One of the most frustrating things about living through current events is that we don’t yet know the final results. Our knowledge builds over time until eventually, sometimes, the whole story is known.

But I’m always interested in what people knew at the beginning of historical “current events”. So I check out old newspapers.

The island and volcano of Krakatoa, Strait of Sunda, submerged during the late eruption Abstract/medium: 1 print : wood engraving. Photo via Wikimedia Commons and the Library of Congress.

Like this story. What we know now, 135 years after the fact, is that in August of 1883 a volcano erupted at Krakatoa over the course of two days, the 26th and 27th. Tens of thousands of people died immediately, some from the heat, ash, and gasses, but most from the tsunamis generated by the blast. Eventually the Dutch authorities estimated the death toll at 36,417.

Map of the Sunda Strait, Indonesia via Wikimedia Commons.

Multiple eruptions destroyed or collapsed 70% of the island of Krakatoa. The sound of the loudest of the explosions, the big one on the second day, was heard more than 2,000 miles away. Scientists estimate the eruption was about 10 times more explosive than Mount St. Helens in 1980.

Around the world, the particles blown into the atmosphere by the volcano caused red sunsets and sometimes made the moon look blue or green. Global temperatures fell and weird weather continued until 1888.

But they didn’t know all of that in August of 1883.

You, like me, might be surprised by what they did know. You see, in 1883 there were already undersea telegraph lines so that news and information could travel quickly around the world. It wasn’t 24-hour cable news, but it was much faster than sending messages by ship.

On August 28, 1883 The Sun in New York reported news from Batavia, which is now Jakarta.


Meagre Accounts of Terrific Volcanic Action on an Island in Sunda Strait

Batavia, Aug. 27.-Terrific detonations were heard yesterday evening from the volcanic island of Krakatoa. They were audible at Soerakrata, on the island of Java. The ashes from the volcano fell as far as Cheribon, and the flashes proceeding from it were visible in Batavia. Stones fell in a shower on Serang, which was in total darkness throughout the night. Batavia was nearly so, all the gaslights having been extinguished during the night. Communication with Anjier is stopped, and it is feared that there has been a calamity there. Several bridges between Anjier and Serang have been destroyed, and a village has been washed away, the rivers having overflowed their banks because of the rush of the sea inland.

Krakatoa is a little island in the Strait of Sunda, which divides Java from Sumatra. Krakatoa is about seven miles long and four miles broad. Batavia is the principal port and city in Java, which is itself of volcanic origin, contains several volcanoes, and has frequently suffered from earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. Cheribon, a place of 11,000 population, is on the north coast of Java, 125 miles E.S.E. of Batavia. It contains the residence of a Dutch Governor, and is a conspicuous market in the coffee and indigo trades. Anjier is a little seaport of Java on the Strait of Sunda.

This was just the beginning, before Krakatoa completely blew her top.

So readers knew what was happening, but had no idea yet about how bad it would be. Maybe they even thought it was over.

The report that showed up in The Breckenridge news out of Kentucky the next day, on August 29, 1883, was detailed and brutal. The entire article is too long to include here, but I’ll give you some highlights.


Several Islands Destroyed, and Java Overwhelmed and Desolated by Volcanic Eruptions – 75,000 Lives Destroyed

London, Aug. 28. – Saturday night, the 25th ult., and next morning, volcanic disturbances began and continued on the island of Krakatoa, in the strait of Sunda, fifteen miles off the coast of Java.

…Little alarm was felt at first, but within a few hours showers of stones began to fall at Jogjakerta, Sourabaya, and Samarang. All through the night showers of red hot rocks and ashes fell, making complete darkness in all these towns. In Batavia there was an occasional fall, and it was difficult to keep the street lights burning in the European quarter. By the next morning all communication with Anjer was cut off, all the bridges having been destroyed by the descending rocks and ashes and the road rendered impassable.

On Sunday morning the disturbances had extended beneath the waters of the strait, and they were soon boiling and hissing violently, while great waves dashed upon the Javanese shores, and the temperature of the sea went up nearly twenty degrees.

…The peak of Gunung Tengger is 6,000 feet above the sea, and the monument of flame on top of this made a scene of wonderful grandeur. Every moment a huge boulder at a red or white heat would be hurled from Tengger’s crater with terrific force, and, after going hundreds of feet into the air, would fall back with a whirr, crashing through the thatched roof of some Chinese fisherman’s hut, or crushing beneath its huge mass the body of some native peasant.

…Much of the northern portion of the island, which was covered with tracts of forests, was soon in one great blaze. The red-hot vomitings from the craters had set the trees on fire, and the giants of the woods fell one after another, like so many sheaves of wheat before a gale. As the eruptions increased in frequency and violence the disturbance of the waters surrounding the barren coast became more and more violent. The waves came whelming over a marshy plain along the shore, suddenly engulfing a hamlet of fishermen’s rude houses, and, turning suddenly back, swept away almost every vestige of what a moment before had been a scene of bustling activity. What a few hours before were fertile valleys, covered with flourishing plantations of coffee, rice, sugar, indigo or tobacco, the staples of the island, were now but mud, stone, and lave-covered fields of destruction and ruin. Probably not a single crop in Java will be saved.

On the same page of the newspaper they continued with new reporting.

London, Aug. 29.-Further particulars of the great volcanic eruption in Java show that the disaster was even more widespread and more disastrous than reported in yesterday’s advices. At noon Sunday the eruptions and shocks were supposed to have reached their height, but late in the afternoon and evening the violence of the disturbances suddenly increased, and the island seemed to be about to be completely buried in fire and surphurous ashes. At the same time the enormous waves began to dash with greater force upon the shores, coming in some places far up into the interior, and the great chasms opened in the earth and threatened to engulf a large proportion of the people and buildings. About midnight the most frightful scene of all took place. Suddenly an enormous luminous cloud, similar to that which was seen over the Gunung Guntur, but much greater in extent, formed over the Kandang range of mountains which skirt the southeast coast of the island. This cloud gradually increased in size, until it formed a canopy of lurid red and whitish gray over a wide extent of territory.

…About 2 o’clock on Monday morning the great cloud suddenly broke into small sections and quickly vanished. At the same time frightful rumblings were heard, and the columns of fire and smoke over the southeast corner of the island ceased to ascend, while the craters in the other parts of Java seemed to open their…throats still wider to let out the greatest quantity of lava, rocks, pumice, and ashes yet vomited forth. The hissing of the sea became so loud as to be almost deafening. The waves rushed up on the shore at an unprecedented height. When daylight came it was seen that an enormous tract of land had disappeared…

…The aggregate loss of life must be fully 75,000, but the number of those who perished can never of course be accurately known.

If you’ve read this far, or actually linked in to the original article, you may have noticed the prose used. Not only was it a different time in terms of language, but remember that they didn’t have television. Imagine if you had never seen a volcanic eruption. The words had to tell the story.

If you want to check out some old newspapers, for gossip, old advertisements, or the use of language, I recommend Chronicling America from the Library of Congress.

The Watering Place at Anjer Point in the Island of Java by William Daneill (1769-1837). Painting shows Anjer Point in 1793, 90 years before Krakatoa destroyed it. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.