Anak Krakatoa and the Indonesian Tsunami
The Indonesian islands off the Sunda Strait found themselves at the centre of international news this Christmas when a tsunami struck the Javan coast on December 23rd. The giant wave tragically killed at least 430 people, injuring thousands, and making tens of thousands homeless. This event followed on from an earlier tsunami in September that hit Sulawesi island and killed more than 2,000 people.
Indonesia’s position on the Ring of Fire, the most geologically active area on the planet, makes it vulnerable to earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and tsunamis. It was also in this area that a powerful earthquake caused the Boxing Day tsunami in 2004, tragically killing around 230,000 people.
This Christmas it was landslides on an erupting volcano in the Sundra straits that displaced large volumes of water and sent them cascading across towards Java island. This volcano, Anak Krakatoa, has been erupting steadily since the summer, giving small warning signals that were only in part heeded. And Anak Krakatoa is no ordinary volcano, it is the ‘child’ of the most explosive eruption ever recorded. In order to understand how Anak was born, we need to go back to events over a century ago.
In 1883, the volcano called Krakatoa erupted, sending out shock waves that were felt in the English Channel and a sound wave that ricocheted across the planet. The eruption was equivalent to 13,000 times the power of the nuclear bomb dropped on Hiroshima and sent up an ash cloud around 80 km, disrupting global climate. It also blasted away two thirds of itself, and it was out of this caldera that, in the 1920s, Anak Krakatoa (child of Krakatoa) was born. Now the child of Krakatoa has found his voice.
So what message is this fiery and watery harbinger of death and destruction trying to convey? What do we need to hear? In order to understand this, I feel that we need to go back to the historical setting of the ‘mother’ eruption, so loud that it could be heard 3,600 km away. What was occurring on our planet at this time that we should take head of now?
Of the many world events of this period, it was arguably events on the African continent that seemed to be of the greatest relevance, both then and now. Towards the end of the 19th century, the colonial European powers had turned their attention to the African and were busy calving it up and exploiting it’s minerals. General Gordon was in Khartoum about to face the Mahdi army, setting in motion a chain of events from which the Sudan is still reeling from even today, and King Leopold of Belgium was trying to set up a so-called Free State in the Congo in a bid to exploit rubber. Cecil Rhodes had already set up the de Beers mining company and calved up Rhodesia for himself and Germany was trying to cement her control over Togoland, the Cameroons and South West Africa. This so-called scramble for Africa went on for the next twenty years so that by 1914, 90% of the African continent was under European control. And it was at the Berlin conference of 1884, not long after the eruption of Krakatoa, that this scramble for Africa was officially recognised and ‘regulated.’
Some years later, the Norwegian painter Edvard Munch and produced his iconic painting the Scream. Though we have traditionally subscribed this painting to the mental state of the artist or the anxiety of modern man, the inspiration for the piece is quite clearly something arising from the collective unconscious, something born from nature. In Munch’s own words:
‘I was walking along the road with two friends, the sun was setting and suddenly the sky turned blood red. I paused, feeling exhausted, and leaned on the fence. There was blood and tongues of fire above the blue-black fjord and the city. My friends walked on and I stood there trembling with anxiety – and I sensed an infinite scream passing through nature.’
It is possible that remnants of the volcanic ash from Krakatoa were still resident in the atmosphere and contributed to the colourful skies depicted in the painting, as many people have suggested. So, in a literal sense, it was the last residues of the eruption that resonated with Munch, so much that he created his powerful work that still draws us today. This also happened during the same time period as the Europeans were scrambling for Africa.
This calve up exposed the most ruthless, greedy, exploitative and barbaric underbelly of humanity and caused deep emotional and physical scars that are still festering today beneath the chaotic veneer of contemporary African politics and society. From South Africa, to Zimbabwe, the Congo, Rwanda, Kenya, the Sudan and Egypt, the countries of the Great Nile and the Great Rift that gave birth to humanity, were torn apart through the greed and brutality of the European powers in the name of mineral exploitation. It was no wonder nature shouted her warning (Krakatoa), then screamed in despair. Munch heard the scream. Now Krakatoa’s child is warning us again, and we ignore his rumblings at our peril.