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Krakatoa–Victorian Disaster


We’ve all heard the name.  I doubt most of us associate it with the Victorians, but it erupted during the era.  August 27, 1883 in fact. It’d been giving warning since the middle of May, 1883, but people didn’t take a whole lot of notice of it other than as something of interest.  No one lived on the island anyway, what could possibly be the big deal?  Even when it did erupt and destroyed ¾ of the island, . . if no one was there, what was the harm?  

It wasn’t the eruption itself that did the damage, it was the tsunami that ensued.  It came slowly and killed approximately 40,000 people.  We know that much of the island debris went into the air, but what didn’t go into the air slid into the ocean.  Add the lava to it and the earthquake and, well and you get tsunami.  Sadly, 2004 I don’t think there’s anyone who doesn’t know how an earthquake can result in that.    

Still this all happened in a part of the world we rarely associate with the Victorian Era.  I suspect many of our regular readers, though interested, might not see how it would affect their view of the era, either in writing or research about North America or Europe or even Australia.  I sure never thought of it.  But it did have a huge effect.  For one thing the sound of the eruption could be heard 3000 miles away, all the way to Australia.  The waves could be felt as far as France.  But more than all that it was the effects of the millions of dust and materials that entered the air, eventually circling the entire planet.

 One of the most vivid things the dust did was color the sky.  Dust was thrown between 120,000 to 160,000 feet into the air, where the pull of gravity is so light it can stay up there for years.  The refraction brought unusual colors to sunsets, which is reflected in the art of the period, and inspired poets.  Tennyson particularly, in St. Telemachus, may have been inspired by how Krakatoa may have caused of the spectacular skies.

 Had the fierce ashes of some fiery peak
Been hurl’d so high they ranged about the globe?
For day by day, thro’ many a blood-red eve,
In that four-hundredth summer after Christ,
The wrathful sunset glared against a cross
Rear’d on the tumbled ruins of an old fane
No longer sacred to the Sun, and flamed
On one huge slope beyond, where in his cave

  It also spawned groups of scientific thought such as The Royal Society’s Krakatoa Committee which catalogue the effects starting to be seen around by the close of 1883. Additionally  there were blue and sometimes green moons, along with occasional coronas around the sun and other planets in the solar system.  The beauty of the skies, could also be disturbing, though.  In Poughkeepsie New York, firefighters responded to a reported fire, which turned out only to be the “sky on fire” courtesy of dust from Krakatoa.

 And then there was the temperature.  It lowered for 5 years around the globe by as much as full degree. Scientists still ponder whether or not the dust lowered the earth’s temperature or if somehow the lowering temperature of the earth spawned the volcano.  Personally the former seems to me most plausible.  The 1815 explosion of Tambora appeared to be the cause of New England’s “year without a summer” in 1816, when frost and snow stay into June and July  (Tambora was, incidentally, a larger eruption, but not part of our era).  

  That being the case, could Krakatoa be responsible for the blizzards in the late 1880’s , like New York City’s great Blizzard of 1888?  ) Maybe the blizzard that hit Maryland in 1885 and 1889? Or perhaps the famous blizzards that ravaged the U.S’s Midwest in 1886-1887?  If so, a volcanic eruption half way across the world, three years earlier could be responsible for the sudden ending of the cowboy Era in U.S. history, because so many ranches went under the spring of that year.  But that’s fodder for another blog post.  One way or another, Krakatoa effected lives around the world, from artists and poets, to the everyday man watching the sky for beauty—and snow.

 Krakatoa, The Day the World Exploded,  Simon Winchester



  1. carolyndee says:

    Wow, Dee, You asked some touch questions. I agree that Krakatoa’s eruption triggered those winter blizzards. Didn’t somewhere on the east coast dub that the year without a summer? The cowboy life, now that’s another side of the coin, so to speak, in my opinion. There were many forces driving the end to trail drives–and the most powerful were (1) the spread of the railroad and (2) the spread of barbed wire to fence range and farmland. Believe me, though, there are still plenty of cowboys and ranchers in my part of Texas.

  2. Wow, I never knew this. Thanks, Dee.

  3. When I was young I remember seeing a black and white movie (no snickers please) with the eruption as the centerpiece of the drama. I have never forgotten it and can still close my eyes and see the sailors in their boat and what happened when it erupted. Consequently, I have always been so interested in the happening. What a wild time they had…

  4. Denise Eagan says:

    Pretty sure the year without summer was at the beginning of the century, with Tambora. I think people mark those years as the end of the Cowboy era (not the end of Cowboys, but of the long drives and open range, and roundups) because so many ranches went under that year. A lot of factors played a part in it–trains, barbed wire and other things–but that year seemed to be last straw. Or so I’ve interpreted. Never fear, I’ve written a post on that too! Coming Soon to a blog near you!

  5. Paisley, are you remembering Green Dolphin Street? I was riveted by that movie as a child. Two beautiful sisters fall in love with the same man. He goes to the South Seas, gets drunk and writes a letter to the wrong sister, asking her to be his bride and join him in Krakatoa. Back in England, the other sister becomes a nun and misses the terrible eruptions.
    I’d love to see that movie again!

  6. […] bad for the plains (’88 was bad for New York, ’85 for Maryland, due to, I have hypothesized, Krakatoa) And what a winter.  It started with a November (13th or so depending on the state) with a […]

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