In the South Pacific, between the islands of Java and Sumatra, in the midst of the old Dutch East Indies, is a small island called Krakatoa. The name doesn’t mean much today, but during the last quarter of the 19th Century, Krakatoa was the site of an event which rocked the world, figuratively and literally, and which was on the front page of every newspaper within hours. It was an event heard around the world, it was THE news sensation of 1883, it was the Victorian equivalent of the Kobe Earthquake or Hurricane Katrina, or the Indian Seaquake Tsunamis of 2004.
It was the catastrophic eruption of Mount Krakatoa.
This posting looks into the history of one of the most famous volcanic eruptions in the world, and the effect it had on the surrounding populations.
What and Where is Krakatoa?
Krakatoa is a tiny volcanic island between Sumatra and Java in the Dutch East Indies, as they were called back in 1883 when our story takes place. Today, they’re called Indonesia, instead. Its existence, and its volcanic eruptions had been recorded by mankind as far back at least, as the 17th century. The fact that Krakatoa was active again was no surprise to anybody. Legends and fables from the Javanese people, and Dutch colonial records held since the 1600s proved that Krakatoa was a very active volcano. As a result, not many people were that concerned about the fact that the volcano was acting up. It was doing what it did, and that was just how it was. This was normal, and there was nothing to worry about.
How wrong they were.
In May, 1883, Krakatoa was a bubbling, belching, restless monster; but a monster that seemed to be satisfied enough to keep itself to itself. Or so the locals believed. This changed in August of that year, when, on the 27th of that month, one of the largest and most violent, the most destructive, and one of the loudest ever volcanic eruptions in recorded history blew the island to pieces and wiped Krakatoa off the map. It sent shockwaves around the world, literally and figuratively. News of this monumental catastrophe was flashed across newspapers from Shanghai to San Francisco, London to Los Angeles, as fast as electric cable-telegraphy, the quickest means of communications at the time, could send it.
The eruption was one of the deadliest in human history. 36,417 people were killed. How many died in the 79A.D. eruption of Vesuvius? Just 3,000. Just as impressive as the death-toll was the sheer power of the explosion produced by the eruption. The noise and the shockwaves from the event were so loud that they could be heard and felt up to 3,000 miles away!
Just how far is 3,000 miles?
Within that radius, you have…
– New Zealand.
And most famously, the tiny island of Rodrigues. Rodrigues is part of the chain of islands that make up the Republic of Mauritius in the Indian Ocean. At a distance of 3,000 miles from the explosion, Rodrigues holds the record as being the furthest distance that the sound of the 1883 explosion of Krakatoa had reached. This, by the way, also makes the August 27th, 1883 eruption the LOUDEST SOUND IN RECORDED HISTORY!!!!!
Now that’s impressive!
What Happened in 1883?
In 1883, the volcanic island of Krakatoa, in what was then the Dutch East Indies (modern Indonesia), was busy erupting. This was nothing new. It had erupted plenty of times in the past. In 416 A.D., and again in 535 A.D. It erupted again in 1530, and yet again in May, 1680. The 1680 eruption was recorded by Dutch sailors based in the Indies. When the eruption was over, they’d even collected chunks of floating pumice to keep as souvenirs!
The eruption of August 26-27, 1883, stands out, however, as being the most destructive eruption of Krakatoa in recorded history, as well as producing the loudest sound recorded in human history.
20-21, May, 1883
The volcano had been erupting steadily for several months during 1883. Small-scale explosions happened all the time, and this was considered normal activity. Life continued as it always had in the Dutch East Indies. As far back as May, there had been earthquakes and minor eruptions, which continued, on and off for several weeks. The most significant earthquakes and eruptions, though small in size, happened in mid-May, continuing, on and off, until June. But then for a while, the island was quiet. For three months, nothing happened. Everyone thought the Krakatoan volcanic eruption season for 1883 had come to an end. People grew complacent and life returned to normal. The only people who paid Krakatoa any interest were the local geologists and pioneering volcanologists, who visited Krakatoa to examine the island. They recorded the atmosphere and the conditions on the ground, making special note of the scalded, scorched, ashy landscape, and the plumes of gas and smoke belching out of the crater. The air was thick, sulfurous, and almost impossible to breathe.
