Littell's Living Age/Volume 166/Issue 2153/The Krakatoa Eruption - Part IV

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Littell's Living Age by Philip Neale
Volume 166, Issue 2153 : The Krakatoa Eruption - Part IV.
Originally from The Leisure Hour.

Leaving Bantam Bay — a spot more beautiful than healthy — behind us, we retraced our steps to the little town of Serang. It was a long, dark drive, and we were very thankful when our tired ponies brought us back once more to the friendly shelter of the hotel from which we had started in the afternoon, and which we had then arranged should be our resting-place for the night. The Dutch have a fancy for dining late in the evening — generally about eight or half past — and so there was plenty of time to wait before dinner was announced. When at length it came we had the novelty of dining off Bantam fowls, reared in their own native district. It did not take us long to come to the conclusion that, whatever their merits for breeding purposes may be, Bantam fowls are no better on a dinner table than any other, and to hungry travellers like ourselves they certainly had the serious drawback of being very diminutive in size.

Knowing that a hard day’s work awaited us on the morrow, combined with a very early start, we were soon glad to creep into our mosquito-curtained beds, and get a good night’s rest. The thermometer was at its normal height of nocturnal heat (about 80º). It naturally sounds rather too hot to be pleasant, but it is surprising how very soon one gets accustomed to sleeping in such a high temperature, especially considering the moist, clammy heat which prevails in all parts of Java. It may be that this is owing to the even range of the thermometer throughout the year, which never alters in either summer or winter — if tropical seasons can be so designated — or it may be owing to the lofty and well-ventilated character of the sleeping apartments; but certain it is that good, sound, refreshing sleep can be had in Java far more regularly than one would expect. At any rate, on this occasion we found the night far too short, for it was scarcely four o’clock when we were summoned to prepare for our second day of exploration -

By the light of a kerosene lamp we sat down — long before daybreak — to a wretched breakfast. It consisted of bread and butter, cold eggs, which had been cooked over night, and a trifle stale as well, while, instead of tea or coffee, the only beverage provided was soda-water, called by the natives, on account of its effervescing nature, ayer blanda, or fire-water. With such untempting viands before us we did not linger long over our morning meal, and it was still quite dark when we made our start. The first part of our journey lay along the main post-road once more, and so our travelling carriage of the previous day was again brought into use. Our Batavian driver was still on the box, but the ponies and runners were provided fresh for each stage. A little awkwardness occurred here with one of the ponies. The Serang stables had produced an animal notorious for jibbing — one which, as the driver told us, would rather be cut to pieces than make the journey to Kramat-watoe — and it was only after some trouble and delay that a start was effected. However, when once our team was off there was no cause for complaint, and the next halting-stage was reached in less than half an hour.

It was now almost light, so rapidly does the sun seem to rise in the tropics. From total darkness to perfect daylight there is only an interval of three-quarters of an hour. And there is just the same rapid change in the evening after sunset, there being scarcely any twilight. At Tji-legon, at the end of the second stage from Serang, we came to the last of our posting. We could go no farther, for the best of all reasons, “because there was no road,” as a Dutch official naïvely informed us, and on further inquiry we learnt that on the two remaining stages so much damage had been done as to render posting quite out of the question. We therefore had once more to exchange our comfortable travelling carriage for the inconvenient conveyance to which I have before referred — the native ka-har. The vehicles in this district presented a most dilapidated and broken-down appearance, with ponies to match; but of course Krakatoa is not to be saddled with the blame of this. Broken springs, rotten harness, and worn-out ponies gave one the impression that they had fared very badly in the recent eruption, but one of the owners regretfully assured us that such was not the case, or else he should have had a heavy claim for compensation from the Relief Committee. Aided by the mandoer (or head waiter) of the hotel, we made a bargain for the best two vehicles in the place, and prepared to start off in the direction of one of the ruined towns called Merak.

Whilst the choice of a suitable conveyance was being made we had been waiting in the hotel at Tji-legon, a building which bore serious traces of the damage caused by the eruption. This hotel, in its management, brings a remarkable Java custom to light. It is kept up at the expense of the Dutch government, and is under the direction of an official appointed by them. In this and other remote districts of the island, where there are not sufficient travellers to make it worth a man’s while to become an hotel-keeper, the government undertakes the management of the establishment, and bears whatever annual loss there may be. Owing to this piece of forethought, the traveller in Java frequently meets with some of the best accommodation in the most unlikely districts. The official in charge showed us the marks, both inside and outside the building, which the eruption had caused. The pillars in the front portico were injured considerably, and the heavy ash rain had left some ugly stains on many parts of the whitewashed walls and outside verandahs. The darkness on the two days of the outburst had been intense, and we were told that the abject terror of the natives in the village and neighborhood had been piteous to see.

