Further Reading

Recommendations for (and, in One Case, Against) Further Reading and Viewing

“Wake up, wake up; you’ve got to get in the shade!”

I shook my head and opened my eyes again. There was a man kneeling over me. He wasn’t a native, and didn’t suggest an explorer or a traveller. He was wearing a correctly tailored white morning suit, with pinstripe pants, white ascot tie, and a white cork bowler.

“Am I dead?” I asked. “Is this heaven?”

“No, my good man,” he answered. “This isn’t heaven. This is the Pacific island of Krakatoa.”

-from The Twenty-one Balloons, by William Pène du Bois, 1947

Just after 8:32 on the crystal-clear Sunday morning of May 18,1980, the long-awaited, universally expected eruption of Mount St. Helens, in the southwestern corner of Washington State, blew away the entire northern face of what was then America’s most notorious volcano. The event turned out to be a classic of the volcanic art, camera-ready for the textbook: an ash cloud rising sixteen miles into the sky, and visible two hundred miles away; the mountain’s summit suddenly reduced in height by thirteen hundred feet; scores of square miles of countryside burned and devastated; twenty-two thousand further square miles blanketed with debris; billions of trees swept flat; and fifty-seven people killed, most of them suffocated by clouds of boiling grit.

And yet, though the eruption of Mount St. Helens-which was televised, filmed, photographed, and chronicled in more loving detail than any other eruption in history-was to become briefly so very famous, it never even came close to dislodging Krakatoa from its position as the most notorious volcano of all time. For some curious reason-and part of that reason quite probably no more than the euphonious nature of the volcano’s given name-the saga of Krakatoa has remained firmly and immovably welded into the popular mind.

The principal elements of the story of its great eruption of August 27, 1883-the immense sound of the detonation, the unprecedented tidal waves, the death-rafts of drifting pumice, the livid sunsets-all still play their part in the world’s collective consciousness. They remain welded into the popular mind in a way that the spectacular eruptions of the planet’s other truly great volcanoes, like Etna, Santorini, Tambora, and St. Pierre-and even the Vesuvius of Pliny and Pompeii-have still never quite managed to match.

Krakatoa-the name. That may well account for it. But there are other reasons too-among them quite probably the timely appearance of two items of popular culture relating to the event. One is a slim volume of a children’s book, published to near-universal praise in 1947; the other, a Hollywood film released twenty years later to near-universal scorn. More than any other external factor, these two creations quite probably account in large measure for the extraordinary durability of the Krakatoa story.

The children’s story was The Twenty-One Balloons by William Pene du Bois: it won America’s renowned Newbery Medal in 1948, and has never been out of print since. It tells the story of a math teacher from San Francisco named William Waterman Sherman, who flies in a balloon westward across the Pacific, crash-landing (after seagulls pecked holes in the silk fabric) on what turns out to be “the Pacific island of Krakatoa.” Here the impeccably dressed locals are all fabulously rich, since the volcano in the island’s center sits directly on top of an immense diamond mine.

The resulting story is all about the professor’s adventures among the remarkable people of a utopia, which, because of the eruption of 1883, swiftly becomes a dangerous dystopia. All have to flee in a specially built balloon-lifted platform. The book-180 pages, endearing, illustrated by its thirty-year-old author-is enchanting; most intelligent children will have read it, and they will in consequence know Krakatoa as, at the very least, a place both dangerous and beautiful, and wondrously exotic.

Children who were born in time to read the first editions of The Twenty-One Balloons would have been in their early thirties in the year 1969. They would thus have been a precise demographic target for one of Hollywood’s archetypal B-movie directors, the otherwise little-known Bernard Kowalski, who in that year made the universally known, much derided, utterly improbable, irredeemably mediocre, and magisterially mistitled epic Krakatoa, East of Java.*

*Kowalski directed some fourteen films and countless episodes of popular American television shows. Prior to Krakatoa, East of Java, he made A Night of the Blood Beast, The Hot Car Girl, and Attack of the Giant Leeches; four years after Krakatoa he directed an epic, which presumably involved the activities of dangerous snakes, called Sssssss. The director is, however, not entirely responsible for siting the volcano at the wrong end of Java: His film was based on a book of the same name by an even more obscure writer named M. Avallone: It is to others we should look for matters of geographical exactitude.

The ensemble cast-Maximilian Schell, Diane Baker, Rossano Brazzi, Brian Keith, and Sal Mineo among them-might possibly have saved a stronger script or storyline. But the sheer lunacy of the plot, which involved sunken treasure, wayward hot-air balloons, long-legged and half-naked female Japanese pearl divers, escaped prisoners, and a series of very obvious polystyrene models of a volcano, inevitably forced whatever grand vision Kowalski might have had to disintegrate into farce.