The August 26-27 Eruption of Krakatoa
On the 11th of August, 1883, a Dutchman, Capt. Ferzenaar, stopped at Krakatoa to study the destruction wrought by the May and June eruptions. He noticed great damage and signs of ongoing activity, such as smoke and steam columns issuing from the mouth of the volcano. He advised colonial authorities in Jakarta to suspend any visits to the island in the near future, as a precautionary measure. The authorities would’ve been foolish to ignore his advice.
Capt. Ferzenaar’s warning came in the nick of time. Just over two weeks after his visit, Krakatoa started acting up again. At first, the volcano let off a few, small-scale eruptions on the 25th. Little notice was taken by the locals; this stuff had been going on for years. But the next day, at 1:00pm on the 26th of August, the island exploded!
The blast was mindboggling. All three craters on the island of Krakatoa were firing out tons of built-up rock, solidified magma and ash which had been causing dangerous pressure-buildups inside the volcano for centuries. Ships in the South Pacific area were being pelted by rocks and chunks of pumice up to four inches in size, hitting their decks and bouncing off their deck-house roofs! The earthquakes that followed triggered small-scale tidal-waves that hit the surrounding islands and coastlines that evening. The Dutch East Indies were suddenly not as peaceful and relaxing as they seemed to be!
And the worst was yet to come.
The eruptions continued throughout the day, into the night, and into the next day. Another eruption was recorded at 4:25pm, and still they continued. Ash and smoke blocked out the sun and thick haze coated the entire East Indies region.
On the 27th, the most destructive eruptions took place. At 5:30am, 6:44am, 10:02 and 10:41am, four massive eruptions blew the island of Krakatoa to pieces! The explosions could be heard thousands of miles away and earthquakes rocked the entire Pacific region. Powerful pyroclastic flows, huge landslides of rock, soil, ash, gas and scalding air, devastated the region, obliterating everything in their path: Trees, houses, wildlife and people. Entire communities on the islands closest to the volcano were completely wiped out in a matter of minutes! Huge waves rocked the world as far away as South America, the east coast of Africa, the West Coast of the United States, and even as far north as the English Channel!
The massive shock-waves generated by the volcano rocked the world. Sailors on ships in the Sunda Strait were deafened by the blasts of the explosions. The barometers at the Batavia Gasworks, which supplied the town with gas-lighting, recorded a pressure-jump of 8,500pa, a deviation so extreme, that it went off the scale! The 10:02 eruption produced a sound-wave so powerful and so far-reaching that to this day, it remains the loudest sound ever recorded.
The eruptions that happened on the 27th of August, 1883, were so powerful that they were heard on the remote island of Rodrigues in the Indian Ocean. The sounds were so loud, locals thought they were cannon-blasts being fired by some unseen ship beyond the horizon. Local officials grew so alarmed, they even sent warships out to intercept this mysterious ‘ship’, but it was never found.
Cities and towns all around Java and Sumatra were affected. Ports were wiped out. Ships were thrown inland by the powerful waves. Entire towns were obliterated by powerful tsunamis and pyroclastic flows. There was so much ash in the sky, lights were turned on before midday, as morning turned to night when the sun was blocked out by the tons of ejected ash and soil that were fired into the atmosphere.
The Story of the S.S. Governor-General Loudon
What could be worse than being in Ketimbang, a town on the southern shores of Sumatra, or in Java across the Sunda Strait, and watching the volcano Krakatoa explode before your eyes, blasting millions of tons of rock, soil and ash into the sky? What could be more terrifying than watching gigantic tsunamis surging towards you due to the mountainous landslides and powerful shock-waves generated by the blasts? What could be more unnerving than being in the lantern-room of a lighthouse and watching a towering, 40ft wall of water surge towards you, knowing that you couldn’t possibly escape?
How about being on a tiny little steamship in the Sunda Strait, and getting a front-row seat to the destruction?
This is the remarkable story of the S.S. Governor General Loudon.
