 150 meters high. This children’s island gives researchers a unique opportunity to investigate how plants and animals develop on new land.

To see Krakatau, you only need to travel along the palm-fringed west coast of Java. As long as the air is clear, you will be able to see the old peak of Rakata on the horizon, approximately 40 kilometers out to sea. If you prefer a trip out to Anak Krakatau, you must have enough courage to embark on an 8-hour round trip in an ocean that does not always show its best side. On a calm day, it is an idyllic exit where you can see dolphins playing along the boat slip while the flying fish are active in the water crust. On a day with a bit of wind, however, it is best to stay on land.

Tambora: you had to wear a winter jacket in New York in the summer of 1816
Krakatau was nothing compared to the eruption from Gunung Tambora on the island of Sumbawa in April 1815. Here between 150 and 180 cubic kilometers of ash and pumice were hurled into the atmosphere and the earth’s average temperature dropped noticeably the following year. 1816 became known as the year without a summer in Europe and the United States. Among other things, the very unusual event of snow falling in London in August happened. This disaster claimed more than 92,000 deaths, then primarily due to famine since the cultivated land was destroyed on the islands of Sumbawa and Lombok.

It is hard to believe that in 1815 the forested Tambora (2,851 meters) with its peaceful appearance exposed the world to the greatest known volcanic disaster in over 3,500 years. Tambora’s eruption had an energy that was approximately 10 times more powerful than that of Krakatau in 1883, and 100 times more powerful than the eruption of Vesuvius, which in AD 79 buried the cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum. The eruption cost more than 10,000 people their lives immediately and the consequences caused, according to Indonesia’s volcanologists, that a further 80,000 more lost their lives – this was at a time when the country’s population was no more than 5–6 million. Here, 70,000 people in Ireland have not been counted – who did indeed die from a typhus epidemic, but this was due to the climate changes that the outbreak caused over large parts of the world.

In the afternoon of 5 April 1815, in Jakarta on Java, something that could resemble cannon fire was heard from the sea. The governor at the time, Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles, immediately ordered two expedition ships to investigate where the sound was coming from, because it had to be ships that were in distress or fighting. On the same day in Sulawesi, the captain of the East India Company’s cruiser Benares heard heavy volleys of what appeared to be rifle fire in between sounds like heavy artillery fire. Quickly he gave orders to sail in the direction of the sound and look out for pirates. But the cause of the artillery fire was not found and the cruiser returned home. Everything appeared to be normal, but no matter how many troops or ships the East India Company might have had available they could not have done anything against this artillery fire. Because the sound came as much as 300 kilometers away. It was Tambora, which at the time was a 4,200 meter high jungle-covered volcano, which was well on its way to annihilating itself.

On the morning of April 6, light ash was sprinkled over Batavia (Jakarta). Now there was no longer any doubt as to what had caused what had sounded like artillery fire the day before. A volcano must have erupted, but from what they had heard and seen, they were sure that it was a volcano in Java, quite close to Jakarta. In the afternoon there was a complete silence in the air. A depressed mood had gripped the population, and there was talk that an earthquake must be imminent. But the fear subsided after a few days when nothing more happened, even though people naturally did not like the fact that ash fell over the city. In the afternoon of April 10, a series of large explosions followed, causing all of Java and the nearby islands to tremble. Somewhere on the coast of Java on April 12, approximately 500 kilometers from the volcano, one of Raffles’ correspondents woke up in the morning after an abnormally long sleep. It was dark outside even though it turned out to be 8.30am, two and a half hours after normal sunrise. At 09:00 there was still no daylight, and at 10:00 he wrote to Raffles: “There was a glimmer of light in the sky, and an hour afterwards the birds began to chirp as at dawn”. To the sound of the distant explosions, the correspondent sat down at the table and ate his breakfast by candlelight.

On 18 April, Raffles sent a shipload of rice to help the starving population closest to the volcano. When the vessel arrived at Sumbawa, the captain, Lieutenant Philips, saw a completely destroyed landscape. Tambora, which used to look majestic from the sea, was no longer as majestic. The top third had been blown away and a large part of the island was covered in half a meter thick ash which suffocated all the plants. Philips reported that large numbers of trees were uprooted and floating in the sea and large seas of light pumice made it difficult for the ship to navigate the waters. Most of the 127,000 people who had survived the explosions unfortunately died from the malignant cholera epidemic or the famine that followed in the wake of the disaster. Survivors roaming the knee-deep ash were willing to trade everything they owned for a bowl of rice.

There are even stories of parents who sold their children for 3 kilos of rice. Corpses of people and animals lay along the road and several villages were completely abandoned by the inhabitants. They had sought out places where there was still a spot left with green plants and where something edible could be grown. A local prince told Philips; “On April 10, three large columns of fire appeared near the summit of Tambora. They rose to an impressive height before uniting in a hissing sound. For a moment, the mountain resembled a raging monster that spewed fire in all directions. The volcanic eruption continued unabated fury and after an hour of terror the rock was covered with a thick blanket of falling ash”.

At this time, in the town of Sanggar – 40 kilometers from the volcano – rock the size of a fist fell. A violent whirlwind followed and at about 10 p.m. almost all the houses in the town had collapsed. In some places the wind was so strong that trees were sucked into the air along with people, houses, cattle and anything else that came within its reach. Tambora continued with his spasticity for 3 months before it subsided. The powerful explosions were heard more than 1,600 kilometers from the site, and up to 5 years later, ships in the Java Sea had problems steering clear of the large blankets of pumice that floated in the sea. Geologists have later calculated that Tambora threw away approximately 1.7 million tonnes of rock and other things in the eruption. Most of it fell to the ground immediately, while the rest had been pulverized into dust during the explosions. The dust clouds then reached all the way up into the stratosphere where they remained suspended so that the sun’s light became weaker and the heat less. This is why the year 1816 became known as the year without a summer. In America, for example, people wore winter jackets in the middle of summer. Orange sunsets could be seen all over the globe and in Ireland the aforementioned typhus epidemic started. All were after effects of the eruption of Tambora.

Tambora’s eruption is, despite the dimensions we are talking about here, not the most violent Indonesia has experienced. 75,000 years ago, an eruption took place that was 10 times stronger than Tambora, namely the one that formed Lake Toba in Sumatra. But Tomboras is undoubtedly the worst island kingdom has experienced in historical times, but when we talk about the explosion itself, Krakatau was the worst. Today, Gunung Tambora is 2,830 meters high, while before the eruption it was 4,200 meters. Up in the huge crater there is today a lake and you can climb it, if you want to take a trip up there you have a 3 day trekking trip. The crater at the top is otherwise an impressive 1,100 meters deep.

If you are a volcano enthusiast, Indonesia is certainly one of the more interesting places to visit, because the country has no less than 129 active volcanoes (which is a world record). Most can be climbed without difficulty if they are not erupting. 



Sources: Periplus, Java (1996) and Henning Andersen, Islands born of fire (1994).

Photo and illustration: Wikipedia Commons.

Written by
Sean Kjetil Nordbo
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