In part I, we discussed the geology and current state of Krakatau. Now it is time to look at events before the Big Eruption. Was it hiding in the shadows, or did it make its intentions clear to all?
For centuries before its destruction, Krakatau was a familiar landmark. At least some of the time it was occupied. It is surprisingly difficult, though, to find good descriptions of the island from before the cataclysm. Partly this is because the company that governed the area, the VOC, was secretive, and partly because Krakatau wasn’t seen as important. It was just one of the many islands in the area. Between the Sunda Strait and Batavia was the region of the ‘thousand islands’ (in fact there are about 350) and these were more useful and received the attention.
Krakatau first appeared on charts around 1600. After 1700, it became included on published maps of the Sunda Strait although not in great detail. Better (or at least prettier) maps were made by the VOC, but these secret archives were kept hidden so well that they never resurfaced (with one exception described below). After 1800 the Dutch and British governments took over control of the region and the secrecy became less but they too paid little attention to Krakatau. In between, we have drawings made by several passing sailors showing the profile of Krakatau, and several brief descriptions including that of the 1680 eruption. The most detailed description comes from two visits during the Cook expeditions, providing painting of scenes on the island but sadly no map. Only after the main eruption had started, was someone finally send to measure up the island – but that was too late.
The most familiar maps of Krakatau were made in the decades before the 1883 eruption. One was republished by the Royal Society, in its Krakatau report with the famous cover picture of the eruption. A Dutch map from the same area is essentially identical, but has some longitude errors. The map shows the main peak of Rakata (800 m), the lower peaks of Danan (450 m), and the final peak of Perboewatan (100 m) forming a line running SSE to NNW, but they lack detail. The alignment seems to be an in-build direction for Krakatau: when Anak Krakatau first appeared, on January 3, 1929, initially the eruptions came from 6 vents on a line with a length of about 500 meters in the northwest-southeast direction.
How do the maps from the 1800’s compare to earlier depictions? The oldest published drawing of Krakatau is from 1598, and is not a map as such but an orientation drawing which shows the horizon. it was drawn by Willem Lodewijcksz who was a member of the expedition of Cornelis de Houtman, the first Dutch trading attempt in the region. On 17 June 1596 he passed Krakatau (which he called Carcata and Cercata) and noted that it was densely wooded, but that sulfurous fumes rose from a barren, reddish coloured spot. He didn’t tell us which spot! In view of later events, it must have been Perboewatan. His drawing shows a profile with three main peaks, probably Rakata, Danan and Perboewatan. (Long island is actually taller than Perboewatan and its peak can also show up in drawn profiles.)
Various drawings of the profile of Krakatau are available over the time until its final eruption. A compilation is shown below. There are some differences but they probably represent different viewing directions rather than real changes! The accuracy may be debatable. The middle peak, Danan, apparently was a double peak and in some drawings the secondary peak is made into its own mountain. Verbeek mentions that Danan had several summits, which may have formed part of an annular enclosure of a crater, and that Perboewatan was not a single mountain but a hilly piece of land (although that was after the eruption had begun and Perboewatan had been disrupted). The drawing from Mueller in 1836 is the most detailed. It shows Long Island in detail, and shows Perboewatan rising above Long Island. That is interesting, because Long Island peaks at 162 meters while Perboewatan was later reported as 100 meters. The drawing is too precise to allow for this, and it appears that Perboewatan was considerably taller than 100 meters before 1883.
Maps of Krakatau from before the 19th century are scarce. Pierre van der Aa included it on a map of the Sunda Strait but showed little detail. However, it turns out an older map does exist. And it appears to have come from those secret company archives.
The most famous atlas you have never heard of is the Blaeu-Van der Hem Atlas, finalized around 1670. It is the prize-possession of the Austrian National Library, and is listed on the UNESCO Memory of the World Register. A facsimile copy should set you back about 100,000 euros – the original is priceless (and that doesn’t mean cheap). The original work was from Joan Blaeu, who published it as the Atlas Maior between 1649 and 1673. It was the most expensive book published that century, with almost 600 plates. As each volume appeared, Laurens van der Hem bought a copy and had the plates hand-coloured by the top artists in Amsterdam. He also added many more plates. Van der Hem was rather wealthy, and he had turned his house into a treasure box. Amongst others, he owned Rembrandt’s David and Jonathan, nowadays in the Hermitage. Visitors would come from far away to see his collections. He is remembered, though, for this atlas, enlarged and beautified considerably from Blaeu’s version. He included whatever maps he could find or could commission: on completion his version contained 2400 plates and drawings! And it appears that Van der Hem somehow had access to the secret VOC archives in Amsterdam, and that his additions included their maps. His access may have come through Joan Blaeu who held the exclusive map maker contract for the VOC, but it wasn’t authorised by the VOC. During his life, Van der Hem never showed the plates of Indonesia to anyone; according to his daughter, this was to avoid getting the people in trouble who had given him the maps, without knowledge of the company. It shows he didn’t make this atlas as a show-off: he made it for posterity and as a work of art.
