The Critical 'I'

Read. React. Repeat.

Saturday, July 26, 2003

(blogathon 2003)
Who figures you can write a whole book about a volcanic eruption? It looks like Simon Winchester pulled it off with Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded. Based on a surprisingly wide-ranging review at, I'm tempted to pick it up.

Winchester manages to present the famous eruption, taking place in 1883 in what's now Indonesia, on both a macro- and micro-cosmic scale. The motion set forth throughout the world as news of the event spread signified how much the West was advancing:

"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."

Meanwhile, the impact of the eruption would have a permanent effect on the region then controlled by the Netherlands:

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."

It should be noted that for most of the 19th century, as Europeans carved up Asia and Africa, the Dutch East Indies were considered to be the "model colony", so called because the native peoples were kept largely free from outside influences that caused disruption in other colonial holdings. Krakatoa was an event of such magnitude that it helped bring about a sea change in attitudes in a colony that had been docile for a couple of centuries before this. Although I think "beginning of the end of Dutch rule" is stretching it a little (Indonesia didn't win indepence until after World War II), you can certainly look at that period as laying the roots for future development.

Like I said, it makes for a compelling read. I usually avoid historical tomes, because they tend to be dry, and the author tries to compensate for this by focusing on key characters, which usually backfires and makes the whole thing a difficult read. But I think focusing on a natural event, and how it made its mark on human society, avoids those pitfalls.