Monday, May 03, 2010

Apocalyptic mountain

When I first dipped into Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded: August 27, 1883 by Simon Winchester, Iceland's Eyjafjallajökull volcano was spewing dust over Europe, disrupting air travel, though not causing the kind of destruction of the Indonesian killer blast. By the time I finished the book, an inconceivably destructive oil spill of human origin was fouling the entire Gulf Coast.

What Winchester quotes from the popular historian Will Durant rings true:

Civilization exists by geological consent, subject to change without notice.

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:

For what took place among the population of the northwestern tip of Java between 1883 and 1888 was not ... of political significance alone. The time also had great religious moment, since it marked a period when Islam had become fully entwined with the local political developments of the day ... the driving force behind most of the subsequent violent events [anti-colonial uprisings] in west Java ... was without a doubt fundamentalist, militant, anticolonial, anti-infidel Muhammadanism. [sic]

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.

... on Java, volcanic eruptions are much more than simple expressions of dismay by distempered deities. They are astral messages sent directly down to the earth and of an importance that would be ignored only at man's peril. Given such a system of beliefs, it might perhaps not be wholly unreasonable to suppose that Krakatoa's almighty act of self-immolation in August 1883 was seen locally as possessing the most profound inner meanings.

So did the eruption somehow act as a political catalyst? Did it, for reasons rooted in deep in this Javanese mysticism, drive a wedge between terrified and dispossessed people and the paternalistic Dutch authorities? Did it then nudge them toward the comforting stability of Islam? And did Islam's subsequent defiant stance against colonialism then somehow offer succor and comfort to those who were dispossessed and terrified ...? And still further: did Islam come to act as a banner under which these people might turn against the Dutchmen ...?

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.


Dhivajri said...

This isn't strictly relevant (at all), but I LOATHED The Professor and the Madman, which gave Winchester his big launch. The narrative arc was completely contrived, and the writing was awful. Florid would be the kindest possible way to put it. So I was surprised that you made it through and found it decent (not surprised that his great moments in history story sounds like BS), maybe it really is the English accent that helps. Anyway, thanks for the book report, it was very interesting. xoxo

janinsanfran said...

Hey -- thanks for warning me off The Professor and the Madman -- I was considering it for light reading. Sounds like the worst aspects of this one.

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