Despite the lavish technological promise offered by both Cinerama and Technicolor, the film performed very badly at the time, remains generally a cinematic joke today, and is thought of as merely a less costly precursor to such titanic disasters as Ishtar, Waterworld, and Heaven’s Gate.Krakatoa, East of Java can be seen very late at night on some obscure American television channels; by contrast in Britain, where for some reason the film still enjoys the status of a minor cult classic-a fondness for kitsch, some say-it was part of the expensive and much touted television schedules as recently as Christmas 2001.

In the late 1980s Lorne and Lawrence Blair, two seemingly indefatigable and irrepressibly enthusiastic British explorers,** produced a series of extraordinary television documentaries about the island of Indonesia called Ring of Fire. In the way of such things, the television company then produced a book (Ring of Fire: An Indonesian Odyssey, London: Inner Traditions International, 1991), which is copiously illustrated and informative. One of the films, cheekily titled East of Krakatoa, has two minutes of memorable footage of the early eruptions of Anak Krakatoa in the thirties.

In 1999 Channel Four showed an ambitious two-part television series based on David Keys’s remarkable book Catastrophe: An Investigation into the Origins of the Modern World (London: Century, 1999), which, as chapter 4 indicates, speculates that an early eruption of Krakatoa may have thrown the entire known world of the time into profound disarray. The idea has supporters and detractors in equal measure: It ought to be read, skeptically, for a good analysis of the possible early history of the volcano.

There have been surprisingly few books about the volcano’s 1883 eruption in recent years, other than an immense number of specialist and technical volumes. One of the few is Krakatoa by Rupert Furneaux (London: Secker & Warburg)-but it was published in 1965, an unfortunate two years before the establishment of the theory of plate tectonics arrived to answer all questions about why volcanoes erupt, and so the book has a necessarily limited value. It is, however, a stirring tale, and exceedingly well told, and I made liberal use of some of the eyewitness descriptions that Furneaux so assiduously dug out of various Dutch and maritime archives of the day. Ian Thornton’s Krakatau: The Destruction and Reassembly of an Island Ecosystem(Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1996) is thoroughly up to date and much more readable than its title suggests; but, on the other hand, it concentrates heavily on the biogeography of the island, which those hoping for the more general story may lament.

**One of the pair wore a monocle, which made them highly caricaturable.

The enormous and well-nigh definitive Krakatau 1883: The Volcanic Eruption and Its Effects by the distinguished vulcanologists Tom Simkin and Richard S. Fiske (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1983) is required reading for anyone with a serious interest in the event and its aftermath: My own copy is thumbed to the point of near destruction. It has scores of illustrations, diagrams, tables, and a vast bibliography, all of immense use to someone like me. But it is at heart a scientific book, and its appeal will tend to be limited to the specialist: The fact that no one ever answered the authors’ appeal for yet more eyewitness descriptions suggests either that there are no more to be had (which is not true: At least two entirely fresh accounts appeared while I was doing my own research) or the audience for the book was limited to scientists and somehow missed the kind of people who hoard old letters and journals from long-dead relatives who once traveled Out East.

The Royal Society’s famous report, The Eruption of Krakatoa and Subsequent Phenomena (London: Trübner & Co, 1888), can still be found, expensively, in antiquarian bookshops; as can the heroic Krakatau by R. D. M. Verbeek (Batavia: Government Printing Office, 1886), with copies available-at a price-in either Dutch or French. Simkin and Fiske very obligingly translated much of Verbeek’s work into English (for the first time) in their own 1983 volume. Serious students of the volcano should make all possible attempts to read at least some of this marvelously enthusiastic work, in whatever language available.

Finally, in the must-read category: Anyone with the available funds should buy for their shelves the massive, astonishingly detailed and beautifully written Encyclopedia of Volcanoes (San Diego: Academic Press, 2000), not least because it is edited by the Icelandic vulcanologist and world-renowned Krakatoa enthusiast, Haraldur Sigurdsson, presently a professor at the University of Rhode Island.

Other books I found useful and interesting include: Abeyasekere, Susan. Jakarta: A History. Singapore: Oxford University Press, 1987.

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  • Keys, David. Catastrophe: An Investigation into the Origins of the Modern World. London: Century, 1999.
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  • —. What Went Wrong? The Clash between Islam and Modernity in the Middle East.London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2002.
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  • Oreskes, Naomi, ed. Plate Tectonics. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 2001.
  • Ponder, H. W. Javanese Panorama. London: Seeley, Service & Co. [1942].
  • Poortenaar, Jan. An Artist in the Tropics. London: Sampson Low [1927].
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  • Quammen, David. The Song of the Dodo: Island Biogeography in an Age of Extinctions.New York: Scribner, 1996.
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  • Ross, Robert, and George Winius. All of One Company: The VOC in Historical Perspective. Utrecht: HES Uitgivers, 1986.
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  • Sigurdsson, Haraldur. Melting the Earth: The History of Ideas on Volcanic Eruptions.New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.
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  • Thornton, Ian. Krakatau: The Destruction and Reassembly of an Island Ecosystem.Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1996.
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  • Zeilinger de Boer, Jelle, and Donald Sanders. Volcanoes in Human History. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2002.