On my way to Merak I had for my companion in the ka-har a young man from Anjer — one of the few who escaped on the fatal morning. He had been directed to meet us at Serang on the previous afternoon, and now acted as our guide for the day. The narrative of his escape was full of interest, and some parts of it, I think, are worth being repeated.

“On the Monday morning on which Anjer was destroyed,” he said, “I had a suspicion that something dreadful was likely to happen. Of course I had no clear idea on the subject, and never for a moment supposed that it would be a great wave that would do all the mischief. I had heard the deafening reports from Krakatoa on Sunday afternoon, and had seen later on the dense black smoke and the glare of fiery light resting upon the summit of the volcano. Still we all hoped for the best. But on the following morning, when the darkness remained instead of light, and the shower of ashes increased, I grew more alarmed. It seemed to me that if matters got worse we should be completely buried by falling lava, as some of the places in olden times were, and that a dreadful death awaited us if we remained in the town. I therefore thought it best to get as far away from Krakatoa as possible. It was still quite early when I decided upon making for the neighboring hills, several miles distant. I had a number of relations living in the town, but they seemed to fancy themselves safe enough at home, and they accordingly remained behind. I never saw any of them again alive. Five of them perished, and, worst of all, only two of their bodies were recovered. These were found buried beneath the ruined house in which they met their end, and were scarcely recognizable. The others must have been carried out to sea, and probably formed part of the many hundreds seen later on floating in the Straits of Soenda by the captains of passing vessels. I had not proceeded a great distance from Anjer when the first volcanic wave broke upon the coast. Of course, even that one was terrible enough, but it was nothing to be compared with the second one, which followed a little later. I could see that the town had been seriously injured by the inundation, and no doubt some lives were lost even in that first overflow. Alarmed by what I had already noticed, I quickened my pace inland. The farther from the coast, I thought, the safer I should be, and so it proved. The site of Anjer is, for the most part, very level ground; but four or five miles away are some hills, densely covered with cocoanut palm-trees. These formed a pretty background to the town. I decided to make to this rising ground as fast as I possibly could. As I proceeded I found some of my neighbors from Anjer making for the same spot. Some of them were fortunate enough to reach this place of safety before the final destruction came. Others whom I passed on the way, were overtaken by the second wave, or rushing torrent, and at once found a watery grave.

“Breathless with running, I came as fast as possible up the densely wooded slopes, and was only just in time. The great wave, sweeping all before it, was close on my heels as the rising ground brought me safely out of its reach. Its fury was much spent as it broke upon the hills, but it was very powerful even then. But the higher ground soon checked its force, and sent it back again towards the sea. Of the actual destruction I saw but little. I was too much frightened to stop and watch the ruin it caused. My one idea was to get as high up as I was able, and of course I thought of nothing else at the time.

“There were some terrible scenes after wards on the roads leading into the interior of the island. All the natives in the neighboring kampongs turned against us, and refused those of us who had escaped the least help or food. Many of the Europeans — especially the women — exhausted with fatigue, and almost frightened out of their lives, were sinking down in a helpless state by the wayside. Although the worst was over as regards the volcanic wave, many sank down and died on the road from exhaustion and neglect. Not only did many of the natives refuse to help us in the least, but they actually drove us fiercely from their houses. The reason of this was that, like all the Mohammedans, the Javanese are exceedingly superstitious, and attributed their misfortunes to us. They said that we Europeans were the cause of all their troubles. We had offended Allah, and the outburst of Krakatoa, with all its attendant horrors, was the result of his vengeance. When I asked what we had done to offend their deity, they said it was owing to the war which the Dutch government is now carrying on against the Acheenese. We were fighting against their brethren unjustly on the neighboring shores of Sumatra, and Krakatoa was simply the medium of Allah’s retribution. They refused to give us anything, and threatened to kill us if we did not move away at once.

“Fanaticism had gained so much the upper hand among these people that they were on the point of marching armed to Anjer and plundering it. One poor lady who begged for a drink of water merely was sternly refused. She was nearly dead with fright and exhaustion, but even that made no impression on this ignorant and superstitious race. At last, in sheer desperation, she offered two gold rings she was wearing for the water. The greedy natives could not stand out against such a tempting offer, and, braving Allah’s wrath, they complied with her request on condition that she proceeded on her way immediately. One of the doctors at Anjer who managed to escape with his wife and child was treated in much the same way. He and his family were driven off and chased away by the natives, and both rice and water were refused them. They were on the point of giving up all in despair, when one native, more compassionate than the rest, at length deigned to point out to us Christian dogs (as they called us) a forsaken village, where we obtained some rice and dried fish, and on this we subsisted until we fell at length into more friendly hands.”

