It was the first-ever story about a truly enormous natural event that was both about the world and was told to the world. Part of the planet's fabric had been ripped asunder: and part of that same planet, the part connected by cables and telegraphs and with access to newspapers, was now being informed of the event. And the very process of relating the dramatic happenings, especially. In the weeks and months that followed, would enable all who heard, read and understood it to share in the cruel intimacy of the moment.
On paper - or in pixels - it's a damn fine proposition. A pacy non-fiction exploration of the devastating, epochal 19th-century volcanic eruption that utterly destroyed an Indonesian island. Krakatoa's death throes sent shockwaves that were felt around the world. Both literally - the noise of its explosion was heard at least 3000 miles away, and the resulting pressure wave travelled around the globe seven times - and figuratively - via the new-fangled technology of telegraphy, which ensured the news of it was carried further, faster, than of any comparable event before it.
Damn fine. Hard to screw up, really, even if some marketeer did insist on garlanding the back-cover synopsis of Simon Winchester's Krakatoa: the day the world exploded (2003) with the shockingly poor taste line, "In breathtaking detail he describes how one island and its inhabitants were blasted out of existence". (This isn't an action film, guys; between the initial eruption and the subsequent tsunamis, 36,000 people died. Thirty-six. Thousand. Actual people.)
Still, anyone who's read a book, well, ever knows that it's unfair to hold authors to account for the way their publisher chooses to sell their work. And there were a number of things that I enjoyed and admired about Winchester's work. He covers a huge amount of ground in the course of his 400 pages: the politics and culture of European imperialism in the 'East Indies' from the time of Pope Julius II's division of the world into Spanish and Portuguese spheres of influence, a wonderfully clear and interesting explanation of plate tectonics and how volcanoes happen, potted biographies of numerous scientists whose observations and theories contributed to our understanding of the aforementioned phenomena, and some startling facts and figures about the eruption itself and the way news of it was received.
Winchester's style is journalistic (thus one early-modern general active in the East Indies is introduce as "a still-infamous-in-Lisbon figure named Don Lourenzo de Brito"), and the prose has a tinge of purple, but his introductory passage - a description of seeing Krakatoa's successor-volcano for the first time in the 1970s - does a decent job of conveying awe at both natural beauty and natural danger:
It was early on a warm summer's evening in the 1970s, as I stood in a palm plantation high on a green hillside in western Java, that I saw for the first time, silhouetted against the faint blue hills of faraway Sumatra, the small gathering of islands that is all that remains of what was once a mountain called Krakatoa. There was a high peak to the left of the group, its pyramid shape cut off sharply by its vertical northern cliff. A couple of low islands hugged the horizon to the right. In between them was one small and perfectly formed, absolutely symmetrical low cone, from which rose a thin wisp of smoke. The smoke left a blackish, greyish trail that first rose vertically and then, as it caught the trade winds a few hundred feet above the darkening surface of the sea, was whisked off to the left, melting away until it became no more than a slow-fading stain against the salmon glow of the sunset. [...] This, I remembered thinking during the endless night of the flight back west, had been a scene of impeccable beauty. And all the more so because it presented a distant prospect of a place where the processes of the world were at work, a place of elemental significance, and a disastrous place once - but these days quiet again, serenely biding its time.
So, blurb aside, why did I come away from the book so disgruntled and disappointed? It began, I think, with this bizarre shortcut through world history:
The Portuguese from the warm and lazy south were slowly driven out and replaced by doughty Europeans from the cold and more ruthless north.
Where I'd been coasting along, enjoying my reading experience, suddenly I found I'd hit a pot hole. What an odd statement. Are the Portuguese not Europeans? And national characteristics determined by the climes, really? Did I fall asleep and wake up in an alternate universe where we still base our understanding of the world and its peoples on Ptolemy?
Death by a thousand cuts followed: once Winchester has unleashed the flow of lazy stereotypes, it cannot be stopped. Chinese people are all polite and hardworking (then and now!), the early-modern Dutch have an "easy-going arrogance", and Islam is and was a religion of "rigid formalism", the domain of "desert-dried Arabs". An anti-colonial Muslim rebellion in Indonesia that killed 24 people is an "orgy of bloodletting", whereas the Dutch authorities' response (which killed 30 people) is described in much less emotive terms, with only the Dutch troops' weapons (repeating rifles) getting to be "terrifying". Non-Western places where the sound of the volcano was heard are "exotic". Modern-day Jakarta is dirty, and crowded, and has "the kind of cheerful hugger-mugger mayhem that marks many a modern Asian city", in contrast to the "queenly" splendor of its European imperial incarnation, Batavia. Your guess is as good as mine as to what 'hugger-mugger' means. Later it becomes clear that what he means by Batavia's "golden age" is actually 'golden age for the people who lived in the "gigantic park" on the hill, profiting off the labour of the people who lived in the actual working city down below'.
Then there are the simply nonsensical statements. Of a successful Chinese restauranteur in Jakarta, we're told that
He remains blissfully unaware that he made his fortune in a town that had once made other outsiders, the entirely dissimilar burghers of seventeenth-century Amsterdam, extremely wealthy too.
How can Winchester know the restauranteur is 'unaware' of this, unless he asked, at which point presumably the restauranteur no longer 'remained unaware', but became... aware? (Or could it be Winchester is just assuming a Chinese man in the catering trade won't know any history?) Later he informs us, regarding the Muslim identity of Indonesians, "All of its [Indonesia's] people are either converts or descendants of converts." Wait, what? Are there any religious communities of which this isn't true? Do Christians just spontaneously discover Jesus in the womb? How else does one become the adherent of a religion, if not by converting, or being born into a family with converts somewhere back in its generations?
