The 1883 Krakatau Eruption – A Colonial View

The dramatic eruption which destroyed the island volcano of Krakatau (Krakatoa) on the 27th of August 1883 was the culmination of a three-month period of heightened activity.

As the month of August 1883 drew toward a close, the volcano entered its final devastating phase with a series of four major eruptions on the 26th and 27th. Sunday August the 26th was a terrifying day for residents of islands near the volcano, when activity increased after midday. By evening, several close islands had experienced tsunami waves from the eruptions but worse was to come.

The following day, a series of four blasts signalled the complete destruction of the volcano as ash and pumice rained down and tsunami waves (one estimated at 40 metres in height) ravaged the Sunda Straits. In Australia, a tidal wave was recorded at Geraldton on the West Australian coast, and residents of Adelaide reported feeling an earthquake.

News of the eruptive activity reached the colony of New Zealand surprisingly fast. The Poverty Bay Herald and East Coast Newsletter of Tuesday August 28th, 1883 reported the following telegram: “BATAVIA [now Djakarta], August 27. A volcano has broken out on the island of Cracka, in the Straits of Sunda. The outburst is terrific, and is plainly visible from this town. News is to hand from Anger and Sering, on the Java coast, and states that a serious influx of sea has been experienced, and much damage has been caused to both places.”

With this telegraphic report, the story was only just beginning, and the residents of Poverty Bay and the East Coast probably only glanced at the item as they cleared the dinner dishes and settled in front of the fireplace to read the rest of the news by lamplight. A southerly storm had brought a polar blast of snow to the coast, and older Maori in Tokomaru Bay were remarking that they’d never seen snow in the area before. As they shooed the kids off to bed, our ancestors probably decided to turn in early as well, in the hope of escaping winter’s late icy fingers.

Throughout the colony, people snuffed candles and lamps and snuggled back into their bedding with a sigh and a grunt. Unusually for the people of the Shaky Isles, it was their Australian mates who were retiring to their beds scratching their heads at nature’s weird convulsions. But the aptly named “Cracka” of the telegram had a few surprises in store as the night hours ticked on.

At 10 p.m. the sea at Mongonui (now called Mangonui, and located in Northland’s Doubtless Bay) became disturbed, and the sea began rushing in and receding “with much rapidity” for several hours culminating in a large wave at 4 a.m. and then declining until 10 a.m. At Russell, a tidal wave was experienced.

At about 10 o’clock on the morning of Wednesday August 29th, the sea in Poverty Bay abruptly rose 3 feet and quickly subsided. At 2 o’clock that afternoon, the sea once again abruptly rose 3 feet but this time the high tide persisted before slowly dropping. With similar news from Mongonui and Russell (where the waves caused the rivers to rise), mariners were consulted. Capt. Edwin considered that the cause of the tidal waves was “a cyclone about north-west of East Cape, moving to the southeast.”

Several waves were reported at Timaru, with the worst disturbance occurring during the morning. The Herald of August 30th reported that a sharp earthquake was reported at “Lockhampton” (Rockhampton) on the morning of 29th August in a telegram from Brisbane, Australia.

In Wellington, Dr Hector was quick to grasp the cause of the tidal waves of the 29th. In addressing a meeting of the Philosophical Society, it was his opinion that the wave action was caused by the volcanic eruption which had been experienced in the neighbourhood of the Straits of Sunda. He said the Island of Sunda was renowned for the severity of its eruption in 1772. A tract of country 15 miles long and 6 broad was swallowed, 3000 persons losing their lives. This was followed in 1815 by another severe shock when 7000 lives were lost, and the noise of the eruption was heard thousands of miles away.

By Friday August 31st, the picture was becoming clearer. A report had come in of two riders bailed up by the high sea at Whangara, on the coast north of Gisborne. The two men had been riding along the coast, passing one headland with a falling tide. The sea suddenly rushed in and trapped them between two low points of the coast for two hours. Neither sustained injury.

A further telegram from Batavia (Djakarta) stated: “The tidal wave experienced at Anger, on the coast of this island has caused the complete destruction of the place, and great loss of life. The recent volcanic eruption on Cracatoa and the marine disturbances have completely changed the Straits of Sunda, and navigation of the passage is now attended with great danger.”

From New York on August 30th: “Exceptionally high tides have been experienced along the Atlantic sea-board, and, owing to the invasion of the sea, serious damage has been caused at several coast towns”. At midnight on August 30th a severe earthquake shock was experienced at Kiama, a seaport ninety miles (120 km) south of Sydney. Damage to dwellings was reported.

Throughout the week, concerns had been held for the vessel Clansman en route from Lyttelton to Auckland. She was long overdue, and nothing had been seen of her in the turbulent waters caused by the southerly storms and tsunami. She limped into Auckland Harbour on Saturday September 1st in a very battered condition, an epic 23 days out from Lyttelton. The Herald noted that she: “Experienced a succession of gales and had her deck swept by enormous seas. Arrived in battered condition.” In the same issue a telegram from London: “reports from Java estimate 30,000 lives lost due to the tidal wave.” The staggering number was queried by the editor who thought it was surely 3,000. The toll would climb well over 30,000 as the number of deaths from several tsunami and eruption events were calculated.

With the complete destruction of Krakatau, the sea disturbances continued. On Sunday September 2nd, it was reported from Nelson that the incoming tide rose considerably above the high water mark at 8 p.m., an hour before high tide was due.

Nowadays, we have more efficient communications, but there is always uncertainty as to whether a tsunami is generated by a large earthquake or volcanic eruption. We still rely on first-hand reports from nearby localities to determine how much of a threat exists for more distant locations.

A detailed report of Krakatau’s final days and the appearance of a new volcanic island in its place in 1928 can be found here.

[source: The National Library of New Zealand, Papers Past website, The Poverty Bay Herald and East Coast News Letter issues August 27th to September 3rd 1883.]

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