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August 27, 1883: Krakatoa

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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“Perhaps, however, the most important evidence of what was actually going on at Krakatoa during the crisis of the eruption is that derived from witnesses on board ships which sailed between Java and Sumatra while the great outburst was in progress, or those that were at the time in the immediate vicinity of either the eastern or western entrance of the Sunda Strait. From many more distant points, however, valuable confirmatory or supplementary evidence has been obtained, for which we are indebted to the captains or passengers of vessels passing through the eastern seas during that period. Only three European ships appear to have actually within the Sunda Strait during the heigth of the eruption on the night of the 26th August and the early morning of the 27th, and to have escaped destruction, so that those on board could tell the tale of what they witnessed. “ (SYMONS 1888, pag.15)

Fig.1. Ship routes and positions in the morning of August 27, 1883 (Topographic Map from Wikipedia modified after SYMONS 1888).

When the Batavian steamship “Gouverneur-General Loudon“, under the command of Captain T.H. Lindeman, approached the harbour of Anyer (Java) at ca. 14:00 local time August 26, 1883 a first explosion coming from the volcanic island of Krakatau was noted. A white cloud upraised from the volcano and the sea level was rising and falling in an irregular pattern.

Fig.2. “View of Krakatoa during the Earlier Stage of the Eruption, from a Photograph taken on Sunday 27th of May, 1883″, after SYMONS 1888.

The city of Anyer was soon covered by a white to dark described cloud, blocking the sun and causing darkness. At 14:45 the “Loudon” left Anyer to continue the voyage to Telukbetung in Sumatra.
Captain Lindeman tried to remain as much possible to the east of the exploding island, to avoid the ash and pumice rain:

“Monday, August 27th. Finding that at midnight on the evening of our arrival there was still no boat come off to us from the shore, and as the weather was now much calmer, I sent the first mate in the gig with a crew of six men to find out what was the reason of this.
About 1 a.m. he returned, and stated that it had been impossible to land on account of the heavy current and surf; also that the harbour pier-head stood partly under water. The Government steamer Berouw, which lay anchored near the pier-head, hailed the mate as he was returning on board, and the people on board her then stated to him that it was impossible to land anywhere, and that a boat which had put off from the shore had already been wrecked.
That by 6 p.m. on Sunday evening it had already begun to be stormy, and that the stormy weather had been accompanied by a current which swept round and round (apparently a sort of whirlpool). When the mate had come on board, we resolved to await daylight before taking any further steps; however, for the sake of security, we steamed several ships’ lengths outwards, because the sound of a ship’s bell which seemed to be approaching us made us suspect that the ship must be adrift, and wishing therefore to avoid a collision we re-anchored in nine fathoms with thirty fathoms shackle outside the hawsepipe.
We kept the ordinary sea-watch, and afterwards heard nothing more of the bell. When day broke, it appeared to us to be still a matter of danger to send a boat ashore; and we also discovered that a revenue cutter was foul of a sailing-vessel which lay in the roadstead, and that the Berouw was stranded. However, owing to the violent winds and currents, we did not dare to send a boat to her assistance.
About 7 a.m. we saw some very high seas, presumably an upheaval of the sea, approaching us up the roadstead. These seas poured themselves out upon the shore and flowed inland, so that we presumed that the inhabitants who dwelt near the shore must be drowned. The signal beacon was altogether carried away, and the Berouw then lay high upon the shore among the cocoanut trees. Also the revenue cutter lay aground, and some native boats which had been lying in the neighborhood at anchor were no more to be seen.
Since it was very dangerous to stay where we were, and since if we stayed we could render no assistance, we concluded to proceed to Anjer under steam, and there to give information of what had taken place, weighed anchor at 7:30 a.m., and following the direction of the bay steered thereupon southwards.
At 10 a.m. we were obliged to come to anchor in the bay in 15 fathoms [27,5m] of water because the ash rain kept continually growing thicker and thicker, and pumice-stone also began to be rained, of which some pieces were several inches thick.
The air grew steadily darker and darker, and at 10:30 a.m. we were in total darkness, just the same as on a very dark night. The wind was from the west-ward, and began to increase till it reached the force of a hurricane. So we let down both anchors and kept the screw turning slowly at half speed in order to ride over the terribly high seas which kept suddenly striking us presumably in consequence of a “sea quake,” and made us dread being buried under them. Awnings and curtains from forward right up the main-mast, three boat covers, and the uppermost awning of the quarter deck were blown away in a moment. Some objects on desk which had been lashed got loose and were carried overboard; the upper deck hatchways and those on the main deck were closed tightly, and the passengers for the most part were sent below.
Heavy storms.
The lightning struck the mainmast conductor six or seven times, but no damage. The rain of pumice-stones changed to a violent mud rain, and this mud rain was so heavy that in the space of ten minutes the mud lay half a foot deep. Kept steaming with the head of the ship as far as possible seawards for half an hour when the sea began to abate, and at noon the wind dropped away entirely. Then we stopped the engine. The darkness however remained as before, as did also the mud rain.” (Report from Captain T. H. LINDEMANN, 1883)

Video 1. and Video 2. The ash rain and the Tsunami as experienced on the Loudon, dramatization from the BBC docu-drama “Krakatoa: The Last Days“:

Monday morning three ships were still on the sea in the narrowest part of the Sunda Strait, the “Loudon“, incapable to reach Telukbetung because of the rough sea, the “Marie” and the “Charles Bal“. Captain Lindeman decided to anchor in the Lampung Bay, also the Danish merchant ship “Marie” stopped.
The Irish merchant ship “Charles Bal“, under the commando of Captain W.J. Watson, in a desperate attempt to find a way out of the dark cloud approached the island of Krakatoa.

