What Winchester quotes from the popular historian Will Durant rings true:
Actually the quote seems to be disputed, but the idea seems right: even though we may be able these days to cause cataclysmic events, those events and the ones imbedded in the nature of the planet like Krakatoa's blast, demonstrate all too clearly the fragility of our proudest systems.
Winchester spins a magnificent tale out of the known history, the geological explanations, the story of the eruption itself whose backwash killed some 36000 Javans, Sumatrans and European colonizers, and the aftermath. When the explosion was over, -- it is estimated to have had an explosive power 13000 times that of the nuclear bomb dropped on Hiroshima -- there simply was no visible volcano anymore. The mountain had blown itself to bits! Winchester eventually climbed the contemporary Anak Krakatoa pushing up from the sea where the old one had been; the fires below still aim to vent at this accursed spot.
I came away with a much better understanding of plate tectonics; that'll be nice though not exactly useful if the "Big One" hits here in my lifetime. And the book provides great light anecdotes in the midst of serious historical and scientific explanations: for example, in Poughkeepsie, New York, when the ash cloud from halfway round the world first arrived overhead creating a brilliant red sunset, the fire company thought they were seeing a huge fire in the west and rushed out with their pumps until blocked by the Hudson River. Naturally the newspapers made fun of the firemen.
This being a political blog, I'm interested in Winchester's account of the political aftermath of the eruption. Unhappily, I felt that his account of political developments on Java was excessively influenced by the moment in which he brought out the book -- 2003 -- in the immediate aftermath of both the 9/11 attacks in the U.S. and also the Bali bombing in 2002 that killed 202 people, mostly tourists. He writes:
Maybe. But I'd credit this more if the book gave any evidence that Winchester had consulted anything except contemporary Dutch colonial sources; his adoption of their name for the religion that so gripped their subjects tells me a lot about who shaped his narrative.
Nonetheless he makes some plausible speculations about the nexus of rising anti-colonial agitation and the deadly volcanic explosion.
Again, well maybe. And maybe, Javans and Indonesians in general were just ready to stop letting a relatively minor European country extract their labor and wealth while giving little back to their nation?
Still, history is full of governments whose legitimacy died in the aftermath of disasters. The theme in those stories was the governments' failure to help people in need. The Nicaraguan earthquake of 1972 left the capital and inhabitants devastated while the dictator plundered international aid; seven years later he was overthrown. The Mexico City earthquake in 1985 revealed the corruption and cronyism of the ruling party, the PRI; alternative community institutions that did the work of recovery helped break the PRI's stranglehold on power. In the United States, George W. Bush's failure to respond quickly to Hurricane Katrina's drowning New Orleans showed by bankruptcy of his presidency; it is no surprise that Republican's are trying to label the current Gulf oil disaster "Obama's Katrina." When we need help, there are very few anti-government libertarian individualists.
The bits I've quoted give a sense of Simon Winchester's florid prose style. I "read" this as an audiobook -- I'm not sure it would be so palatable without the reader's British accent. But reactionary imperial politics aside (and that may be more than you can stomach), it's a delightful scientific and historical ramble.