The plates are marvellously detailed. One of the additional plates shows both a map and a profile of Krakatau. The beautiful watercolours deserve space on this blog! (Click on the images for higher resolution.) The scanned originals, at better resolution, can be viewed at the atlas of mutual heritage.
Comparing this old map to the later ones shows surprising differences. There is an extra island, and the satellite islands seem to be further north of Krakatau than they should be. The small rock of ‘Polish hat’, forming a separate island, is visible, larger than it perhaps should be, and rather far from Krakatau. There are clearly major distortions in the map: the orientation and location of different parts are off, and the wiggly outlines indicate the sketchiness. These maps must have been made from a distance, and were not made for geographical exploration. After all, the VOC was there to make money, not to do science. But a separate island is harder to explain, as maps used by sailors should be reliable at separating land and water. A more detailed look, comparing the map from 1883 by Ferzenaar to this old map by scaling and rotating, suggests that the additional island is Perboewatan. The map makes a bit more sense that way although there are still significant mismatches. For confirmation, an independent map would have been useful. The drawing of 1596 also indicates a channel between Krakatau and the final peak. Later drawings do not show such a channel.
Could it be that the northern half of Krakatau was a bit lower in the early 17th century, some tens of meters, leaving part of the island under water? Afterwards, the land in the northern half rose a bit, and the channel between Krakatau and Perboewatan fell dry. This is speculative as the evidence is insufficient. The map of Ferzenaar made in 1883 indicates a low corridor between Danan and Perboewatan, albeit still 50 meters above sea: for it to be flooded would require changes in ground level by that much. But the map is puzzling.
The drawing of the island in the atlas shows that the last peak was barren. It is not fully clear which peak this is, as the viewing angle is not indicated: it could be Rakata or Perboewatan. However, Perboewatan is more likely. This also fits with the earlier description of Willem Lodewijcksz of a barren, reddish, sulfurous spot. The lack of vegetation here (and only here) suggests something was stopping plant growth. Sulfurous fumes will do this quite nicely! Rakata, in contrast, appears to have been extinct since historical times with no reports of any fumaroles. Note there is no indication of a channel on this drawing.
The only documented eruption of Krakatau before the Big Bang came in 1680, shortly after the Van der Hem Atlas was made. The documentation is a bit thin on the ground though. It mainly comes from a German employee of the Salida gold mine on Sumatra, Johan Wilhelm Vogel, who reported that passing Krakatau in Feb 1681, the previously overgrown island had become barren and burnt. He said that large lumps of glowing lava were seen being thrown out on four places. Vogel also tells us that according to the captain, the eruption had begun in May 1680. He gives a description of that eruption which he obtained from the captain who had been near Krakatau when it erupted: it involves an earthquake, a cracked island (it is not clear what that meant), sulfur smell and pumice. Verbeek discusses Vogel’s report with some scepticism. Verbeek had checked that the ship did indeed pass Krakatau on that day in 1681, but the ship’s log makes no mention of an eruption or glowing lava being thrown out. If an eruption had been on-going, that would certainly have been written down. Neither does the log of the ship’s journey in May 1680 (the ship “Kasteel Batavia” which arrived in Batavia on June 12 1680) mention anything, even though the most minute details were normally recorded: the captain would have reported the actual eruption had he witnessed anything at all. Considerable embellishment of Vogel’s story seems likely. Elias Hess, in November 1681, reported seeing rising smoke and burned trees, and mentions an eruption a year before. He passed Krakatau on the north, and Verbeek in 1880 drew attention to a young looking lava flow on the north side of Perboewatan. (Verbeek mentions that there were several other such flows around Perboewatan.) It seems plausible that there was indeed an eruption from Perboewatan in May 1680. However, there is no indication that it was large or long lasting as this would have been mentioned in many ship logs – it appears no one saw it. Vogel’s report of glowing lava belongs to the land of creative writing.
The eruption produced lava flows and was effusive. We don’t know whether whether it began with an explosion. We don’t know whether Perboewatan changed its appearance after this eruption: was the mountain higher or lower, or had the shape changed? The lack of reports can be taken as indication that there were no obvious changes, and that this was what it appeared to be: a limited lava flow.
There are later reports of fumarole activity, but until the start of the final calamity there were no further eruptions and Perboewatan appears to have quieted down.
According to Hesse, Krakatau was uninhabited in 1680. That changed later, as we know from visits made by the ships of two of the Cook expeditions. In January 1771 the first expedition anchored here but did not go on shore. They reported that ‘there were many houses and much Cultivation upon Cracatoa‘. In February 1780 the last expedition spend a day here on the way back to England, without Cook himself who had died on another volcanic island. The reports describe a green island with some inhabitants, a coral reef, and a hot spring. John Webber made drawings of the village, which he later made into paintings. The mountain in the background in these paintings may be Danan.
The 1780 expedition wrote “Cracatoa is esteemed very healthy, in comparison of the neighbouring countries. It consists of high land, rising gradually on all sides from the sea; and the whole is covered with trees, except a few spots which the natives have cleared for rice fields. The number of people on the island is very inconsiderable.” Over the nine years between the two visits, it seems that the population had notably decreased.