“At 2.30 P.M., noticed some agitation about the Point of Krakatoa; clouds or something being propelled from the north-east point with great velocity. At 3.30 we heard above us and about the island a strange sound as of a mighty, crackling fire, or the discharge of heavy artillery at second intervals of time.
At 4.15 P.M., Krakatoa north half east, ten miles distant, observed a repetition of that noted at 2.30, only much more furious and alarming, the matter, whatever it was, being propelled with amazing velocity to the north-east. To us it looked like blinding rain, and had the appearance of a furious squall of ashen hue. At once shortened sail to topsails and foresail.
At five the roaring noise continued and increased; wind moderate from south-south-west; darkness spread over the sky, and a hail of pumice-stone fell on us, many pieces being of considerable size and quite warm. Had to cover up the skylights to save the glass, while feet and head had to be protected with boots and southwesters.
About six o’clock the fall of larger stones ceased, but there continued a steady fall of a smaller kind, most blinding to the eyes, and covering the decks to three or four inches very speedily, while an intense blackness covered the sky and land and sea. Sailed on our course until we got what we thought was a sight of Fourth Point light; then brought ship to the wind, south-west, as we could not see any distance, and we know not what might be in the Straits, the night being a fearful one. The blinding fall of sand and stones, the intense blackness above and around us, broken only by the incessant glare of varied kinds of lightning and the continued explosive roars of Krakatoa, made our situation a truly awful one.
At 11 P.M., having stood off from the Java shore, wind strong from the south-west, the island, west-north-west, eleven miles distant, became more visible, chains of fire appearing to ascend and descend between the sky and it, while on the south-west end there seemed to be a continued roll of balls of white fire ; the wind, though strong, was hot and choking, sulphureous, with a smell as of burning cinders, some of the pieces falling on us being like iron cinders, and the lead from a bottom of thirty fathoms came up quite warm.
From midnight to 4 A.M. (27th) wind strong, but very unsteady, between south-south-west and west-south-west, the same impenetrable darkness continuing, the roaring of Krakatoa less continuous, but more explosive in sound, the sky one second intense blackness and the next a blaze of fire, mastheads and yardarms studded with corposants and a peculiar pinky flame coming from clouds which seemed to touch the mastheads and yardarms.
At 6 A.M., being able to make out the Java shore, set sail, passing Fourth Point lighthouse at 8; hoisted our signal letters, but got no answer. Passed Anjer at 8.30, name still hoisted, close enough in to make out the houses, but could see no movement of any kind; in fact, through the whole Straits we have not seen a single moving thing of any kind on sea or land. At 10.15 A.M., passed the Button Island one-half to three-quarters of a mile off; sea like glass round it, weather much finer-looking, and no ash or cinders falling; wind at south-east, light.
At 11.15 there was a fearful explosion in the direction of Krakatoa, now over thirty miles distant. We saw a wave rush right on to the Button Island, apparently sweeping right over the south part, and rising half way up the north and east sides. This we saw repeated twice, but the helmsman says he saw it once before we looked. The same wave seemed also to run right on to the Java shore. At the same time the sky rapidly covered in; the wind came strong from south-west by south; by 11.30 we were inclosed in a darkness that might almost be felt, and at the same time commenced a downpour of mud, sand, and I know not what; ship going north-east by north, seven knots per hour under three lower topsails; put out the sidelights, placed two men on the look-out forward, while mate and second mate looked out on either quarter, and one man employed washing the mud off binnacle glass. We had seen two vessels to the north and north-west of us before the sky closed in, adding much to the anxiety of our position. At noon the darkness was so intense that we had to grope our way about the decks, and although speaking to each other on the poop, yet could not see each other. This horrible state and downpour of mud, etc., continued until 1.30, the roarings of the volcano and lightnings being something fearful.
By 2 P.M. we could see some of the yards aloft, and the fall of mud ceased.
By 5 P.M. the horizon showed out in the north and north-east, and we saw West Island bearing east and north, just visible. Up to midnight the sky hung dark and heavy, a little sand falling at times, the roaring of the volcano very distinct, although in sight of the North Watcher, and fully sixty-five or seventy miles off it. Such darkness and time of it in general few would conceive, and many, I dare say, would disbelieve The ship, from truck to water-line, is as if cemented; spars, sails, blocks, and ropes in a terrible mess; but, thank God, nobody hurt or ship damaged. On the other hand, how fares it with Anjer, Merak, and other little villages on the Java coast?” (WATSON, W.J.: The Java Disaster, published in 1884 in the journal Nature)

Fig.3. The first journal to bring the news about the eruption of the Krakatau was the Dutch “Java Bode” August 27, 1883. Later the English journal “The Illustrated London News” (08.09.1883) published some fanciful drawings of the region before the devastation.

The news of the eruption at Krakatau were send telegraphically from Batavia to Sydney and Singapore, then Bombay – Suez – Malta -Gibraltar – Lisbon – from the United Kingdom the story spread to Europe and the United States. In only 24 hours the entire civilized world had heard about the catastrophe, making of Krakatau the first global geological event.

In 1927 a new volcano erupted, emerging from the bottom of the caldera left over by the explosion of the former island of Krakatau. The new island was named Anak-Krakatau – Child of Krakatau – and it is still active and growing.

Bibliography:

SYMONS, G.J. (1888): The Eruption of Krakatoa, and subsequent phenomena. Report of the Krakatoa Committee of the Royal Society. Trübner & Co., London.
WINCHESTER, S. (2003): Krakatoa – The Day the World exploded: August 27, 1883. Viking Books:: 367

David Bressan About the Author: Freelance geologist dealing with quaternary outcrops interested in the history and the development of geological concepts through time. Follow on Twitter @David_Bressan.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.



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