The S.S. Loudon was a small ship. Lanched in 1875, it was used for delivering passengers and cargo around the Dutch East Indies. Its captain, Johan Lindemann, was due, on Sunday, the 26th of August, 1883, to steam from Anjer in Java, to Telok Betong, on the southern coast of Sumatra in Lampong Bay. On-board were 100 passengers – Chinese coolies going to Sumatra for work, and curious colonial day-trippers hoping to get a close look at Krakatoa.
Ever since it had started becoming more active, day-trips and sightseeing voyages to, or around Krakatoa, provided by small, local steamships, had become extremely popular. Passengers onboard Capt. Lindemann’s ship paid 25 Guilders apiece, for a ticket, and a chance to see the volcano up close and personal. It was one way for struggling local sailors to scrape together a few more coins on each voyage. The passengers on the Loudon were expecting something amazing – real bang for their buck!
And they wouldn’t be disappointed – The voyage from Anjer to Telok Betong took the S.S. Loudon right across the Sunda Strait. If the passengers onboard stared off the port side of the ship, they would get the view of a lifetime of the most terrifying explosion on earth.
They just didn’t know it yet.
Having picked up its passengers, the S.S. Loudon set a course northwest. It would cut through the Strait and steam directly towards Telok Betong, hugging the coastline as it went. At 1:00pm, the first eruptions started.
Rumbling away for months before, Krakatoa was now ready to explode. And the passengers and crew of the S.S. Loudon were right in the blast-zone.
All afternoon on the 26th of August, the volcano blasted rocks and ash into the air. When the second eruption on the 26th happened, at 4:25 in the afternoon, the S.S. Loudon, its passengers and crew, were among the closest living beings to the volcano. A mere 12 miles (19km) away! Amazingly, there was one ship which was even closer to Krakatoa – The Charles Bal from Ireland – just 9 miles (16km) away. The Charles Bal went down in history as the ship which was the closest to the volcano during its most violent eruptions.
That evening, the Loudon reached Lampong Bay, outside of the port town of Telok Betong. Radio-contact between the port and the ship indicated that it was impossible to dock. The sea was far too rough and dangerous, and the ash and smoke so thick that navigation was almost impossible.
Deciding that it would be suicidal to stay where he was, Captain Lindemann ordered the ship about. At 7:30am on the 27th, after two eruptions had already rocked the ship that day, Lindemann ordered that the Loudon be turned around. It was to make all speed for Anjer. There, they would drop anchor and report their experiences and sightings to the colonial authorities. Lindemann knew that to stay in Lampong Bay was almost certain death. The shallow sea-floor would force waves upwards to incredible heights that could swamp the ship in seconds. They had to get away.
On the 27th of August, the volcano started early. From 5:30 in the morning, there were four gigantic explosions that blotted out the sun, all before midday. Ash poured down like black snow, and the air was charged with electricity. The landslides and shock-waves from Krakatoa set off massive waves that slammed into coastlines as far away as Western Australia and India. And the S.S. Loudon was right in the middle of it!
Ash and rocks pelted the ship. If the ash-buildup on the deck became too heavy and the weight shifted, the entire ship could tip over. The captain ordered all passengers into the hold to redistribute the ship’s weight, and ordered all hands not part of the ship’s essential operations, to immediately start shoveling the ash over the sides.
The continuing eruptions blacked out the sky. It was so dark, the ship could’ve been sailing at midnight. Despite the fact that it was only 10:30 in the morning, Captain Lindemann ordered the ship’s navigation-lamps to be fired up. He wouldn’t risk slamming into another ship in this ashy blackout. They had to get out of here. But trying to send your ship through a volcanic storm to safety is perilous work, and the Loudon faced constant danger from gigantic waves, vicious lighting-strikes and tons of falling ash, which all threatened to sink the ship.
Remember that scene in “The Perfect Storm“, where the fishing boat ‘Andrea Gail‘ tries to ride over a gigantic wall of water?
Imagine doing that with a steam-powered, coal-fired passenger-ship, loaded with passengers, in the middle of a volcanic eruption. Because that’s what the Loudon was doing.