The “healthy” part was stated with some reason. On the first journey, the expedition had bought water for the return journey to England in Batavia. Over the next weeks, quite a few people on board died, including the ship’s astronomer. The cause is not stated, but given the water-borne diseases which were rife in Batavia, it seems plausible that they carried the agents with them. The water (which needed to last them several months) came with a guarantee of cleanliness. (The locals had warned the crew not to trust that guarantee.) But let’s continue the Cook report:
“Off the north-east end lies a small island, which forms the road where the Resolution anchored; and within a reef that runs off the south end of the latter, there is good shelter against all northerly winds, with eighteen fathoms water near the reef, and twenty-seven in the mid-channel. To the north-west, there is a narrow pass for boats between the two islands.”
“The shore, which forms the western side of the road, is in a north-west direction, and has a bank of coral stretching into the sea, about one third of a cable’s length, which makes the landing difficult for boats, except at high water ; but the anchoring ground is very good, and free from rocks. The place where the Resolution watered is a small spring, situated abreast of the south end of the small island, at a short distance from the water-side. A little to the southward, there is a very hot spring, which is used by the natives as a bath.”
Half a century later, 8 September 1832, the US sloop-of war Peacock visited. On board was Edmund Robert: his official title was Captain’s Clerk but in reality he was President Andrew Jackson’s “special confidential agent”. This early James Bond was a gifted writer (his pen perhaps mightier than his sword), as shown by the vivid description he gave in his 1837 book ‘Embassy to the Eastern Courts’:
“At daybreak the following morning a boat was despatched in search of inhabitants, fresh water, and yams; but after three of four hours search, returned unsuccessful. Two other boats were then sent under the command of the first lieutenant Mr. Cunningham: after a fruitless search, that officer returned at sunset, after visiting Long Island and Crokatoa. It was found difficult to effect a landing anywhere, owing to the heavy surf and the coral having extended itself to a considerable distance from the shore. Hot springs only were found on the eastern side of the latter island, one hundred and fifty feet from the shore, boiling furiously up through many fathoms of water. […] In reconnaitring between Forsaken [Verlaten] and Crokatoa islands, we were struck with admiration at the great variety, both in form and colour, of an extensive and highly beautiful submarine garden, over which the boat was smoothly and slowly gliding. Corals of every shape and hue were there – some resembling sunflowers and mushrooms; others, cabbages from an inch to three feet in diameter, while a third bore a striking likeness to a rose. The water was clear as crystal. […] The sides of the hills, to their lofty summits, were clothed with all the variety of fruit, forest and flowering trees common to intertropical climates: large flocks of parrots, shaking the dew of night from their downy pinions were seen wending their ways to the palm trees, in search of daily food, and monkeys in great variety were commencing their lively gambols amid the wild mango and orange groves. Again, gazing in delighted wonder beneath us, we viewed the superb scene of plants and flowers of every description, glowing in vivid teints of purple, red, blue, brown and green – equalling in richness and variety the gayest parterre. A variety of small fish, spotted, striped and ringed, possessing every colour and shade, were sporting in these regions of unsurpassed brilliancy and beauty. […] Above, beneath, around us – all was in harmony.”
In spite of this beauty and harmony, the island was devoid of habitation. The small spring used by the old village was no longer there, and the (very) hot spring they had used for bathing had moved off-shore, become plural and was ‘boiling’. The village had lost its fount. Had volcanic activity increased since 1770? The lack of water caused by the off-shore relocation of the springs can explain the failure of the settlement. The coral and trees (and monkeys) show that there had not been a major eruption for a very long time, although it should be noted this was on the other, western side of Krakatau. The east shore seems to have been quite steep: the hot springs were 50 meters out from the coast, but ‘many fathoms’ deep. A fathom is 6 feet, so ‘many’ fathoms (5-10?) was perhaps 10-20 meters.
Drying springs can be an early indicator of increasing volcanic activity. An example is Budiao spring at Mount Mayon, which is the main source of water in the town of Daraga. In the year before recent eruptions, this spring produced notably less water. The reason is the inflation of the mountain which dilates the water-holding layers. Pressure drops, ground water level drops, and springs loose part or all of their supply. It can recover before the eruption begins, when inflation focusses on the actual summit and surrounding areas deflate again. One wonders whether this had been happening at Krakatau as well. The spring bubbling up 10 meters lower can point at lower ground water levels. But whilst Mayon shows this a year before an eruption, Krakatau was affected a century before the end.
We are left with the image of an idyllic island, worthy of The Blue Lagoon, with dense tropical forest, perfect coral, and warm running water. But the island may have been rising, the water supply had become intermittent, and the fumaroles and hot springs were signs of danger – in hindsight.
But in spite of all this harmony and beauty, barely 50 years later Krakatau would be gone – a paradise lost. No one saw it coming – only one person may have had an inkling. What happened? Had this all happened before? And why is Krakatau the sole source of activity in the Sunda Strait? All will be revealed.
(Ok, perhaps not everything. But we can give it a try.)
Albert, May 2019
No one saw it coming – but perception is a funny thing. For some light relief: can you count the black dots?