The eruption of Krakatoa, August 1883: the first global media event

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I joined Gale, a Cengage Company in 2016 as a Publishing Assistant. With a diverse background in international and transnational history, I'm particularly interested in social narratives and cultural trends of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In my spare time, I like stand-up comedy, Ernest Hemingway and Tetris.

On August 26th 1883, Krakatoa erupted. Not, of course, out of a clear blue sky; ash columns and steam plumes had been filling the sky over the island and its archipelago for days, the area had been experiencing tremors and earthquakes for years, and smaller explosions had been throwing up ash, changing the tides and, presumably, worrying the locals for months.

There were four major explosions between the 26th and 27th August. The loudest of these could be heard on Madagascar, in Alice Springs, Australia and as far as the Island of Rodriguez, 3000 miles away in the Indian Ocean. It is widely accepted as ‘the loudest sound in modern history[1]. The volcano was obliterated, destroying two-thirds of the island along with it. The death toll was over 36,000, with nearby inhabitants representing only a portion of the victims as tsunamis swept across the world’s oceans. The shockwave from the event ‘circumnavigated the world seven times’[2]. The amount of ash and sulphur released into the atmosphere produced the global drop in temperatures of a volcanic winter as well as brilliant red sunsets, purple twilights, and blue moons.[3]

“By Thousands.” Milwaukee Journal, 29 Aug. 1883. Nineteenth Century U.S. Newspapers, tinyurl.galegroup.com/tinyurl/575M70. Accessed 11 Aug. 2017.

You have probably heard of Krakatoa – the endearingly misnamed film ‘Krakatoa, East of Java’ released in 1968 is perhaps the most famous of the films made about it made in the twentieth century, and Simon Winchester published ‘Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded’ in 2003. Krakatoa’s fame, however, has a lot to do with when it happened, and not just its destructive power.

Krakatoa lies west of Java, an island of Indonesia

Krakatoa is often held up as the first global media event. It was covered almost from the day it happened by newspapers across the world – a search on Gale Primary Sources for ‘Krakatoa’ in August 1883 brings up 60 articles in papers from London to Milwaukee.

This article on Thursday, August 30 in the Morning Post – one of the publications found in Gale’s British Library Newspapers archive – helps illustrate why Krakatoa has a special place in media history:

“THE ERUPTION OF KRAKATOA.” Morning Post, 30 Aug. 1883, p. 5. British Library Newspapers, tinyurl.galegroup.com/tinyurl/575Ux8. Accessed 11 Aug. 2017.

This article is cited as having been sent through Reuter’s Telegrams. Reuter’s had been supplying international news and scoops to newspapers since 1858 when the first transatlantic cable was successfully laid between the US and Ireland. Since then, global information networks had grown and Reuter’s had grown with them. The development of communication technology fuelled the development of the print media; news reached further, moved faster and covered more ground. Something happening in London could be known about in outposts of Empire at a speed unthinkable fifty years earlier, and vice versa.

Which brings me to the next factor in the globalisation of Krakatoa – it was the Age of Empire, when international trade was part of the national consciousness and national ambitions as never before. Jakarta, then Batavia, on nearby Java was the capital of the Dutch East Indies, and British and French merchants also had interests in the region. The headline ‘Great Loss of Life Among Europeans and Natives’ neatly reflects the imperial setting of the disaster. This tiny island on the other side of the world was home by 1883 to thousands of Europeans, as well as people from China and South East Asian locals. In one sentence, the racist structure of European imperial networks is crystallised. Another article, this one from the Milwaukee Journal on August 29th, elaborates on the death toll:

“By Thousands.” Milwaukee Journal, 29 Aug.1883. Nineteenth Century U.S. Newspapers, tinyurl.galegroup.com/tinyurl/575M70 Accessed 11 Aug. 2017.

So by 1883, a volcanic eruption in Krakatoa was going to mean more than some impressive sunsets to Europeans.

They were good sunsets though – the 1888 report on ‘The Eruption of Krakatoa and Subsequent Phenomena’ by the Royal Society in London opens with coloured ‘chromo-lithographs’ of sketches of sunsets over the Thames in November 1883 by William Ascroft. The 565-page report goes on to talk about all aspects of the eruption, from the ‘The Nature and Distribution of the Ejected Materials’ to ‘The Magnetical and Electrical Phenomena Accompanying the Krakatoa Explosion’. Enthusiastic Victorian men of science found fertile ground for research in the wake of the event, and were ready and able to capitalise on it as never before.

Symons, George James, et al. The Eruption of Krakatoa, and Subsequent Phenomena: Report of the Krakatoa Committee of the Royal Society. Printed by Harrison and Sons, and Published by Trübner & Co., 1888. Nineteenth Century Collections Online, tinyurl.galegroup.com/tinyurl/577As5

It’s also interesting to note that volcanic areas are not one hit wonders. According to Gale’s Environmental Encyclopedia there were similar eruptions recorded on Krakatoa in AD 416 and 1680.[4] Like all areas of tectonic excitability, the next eruption is always a question of ‘when’ and not ‘if’.

[1] Clary, Renee, and James Wandersee. “Krakatoa erupts! Using a historic cataclysm to teach modern science.” The Science Teacher, Dec. 2011, p. 42. Science in Context, link.galegroup.com/apps/doc/A274521194/SCIC?u=webdemo&xid=3aafe3db. Accessed 11 Aug. 2017.

[2] Marozzi, Justin. “The biggest bang in the world.” Spectator, 7 June 2003, p. 44+. World History in Context, link.galegroup.com/apps/doc/A103674192/WHIC?u=webdemo&xid=2893670f. Accessed 11 Aug. 2017.

[3] O’Meara, Stephen James. “True blue moons: they’re not as rare as you’ve been led to believe.” Astronomy, Nov. 2016, p. 18. Science in Context, link.galegroup.com/apps/doc/A470462153/SCIC?u=webdemo&xid=218a9609. Accessed 11 Aug. 2017

[4] “Krakatoa.” Environmental Encyclopedia, edited by Deirdre S. Blanchfield, Gale, 2011. Science in Context, link.galegroup.com/apps/doc/CV2644150768/SCIC?u=webdemo&xid=a07b9ac2. Accessed 11 Aug. 2017.