With such a companion as this at my side our three miles’ drive in the ka-har seemed quickly over. And now at a turn in the road the scene of destruction suddenly came in view. Descending a little hill, we came into level country, and saw at a glance the terrible havoc which the inundation had caused. First came the destroyed roadway. The well-made road from Batavia to Merak — on which we had thus far travelled — now came to an abrupt ending. Its metalled track had suddenly disappeared, partly washed away at first, and a little farther on completely swept away. A ruined bridge was all that remained to show where once the road had been. Our ka-har could now proceed no farther, and the rest of our exploration had to be performed on foot. We were still several miles from the coast, but all the land between us was perfectly bare of timber. A few weeks before, the whole of the country we were gazing on was one dense forest of cocoanut palms, and beneath the shelter of tropical vegetation scores of native kampongs nestled, inhabited by many thousands of busy people. And now this immense district — fifteen miles long and four or five in width — was so completely ruined as to be nothing more or less than a huge cemetery. What a change had come over that thriving district on the western shore of Java in so short a period! The palm-trees were all thrown down — without a single exception torn up by the roots, lying in endless confusion one above another. The native houses — made of their frail materials of bamboo and leaves — were now on the ground, just as the receding waters had left them. Beneath the fallen débris lay all kinds of smashed furniture, broken utensils, doors wrenched from their hinges, and every article of native costume in one great indescribable mass.

A more awful sight could scarcely be imagined. One great matter for thankfulness, as the fierce rays of a tropical sun beat down upon us, was that nearly all the bodies had been recovered and buried. It was well for us that our visit had not been made earlier, or else the sight would have been a still more terrible one. Now and again we detected decomposing matter near us, and the Malays who were accompanying us said that probably many a body still lay concealed beneath the immense fallen masses which lay on each side of us, and which they had not yet had time to examine. Closely following our guides, we made our way very slowly through the ruined district. A rougher piece of walking I never experienced. The road had completely disappeared, and there was no track or footpath in its place. Fallen trees lay everywhere, and every few yards they had to be scrambled over. By many a detour we tried to avoid the masses of fallen débris, and frequently these too had to be scaled, or else all further progress would have been stopped. Mile after mile we slowly picked our way amid these melancholy surroundings. Here and there we found ourselves hemmed in by pools of water, left in the hollows after the wave had receded. Whenever possible we waded through these, or if too deep for fording a long circuit had to be made.

But one of the most remarkable facts concerning the inundation remains to be told. As we walked or scrambled along we were much surprised to find great masses of white coral rock lying at the side of our path in every direction. Some of these were of immense size, and had been cast up more than two or three miles from the seashore, It was evident, as they were of coral formation, that these immense blocks of solid rock had been torn up from their ocean bed in the midst of the Soenda Straits, borne inland by the gigantic wave, and finally left on the land several miles from the shore. Any one who had not seen the sight would scarcely credit the story. The feat seems an almost impossible one. How these great masses could have been carried so far into the interior is a mystery, and bears out what I have said in previous papers as to the height of this terrible wave. Many of these rocks were from twenty to thirty tons in weight, and some of the largest must have been nearly double. Lloyd’s agent, who was with me, agreed in thinking that we could not be mistaken if we put down the largest block of coral rock that we passed, as weighing not less than fifty tons.

it seems very hard to imagine what a great volume of water would be required to carry such heavy masses so far into the adjacent country. The force with which they had met obstructions was very noticeable in several instances. In one case a bridge had been ruined by being thus struck. The keystone of the arch carrying the road over a little stream had been struck by a piece of rock some twenty tons in weight, and this mass had split the brickwork right through the centre just like a wedge, and lay finally jammed in half across the road. It is not at all probable that some of the larger of these coral blocks will ever be moved from the spots where the receding waters have left them, and they will thus remain a standing memorial of the Krakatoa disaster in August, 1883. To scientific men they will naturally be objects of no little interest, as being an index, to some extent, of the power which water has as an element of destruction, and also as gauging the immense height of the unparalleled volcanic wave.

Merak, the district though which our path thus far lay, was densely populated, and this will account for the great loss of life which here occurred. Our intelligent Malay guide told us something of the difficulties of his task in superintending the workmen who were engaged in recovering the bodies of the ill-fated victims. About three thousand he considered had been recovered in the neighborhood where we then were. Most of them were buried as near as possible to the places where they were discovered, so that there should be as little carrying about as possible. In some cases it was found necessary to burn the remains. We could scarcely take a step anywhere in one part of the district without walking on a grave. Wherever we saw a stake driven into the ground we knew that some unfortunate victim lay buried beneath.

Nearer to Merak was the Chinese settlement. Their bodies were treated just the same as the Javanese — buried or burnt, as was thought best at the time. The great difficulty of the superintendent was in finding workers for this sad task. It was only by sending to distant kampongs that the services of a sufficient number of coolies could be obtained. Some of these soon fell ill and died, and thus added a few more to the long roll of victims.