Littell's Living Age/Volume 160/Issue 2064/The Java Disaster

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Originally published in Nature.

The following letter from the Liverpool Daily Post, received from Capt. W. J. Watson, of the British ship "Charles Bal," contains a graphic and interesting account of the recent terrible volcanic outburst in Sunda Straits. Capt. W. J. Watson was himself an eye-witness of what he describes. His vessel was actually within the Straits, and not far from Krakatoa when that island had become an active volcano: —

"August 22, 15º 30' S., 105º E. — About 7 P.M. the sea suddenly assumed a milky-white appearance, beginning to the east of us, but soon spreading all round, and lasting till 8 P.M. There were some clouds (cumulus) in the sky, but many stars shone, and in the east to north-east a strong, white haze or silvery glare. This occurred again between 9 and 10 P.M., the clouds also appearing to be edged with a pinkish-colored light, the whole sky also seeming to have extra light in it, similar to when the aurora is showing faintly. On the 24th, in 9º 30' S., 105º E., we had a repetition of the above. On the night of the 25th, standing in for Java Head, the land was covered with thick, dark clouds and heavy lightning. On the 26th, about 9 AM., passed Prince's Island, wind south-west, and some heavy rain; at noon, wind west-south-west, weather fine, the island of Krakatoa to the north-east of us, but only a small portion of the north-east point, close to the water, showing; rest of the island covered with a dense black cloud. At 2.30 P.M., noticed some agitation about the Point of Krakatoa; clouds or something being propelled from the north-east point with great velocity. At 3.30 we heard above us and about the island a strange sound as of a mighty, crackling fire, or the discharge of heavy artillery at second intervals of time. At 4.15 P.M., Krakatoa north half east, ten miles distant, observed a repetition of that noted at 2.30, only much more furious and alarming, the matter, whatever it was, being propelled with amazing velocity to the north-east. To us it looked like blinding rain, and had the appearance of a furious squall of ashen hue. At once shortened sail to topsails and foresail. At five the roaring noise continued and increased; wind moderate from south-south-west; darkness spread over the sky, and a hail of pumice-stone fell on us, many pieces being of considerable size and quite warm. Had to cover up the skylights to save the glass, while feet and head had to be protected with boots and southwesters. About six o'clock the fall of larger stones ceased, but there continued a steady fall of a smaller kind, most blinding to the eyes, and covering the decks to three or four inches very speedily, while an intense blackness covered the sky and land and sea. Sailed on our course until we got what we thought was a sight of Fourth Point light; then brought ship to the wind, south-west, as we could not see any distance, and we know not what might be in the Straits, the night being a fearful one. The blinding fall of sand and stones, the intense blackness above and around us, broken only by the incessant glare of varied kinds of lightning and the continued explosive roars of Krakatoa, made our situation a truly awful one. At 11 P.M., having stood off from the Java shore, wind strong from the south-west, the island, west-north-west, eleven miles distant, became more visible, chains of fire appearing to ascend and descend between the sky and it, while on the south-west end there seemed to be a continued roll of balls of white fire ; the wind, though strong, was hot and choking, sulphureous, with a smell as of burning cinders, some of the pieces falling on us being like iron cinders, and the lead from a bottom of thirty fathoms came up quite warm. From midnight to 4 A.M. (27th) wind strong, but very unsteady, between south-south-west and west-south-west, the same impenetrable darkness continuing, the roaring of Krakatoa less continuous, but more explosive in sound, the sky one second intense blackness and the next a blaze of fire, mastheads and yardarms studded with corposants and a peculiar pinky flame coming from clouds which seemed to touch the mastheads and yardarms. At 6 A.M., being able to make out the Java shore, set sail, passing Fourth Point lighthouse at 8; hoisted our signal letters, but got no answer. Passed Anjer at 8.30, name still hoisted, close enough in to make out the houses, but could see no movement of any kind; in fact, through the whole Straits we have not seen a single moving thing of any kind on sea or land. At 10.15 A.M., passed the Button Island one-half to three-quarters of a mile off; sea like glass round it, weather much finer-looking, and no ash or cinders falling; wind at south-east, light. At 11.15 there was a fearful explosion in the direction of Krakatoa, now over thirty miles distant. We saw a wave rush right on to the Button Island, apparently sweeping right over the south part, and rising half way up the north and east sides. This we saw repeated twice, but the helmsman says he saw it once before we looked. The same wave seemed also to run right on to the Java shore. At the same time the sky rapidly covered in; the wind came strong from south-west by south; by 11.30 we were inclosed in a darkness that might almost be felt, and at the same time commenced a downpour of mud, sand, and I know not what; ship going north-east by north, seven knots per hour under three lower topsails; put out the sidelights, placed two men on the look-out forward, while mate and second mate looked out on either quarter, and one man employed washing the mud off binnacle glass. We had seen two vessels to the north and north-west of us before the sky closed in, adding much to the anxiety of our position. At noon the darkness was so intense that we had to grope our way about the decks, and although speaking to each other on the poop, yet could not see each other. This horrible state and downpour of mud, etc., continued until 1.30, the roarings of the volcano and lightnings being something fearful. By 2 P.M. we could see some of the yards aloft, and the fall of mud ceased. By 5 P.M. the horizon showed out in the north and north-east, and we saw West Island bearing east and north, just visible. Up to midnight the sky hung dark and heavy, a little sand falling at times, the roaring of the volcano very distinct, although in sight of the North Watcher, and fully sixty-five or seventy miles off it. Such darkness and time of it in general few would conceive, and many, I dare say, would disbelieve The ship, from truck to water-line, is as if cemented; spars, sails, blocks, and ropes in a terrible mess; but, thank God, nobody hurt or ship damaged. On the other hand, how fares it with Anjer, Merak, and other little villages on the Java coast?"