Keep in mind that the Loudon is now sailing south, out of Lampong Bay, hugging the Sumatran coast. With every mile, it must tackle enormous tsunamis generated by the shallow, narrow walls and floor of the Bay. The water is forced upwards to create gigantic swells and waves. To stabilize the ship and lower its center of gravity, Captain Lindemann ordered the port and starboard anchors to be let loose. The extra weight pulling on the ship would hopefully prevent it from being knocked over as it encountered each wave as it left the Bay. Lindemann turned his ship directly towards any waves headed in their direction and ordered the engines All Ahead. Full, to hit the waves with the bow of the ship and not lose precious momentum, which would leave them at the mercy of the sea.
Even as they tried to escape, conditions grew even worse. The powerful volcanic storm blasted hatch-covers off the deck. Anything not bolted down or securely tied to the ship was thrown off in the storm. The mainmast was afflicted with the electrical discharge called St. Elmo’s Fire. The electrically-charged ash which Krakatoa blasted into the atmosphere also caused powerful lighting-bolts to form.
While St. Elmo’s Fire is relatively harmless, lightning bolts are not. In his logbook, Lindemann wrote that he witnessed the ship’s mainmast being struck at least seven times by powerful lightning strikes. Fortunately, the lightning-rod fixed to the top of the mast prevented the ship from catching fire. While the ship was safe from fire, there were still other concerns.
The ash, rocks and thick, gooey, ashy rain that was splattering down all over the ship was making it top-heavy, and the thick, low-lying ash-clouds were making it hard to navigate. Ash was falling so thickly that the crew couldn’t see where the ship was going. And it was rising so fast on the deck that within ten minutes, they were shoveling piles of ash off the ship that were six inches deep!
Twelve inches of ash, rock and mud would be enough to throw the ship off-balance. After that, all it would take was one wave to hit the side of the Loudon, and it would be capsized in an instant.
Deciding that hugging the coast was too dangerous, Lindemann instead ordered the ship out to sea. Tsunamis have less power in deeper water – when they’re near the coast, it’s the sloping shelves of land that force the waves up into the air. Sailing southwest towards the Indian Ocean and safer waters saved their lives.
At least one passenger onboard the Loudon, N.H. Van Sandick, a public-works engineer and day-tripper, recorded his experiences that day. The following are excerpts from his book “In the Realm of Vulcan” (published 1890), detailing what he saw from the deck of the Loudon in 1883.
Describing the morning of the 26th of August…
Clearly the lighthouses of Java’s Fourth Point silhouetted itself against the sky. The Dutch flag on the grounds of the Assistant Resident flapped happily; every house could be distinguished and subconsciously the thoughts wander back to the first arrival in the Indies from Europe. Anjer is then the first place which brings welcome greetings from a distance. If we, who were aboard the Loudon in the roads of Anjer, would have declared that the last day of Anjer’s existence had already begun, we definitely would have been considered deranged…
Describing the volcano, Krakatoa…
When our coolies were aboard, the Loudon set course past Dwars-in-Weg and Varkenshoek into the Bay of Lampong toward Telok Betong. To portside we saw in the distance the island of Krakatau, known for its first volcanic eruption several months ago [May 1883]. Krakatau is an old acquaintance of the Loudon. When, after the first eruption, a pleasure trip was made to see the volcano, the Loudon brought passengers to the island for 25 guilders each. Many landed that time and climbed the volcano; and all experienced a festive and pleasant day.
The volcano on Krakatau gave us a free performance. Although we were far away from the island, we saw a high column of black smoke rise above the island; the column widened toward the top to a cloud. Also there was a continual ash fall. Toward evening, at 7 o’clock, we were in the Bay of Lampong, in the roads of Telok Betong, where anchor was dropped and it soon became night.
Van Sandick goes on to describe how the ship’s crew tried to make contact with the port at Telok Betong, so that they could dock the ship and offload passengers, but no reply was received from the Harbor. The ship lowered one of its lifeboats and sent sailors ashore to examine the situation. They eventually rowed back to the ship, saying that it was impossible to fight the currents, and that the smoke and ash were too thick to see anything.
Deciding that they couldn’t stay where they were, Lindemann ordered the ship about, to return to Anjer in Java. Van Sandick writes of the moment the ship changed course and headed back into the teeth of the volcanic storm:
Suddenly, at about 7 a.m., a tremendous wave came moving in from the sea, which literally blocked the view and moved with tremendous speed. The Loudon steamed forward in such a way that she headed right into the wave. One moment… the wave had reached us. The ship made a tremendous tumbling; however, the wave was passed and the Loudon was saved.