Some sign of what's going on begins to emerge as Winchester guides us through his history of 19th-century science. His heroes were, to a man, tragically misunderstood and ignored by their peers. Ornithologist Philip Lutley Sclater published an article about zoological regions of the world that is "all but overlooked by most biologists today". (Why would they consult it? Does a chef need to know how the oven got invented? Do budding journalists read up on Linear B before they start churning out copy?). Alfred Russel Wallace had his idea about natural selection totally co-opted by that Darwin guy. (Apparently, however, "There are not a few who believe..." that Wallace deserves all the credit really; Winchester doesn't say who, in what must be the pop-science version of the lurkers supporting him in email, preferring to insinuate that there is a bastion of true believers holding out against some vast pro-Darwin conspiracy.) Alfred Wegener was "vilified and, most cruelly, denied his deserved academic reward" for the "heresy" of thinking new thoughts.
I'm not disputing the fact that the history of science - like the history of, well, everything - often exaggerates the contributions of some individuals, and downplays the work of others. I'm not disputing that Wegener, in particular, had a chequered career because many colleagues in influential places weren't interested in hearing a word he said since he challenged their understanding of the world so fundamentally. But by the time Winchester launches into a diatribe about how, "Scientific specialists, who still today guard jealously their own fields of research, attacked him roundly for daring to invade their territories", it's all starting to feel a bit like a conspiracy theorist at work. Not everyone whose ideas are challenged or ignored is a brave maverick within an unfeeling, conservative system who will one day be vindicated; not everyone who rejects a 'daring' 'new' theory is just protecting their turf. Sometimes, you really do need to know some background in a given field before you can wade in and tell everyone already there that they're doing it wrong, or else you risk missing the point or reinventing the wheel. Sometimes, you've unwittingly overdosed on the Dunning-Kruger effect.
I can't judge Winchester's accuracy or plausibility in all or even most of the topics he touches on in this book; my understanding of things like plate tectonics doesn't stretch beyond GCSE Physics, and I have at best an interested lay-person's knowledge of 19th-century science. In areas that I do know a little bit more about, however, I find Winchester so wildly off-base that it is difficult for me to trust his presentation of the rest, although given his training in geology I assume he knows what he's doing with regards to the volcano itself.
Winchester's dilettantism becomes abundantly clear - and tripped up this reader repeatedly - when he starts commenting on Islamic history. (Although for the record, I'm a medievalist, not a modernist, so take what I say with a pinch of salt, too!) For Winchester, early-modern Islam, it seems, consists entirely of "the far-away mullahs of Araby" and "a home-grown, locally brewed version of the creed" that is "gentler" than the "rigorous" Islam of the Arabs. (Googling these sentences, I note that Winchester's judgement has been quoted approvingly elsewhere, as if he's an authority on the matter.)
In Winchester's vision of the world, even in the early-modern period Islam was something the Arabs did to other people, all centrally directed by scholars in 'Araby' who apparently cast spells over unwary pilgrims when they get to Mecca. To Winchester, the vast world empires of the Mughals (a Persianised Turkic elite ruling over the many peoples of India), the Safavids (Iranians and Central Asia), and the Ottomans (Turkish rulers, largely Greek state apparatus, multi-ethnic subject population, one portion - but by no means the majority - of which was Arab) apparently didn't exist, or had no cultural weight; Mecca was in no way a meeting-point for Muslims from across the world; Islamic scholars didn't exist everywhere Muslims do, only in Arabia; and there weren't multiple interpretations of even Sunni Islamic law and practice, just "orthodoxy" and nice, syncretic, doomed Indonesian Islam. The fact that the anti-colonial movement he discusses talked about perang sabil - as opposed to using an actual Arabic term like jihad - is clearly proof that the Indonesians were indoctrined into the perfidious (and no doubt dusty) Arab way of the hajj.
This is not to deny that militant forms of Islam were and continue to be a transnational rallying cry for anti-colonial movements, or that militant forms of Islam have caused and continue to cause huge amounts of suffering today. But Winchester's presentation is all so teleological, and black-and-white, and frankly every bit an exercise in lazy kneejerk stereotyping as his comments on the Portuguese. (Dutch colonialism, meanwhile, is merely "not very kindly".)
In some ways this is understandable: the book was published in 2003, so it was presumably written in that period when plenty of more learned writers, who ought to have known better, were consumed by the notion that history was primarily important for the ways it could be read to prove the inevitability of 9/11 and the eternal violence of Islam with regards to 'the West'. And indeed, Winchester's bibliography lists Karen Armstrong, VS Naipaul, and Bernard Lewis' later, wackier output (including one from the period when he became a shill for the US invasion of Iraq), but contains little evidence of wider reading from more specialised, historically-informed scholars. Winchester, it seems, knew what his conclusion would be going in: that the eruption of Krakatoa led to the bombing of Bali, do not pass go, do not collect £200:
They [=the colonial authorities] did not stop to wonder where these people [=those communities devastated by the volcano] might eventually look for sustenance and succour.
Perhaps they should have done. For it turned out that not a few of these unhappy, dispossessed and traumatized people eventually looked to the west, to Mecca, and to the benevolent power of the Islamic religion to answer their needs.
Sometimes history really does repeat itself. And sometimes it's just that writers of history are desperate to see themselves and their prejudices reflected back in it.