Field of Science

August 27, 1883: Krakatoa - The day the world exploded

"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 27. Agust 1883 (Topographic Map from Wikipedia, Ship positions from SYMONS 1888).

When the Batavian steamship "Gouverneur-General Loudon", under the command of T.H. Lindeman, approached the harbour of Anyer at ca. 14.00 o'clock August 26. 1883, the first explosion was reported, with a white cloud rising above the volcano and the sea, which showed a strange behaviour: the sea level was rising and falling in an irregular pattern. 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 full of passengers started their voyage to the 65 kilometers distant Telukbetung in Sumatra. Commandant 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 [Aug. 26, 7:30 p.m.] 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." (from VanSANDICK)

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

Captain Thomson of the Medea, anchoring 130 kilometers east of Batavia, later estimated the height of the cloud up to 27 kilometers, he also reports "electric signs" in the clouds and strong explosions shaking in short intervals the ship.

At Monday at 5 o'clock in the 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. All three ships were covered by hot ash and pumice.

Captain Lindeman decided to anchor in the Lampung bay, also the Danish merchant Marie stopped.
The Irish merchant 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 up to 16 to 18 kilometers, the nearest position of all surviving testimonies.
At Sunday 13.30 he was approaching the island in the middle of the strait (Watson reported the time 1 hour to early, here the indications are corrected to match the general chronology):

"…we observed a strong movement at the peak of Krakatoa, clouds or something were being propelled from the nort-east point with great velocity.

At 14.30 we heard about us and around the island a strange noise, like a crackling fire or the heavy artillery firing every few seconds.
At four o'clock there was still thundering and it become even stronger, and a gloom spread over the sky, and a hail of pumice crackled on us, many of the pieces were of notable size and quite hot. We had to cover the lights, to secure the glass, and had to protect our feet's and heads with boots and coats.
..we remained on that course until we sighted a lighthouse at 18 o'clock, which we thought was Fourth Point, then we turned into the wind, SW, because we could hardly see anything and did not know what was going on in the strait.
The night was terrible, sand and rocks fell on us and made us blind. About us and around us there was absolute darkness, broken only by the incessant flashing of lightning, and then the constant noise of the explosion of the Krakatoa - our situation was really bad.
By 22 o'clock an island became visible. Fire tails seemed to descend up and down between it and the sky, and in the southwest we saw rise steadily white balls of fire.
The wind was strong, but hot, suffocating and sulphurous, it smelled like charred ash, and some of the stones that felt on us, were like iron slag. The plumbline coming from a depth of thirty fathoms [55m] was still warm.

From midnight to 3 o'clock in the night of the 27th the same impenetrable darkness persisted, while the noise of Krakatoa sounded less continuously, but more explosive, the sky was dark black in a second, and in the next bright light. The masts and frames flickered in a dead fire, and a strange pink-colored flame spout out of fluffy clouds, seeming to touch the mast.
At 5 o'clock we recognized the coast of Java, set sail and passed the lighthouse of Fourth Point. At 7 o'clock we winded up our signal flags, but received no answer.
At 7.30 we passed Anyer, our name still set and close enough to see the houses, but could see nothing moving, in fact across the entire Sunda Strait we saw nothing on the sea or on the land moving.

At 9.15 we passed Button Island, distant a quarter to half a mile, all around the sea like glass, and the weather looked much better, here no ash or slag was falling down, weak wind from SE.
At 10.15 o'clock we heard a terrible explosion in the direction of the Krakataoa, now more than 30 miles distant. We saw a wave impacting on Button Iceland and apparently sweeping across the southern part ...

... at 10.30 we were surrounded by a darkness that was almost to grasp, and then a deluge of mud, sand, and I do not know what began.
... We placed two men on the lookout, the mate and second mate on the flanks, and a man washed the dirt from the compass. We had seen two ships to the N and NW, before the sky darkened, so our situation was becoming even dangerous.
By noon it was so dark, that we had to grope on the deck, we could speak, but not see each other. This terrible condition and the rain of mud and debris continued until 12:30 o´clock. The thunder and lightning of the volcano was something awful.
At 13 o'clock we could see some of the yards above us, and the mud rain stopped, at 16 o'clock northwards and eastwards the horizon appeared, and we recognized West Island in direction O to N, just barely visible.
By midnight the sky remained gloomy and cloudy; occasionally some sand came down, the volcano rumbled in the distance, even though we were 75 miles distant from Krakatoa.
Such darkness and such a situation only a few can ever imagine, and probably many would consider it unthinkable. The ship seemed cemented from the knob of the flag to the water line: spars, sails, blocks and ropes were terribly dirty, but Thank God no one was injured and the ship undamaged.
But imagine Anyer, Merak, and other small villages on the coast of Java!"


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 - Der Tag, an dem die Welt zerbrach. Albrecht Knaus Verlag: 367

Online Resources:

BBC World Witness (27.08.2010): Witness talks by Simon Winchester. (Accessed 27.08.2010)
LINDEMAN, J. (1883): Summary of Events.
(Accessed 27.08.2010)
VanSANDICK: Krakatau/Krakatoa/Krakatou - 120e Verjaardag. (Accessed 27.08.2010)

1 comment:

  1. David, Am interested in learning more about the eruption of Krakatoa (did some field reseach at Ujung Kulon in 1973)and lots more on glacial geology. My home in Netcong, New Jersey was on the terminal moraine of the Wisconsin Glacier.

    Thank you for any dialogue that may develop. There are a couple of popular stories about the terminal moraine at Netcong, NJ that I posted on my own blog site at:


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