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Last Updated: Saturday, 8 January, 2005, 12:11 GMT
Krakatoa: The first modern tsunami
By Simon Winchester
Expert on the Krakatoa eruption

It is not the first time that a major seismic event in Indonesia has made front-page news around the world. In the 1880s, close to the epicentre of this Boxing Day's earthquake, huge waves crashed into countries all around the Indian Ocean. It was the eruption of the volcano Krakatoa.

Mount Merapi in Indonesia
Like earthquakes, volcanoes form at weak points in the Earth's crust

A German, the manager of a quarry, wrote his recollections of being swept away.

He was carried off the top of his three-storey office building at the summit of a 30m high hill.

The tsunami that roared in from the sea that Monday morning in 1883 must have been 40m high, at least.

He recalled being carried along on the wave's green unbroken crest, watching the jungle racing below, paralysed with fear.

Then suddenly to his right, he saw, being swept along beside him, an enormous crocodile.

With incredible presence-of-mind he decided the only way to save himself was to leap aboard the crocodile and try to ride to safety on its back.

How he did it is anyone's guess, but he insists he leapt on, dug his thumbs into the creature's eye-sockets to keep himself stable, and surfed on it for 3km.

The loudest sound ever made since mankind was around to note such things

He held on until the wave broke on a distant hill, depositing him and a presumably very irritated croc on the jungle floor.

He ran, survived, and wrote about the story.

'First modern catastrophe'

It is an account now formally recorded in the archives as part of the official report of the first catastrophe of the modern age, the eruption of Krakatoa in August, 1883.

The same geological suture line that caused the recent Sumatran earthquake was responsible for Krakatoa, and the effects, tragic and disastrous, were uncannily similar and world-affecting.

Map of Krakatoa Island

First came an ear-splitting bang.

It was the loudest sound ever made since mankind started noting such things.

The police chief over on Rodriguez Island heard it clearly, like a cannonade of naval gunfire, but he was 4,776km away.

It was like people in London hearing, with perfect clarity, an explosion in Baltimore, or Khartoum.

Then the island exploded with a cataclysmic eruption, hurling a tower of ash, cloud and fire nearly 48km high, and raining down enormous islands of pumice, which were later found floating, laden with skeletons, 6,500km away.

And then there were the waves, four of them.

Immensely tall, immensely fast, felt as far away as France and England.

They smashed into the shores on Java and Sumatra, laying waste to everything, killing nearly 40,000 people.


Wreckage lay uncleared for years.

An iron naval patrol boat was carried nearly three miles inland, and stayed there for more than a century.

I found bits of it, rusted and covered with creepers, back in the 1990s.

A sunset scene in Phuket, Thailand, ten days after the tsunami struck
The debris is almost cleared on a beach in Phuket, Thailand

Physically, the East Indian islands recovered, as mankind always does.

After all, the biggest volcanoes in human history, Toba and Tambora, exploded nearby, but their only legacy is myth, and their miseries are long forgotten.

But psychologically and physically the effects of Krakatoa were profound, as the intangible consequences of truly immense tragedies often are.

The defining difference about Krakatoa was that the news of it spread around the world in minutes, because the undersea telegraph cables had just been laid.

It was, if you like, the first event of today's global village.

Looking for answers

But though the world had the information about the event, it still lacked explanation and understanding for what had happened.

Science would not come with answers as to why earthquakes and volcanoes really happened until the 1960s.

And so the world was frightened and bewildered.

Its people turned to God for answers.

Nowhere more so than in Java itself, where the local Islamic priests insisted that the eruption was a sign of Allah's displeasure, and organised rebellions against the Dutch rulers of the time.

What strikes me as most odd about the aftermath of such events, though, is that not only do people recover, but they invariably go back.

'Magnetically tempting'

The most geologically risky places to live are invariably the most attractive.

Mountain chains, coastlines, peninsulas, islands, set down as they are for some dramatic geological reason, are all too often magnetically tempting to mankind.

Yellowstone Park, USA
Magma lying below Yellowstone Park could erupt at any time

People live in their millions near San Francisco, a place of terrible danger.

Elsewhere in America, the Oregon coast is long overdue for a tsunami and Yellowstone will surely soon explode.

Japan is a seismic nightmare.

The Philippine volcanoes erupt and villages are built right over the fertile lava fields, right in the path of the next catastrophe.

And thousands now live along the coasts overlooking the beautiful relics of Krakatoa island, ominously still smoking each day.

Soon, no doubt, villages will spring up once more in Banda Aceh and south of Trincomalee, in Sri Lanka, and along the coasts of Tamil Nadu.

Man seems to prefer to live on the edge, and to shy away from where it is safe, from places like Nebraska, or the great plains of Siberia.

Man decides where to live, the earth decides whether to allow it.

Or, as the adage has it: Man exists on this earth subject to geological consent, which can be withdrawn at any time.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 8 January 2005 at 1130 GMT on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

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