Another ship, the P.S. Berouw, was not so lucky. The tsunami that wiped out the harbour at Telok Betong hoisted the paddle-steamer and its 28 crew-members into the air, and threw it inland. This sketch of the ship was made after the waves receded. The ship is wedged across a river…two miles up from the coast!
Steaming away from Telok Betong, and watching the harbour behind them being smashed to pieces, Van Sandick then described what happened when the ship sailed once more past the volcano, attempting to reach Anjer:
Meanwhile we steamed forward and soon the roads of Telok Betong were lost from view, and we hoped soon to be out of the Bay of Lampong. But we would not get away that easily. It became darker and darker, so that already at 10 a.m. there was almost Egyptian darkness. This darkness was complete. Usually even on a dark night one can still distinguish some outlines of, for instance, white objects. However, here a complete absence of light prevailed. The sun climbed higher and higher, but none of her rays reached us. Even on the horizon not the faintest light could be seen and not a star appeared in the sky.
This darkness continued for 18 hours. It is self-evident that the Loudon during this pole-night had to “winter over” in the bay. Meanwhile a dense mud rain fell, covering the deck more than half a meter thick and penetrating everywhere, which was especially bothersome to the crew, whose eyes, ears, and noses were liberally filled with a material which made breathing difficult. Off and on again, ash and pumice fell. The compass showed the strangest deviations. Fierce sea currents were observed in diverging directions. The barometer meanwhile read very high, which certainly was difficult to explain. Breathing, however, was not only made difficult by ash, mud, and pumice particles, but the atmosphere itself had also changed. A devilish smell of sulphurous acid spread. Some felt buzzing in the ears, others a feeling of pressing on the chest and sleepiness. In short, the circumstances left something to be desired, since it would have been quite natural if we all had choked to death.
Captain Lindemann’s actions on the 27th of August, 1883, saved the lives of everyone onboard. Staying away from land and powerful tidal-waves, attacking waves head-on and redistributing the ship’s weight to lower its center of gravity to prevent capsizing had all contributed to the eventual safe deliverance of everyone onboard the S.S. Governor-General Loudon.
Sailing out to sea into deeper water ensured the ship’s survival. Once the Loudon made landfall, everyone was offloaded safely. Capt. Johan Lindemann was eventually awarded by the Dutch colonial authorities, and given a medal for his bravery and courage in the face of incredible dangers. He died in 1885.
Remember the unfortunate P.S. Berouw? This is all that remains of it:
This is the Berouw’s mooring-buoy. When the Telok Betong Tsunami hit, the ship was ripped from its buoy and thrown inland. The buoy itself was carried with it. It remains where it was found, and was later used as a sculpture in a memorial to the Krakatoa dead.
…It’s now in the middle of a traffic roundabout.
Effects of the Eruption
The official death-toll, as recorded by Dutch authorities in Indonesia, was 36,417. This was due to a mixture of tsunamis, pyroclastic flows, shockwaves, and falling volcanic debris. The eruptions sent debris charging up into the sky, to a height of 20,000ft (to put this into perspective, commercial aircraft fly at around 30,000ft). Ships all around the world were rocked by powerful waves caused by the earthquakes and shockwaves generated by the eruptions. 11,000,000 cubic miles of ash, rock, soil and magma had been blown into the sky, blocking out the sun around the Dutch East Indies for three days.
165 villages, towns and settlements were destroyed, including Telok Betong, a town in southern Sumatra called Ketimbang, and the Fourth Point Lighthouse, on the west coast of Java (mentioned in Van Sandick’s book). Here, despite the fact that the lighthouse was ripped off its foundations by a colossal chunk of coral weighing several tons, the lighthouse-keeper somehow survived. Today, the only thing that remains of the original Fourth Point Lighthouse is its foundations, but another lighthouse, built just a few yards away, was opened just a couple of years later.
The shock-waves from the eruptions circled the globe, bouncing off coastline and mountains and reverberating and reflecting and intensifying and returning. The tsunamis and sound-waves rippled around the globe seven times, before they died down.
