Krakatoa (2003) by Simon Winchester is a book that combines the writers knowledge of asia, history and geography to give a very interesting view of one of the most extreme natural phenomenon that humans have witnessed. Winchester is a deservedly successful writer and Krakatoa is a good book, although not as gripping as some of his other books.
Winchester sets the stage for the book by giving an introduction to the geography and how the Wallace Line separates the part of Indonesia that has Asiatic species with the part that has Australasian and Asian species. This line reflects the boundary between tectonic plates. The book also goes into detail about the colonial history of Indonesia, the Dutch and English colonisation of the area and the history of the moment.
The book goes over how the Dutch started the trade with Indonesia and then set up outposts and began to colonize the area. The story of the Dutch East India Company or VoC is impressive and contributes to the setting of the scene for Krakatoa. At the time of Krakatoa the world was just becoming linked, steam powered ships were reducing transport costs and times and communication had radically improved with the laying of submarine cables allowing news to travel in hours rather than months. These submarine cables were enabled by the discovery of gutta-percha which is a tree growing in South East Asia that enabled the cables to be insulated.
The story of the eruption is well done. Krakatoa erupted in a number of phases before the explosion that destroyed the island and Winchester goes over the story of each eruption in some detail. Winchester is a good story teller and the history and geography are things that he knows in detail. The book here is at it’s best.
Winchester also includes a section on how there was a revolt in 1888 in Indonesia that Winchester states was partly driven by Islam. Winchester believes that the Islamic practices of Indonesia were more tolerant than those of the Middle East. He also makes the point that the Dutch rule had become harsh and included crippling taxes and serfdom and that the volcano’s eruption and the subsequent loss contributed to the insurrection. He also makes the point that shortly afterward the Dutch rule became more benevolent.
Krakatoa is a good read. It’s not quite as good as The Map that Changed the World or Book bomb and Compass . Those books form a tighter narrative as they give a view of ideas and history and of a particular person and project. Krakatoa’s more diverse subject nature means it isn’t as well tied together. It’s still well worth a read and for anyone with an interest in history or geology or Indonesia it’s very much worth a look.