For weeks and months after the eruptions, bodies and skeletons washed up on beaches throughout the Pacific area. Some even floated across the Indian Ocean, ending up in Africa!
Rogier Diederik Marius Verbeek
Rogier Verbeek (1845-1926) was a Dutch geologist, scientist, and a pioneer in the field of volcanology – the study of volcanoes and their effects. In the 1880s, Rogier was living in the Dutch East Indies. As one of the most volcanically active places on earth, where better to study volcanoes?
As an active volcano, Krakatoa was naturally of great interest to Verbeek. He set himself up in the Javanese town of Buitenzorg (today, Bogor, Indonesia), a good 100 miles from the volcano. He considered this to be a safe-enough distance from danger, but still close enough to watch the volcano.
His accounts of the volcano, and of its legendary 1883 eruptions became bestselling books in the scientific community of the late-19th century. His journal on the subject made him a celebrity, and brought volcanology into mainstream scientific studies for the first time. His records of the disaster gave scientists all over the world rare, valuable, first-hand insights into the power and the various stages of volcanic eruptions.
The Strange Story of Edward Samson
One of the most famous stories about Krakatoa is not about how many people died, or how loud it was, or how big the eruption happened to be. It’s about a man. A man named Edward Samson.
Whether or not this story is even true is uncertain. It’s been repeated ad nausea throughout the internet, in history-books, and even on TV shows about unexplained events, for at least thirty years. I’ve searched throughout the internet and through documentary films and books…is it real? Maybe. At any rate, it makes a hell of a story. And it goes like this…
Edward Samson was a journalist. He was the news editor of the Boston Globe, an American newspaper based in Boston, Massachusetts, in the United States. One night, Samson, bored, a bit drunk, sleepy, and without a story, passed out in his office. In the midst of his slumbers, he had a fantastic dream: He imagined a tropical island paradise; an equatorial dreamland named ‘Pralapae’. He dreamed of a powerful volcanic eruption, that in the space of a few hours, had decimated the entire island. Suddenly, Paradise had been transformed into a hell of raining fire and ash, choking smoke, powerful earthquakes and rocks and lava all around. He imagined thousands of people dead, all of them variously scalded, drowned, buried alive, or blown to pieces in the disaster.
When Samson awoke, he wrote the whole thing down. His dream…for what else could it possibly be?…was so vivid that he felt that he had to record the whole thing. He didn’t know what else to do! Perhaps he could sell it to a magazine as a short story? Or put it in the newspaper and publish it as a piece of fantasy? He punched out the whole account of his vivid volcano vision on his typewriter, rang the thing off, ripped it out, stacked it up on his desk, and then staggered home to sleep.
When he awoke, fresh and sober the next morning, he picked up a copy of the Boston Globe. He was horrified to find that his work of fiction had been taken as fact! The Editor of the Globe had plastered it right across the front page!
Panicking, Samson ran to his office to explain that the story on his desk was merely meant as a piece of fiction, but the ball was already rolling. The story was going to be retracted, and an apology printed to readers of the Globe, when telegrams flooded in from around the world – Singapore, Shanghai, Melbourne, San Francisco…a catastrophic series of eruptions in the Sunda Strait in the Dutch East Indies had devastated the region, wreaking havoc and obliterating an island volcano called Krakatoa.
That night when Samson had passed out and had his dream, was the 25th of August, 1883. Had he really had a premonition of the most famous volcanic eruption in history?
Whether or not this story is true is up for debate. The eruption is certainly true. And the Boston Globe is a real American newspaper – it was first published in 1872, and certainly existed at the time of the 1883 eruption. But was there ever a famous, premonition-fueled front-page volcanic sensation?
Unless anyone ever manages to go through the Globe’s archives and checks the headlines for the 25th-31st of August, 1883, for mentions of a volcanic eruption on Krakatoa, or Pralapae, we may never know.
Van Sandick’s book was originally published in Dutch, and has been transcribed onto the internet in that language. Use Google Translate to translate it into English if necessary.
Documentary: Krakatoa – The Last Days (AKA Krakatoa – Volcano of Destruction).
The Day the World Exploded – This link provides some interesting information about the ships in the Sunda Strait at the time of the 26-27th August eruptions.