Sometimes everything blows up in your face. Literally. Simon Winchester’s Krakatoa has been on my reading list for years. Boys seem to have a fascination with volcanoes that they never outgrow, and given the world-wide implications of Krakatoa’s 1883 eruption, it is a tragedy that keeps me ever curious. We live on an angry planet. I know that’s projecting agency on nature, but like thunderstorms, to a human sensibility, volcanoes are raging phenomena. As Winchester points out, many indigenous cultures in the “ring of fire” consider volcanoes either gods or messages from the divine world. Honestly, I didn’t read Krakatoa to find out about religion, but it was there nevertheless. For human beings, it has an unparalleled explanatory power.
Krakatoa caused a stint of global cooling after its nineteenth-century eruption, leading to failed crops throughout much of the world, and perhaps played into larger political issues that would stress a world already attempting to cope with fast changes in technology. The story of the volcano is fascinating enough, but the religious dimension, it seems, played itself out more than just in a Gilligan’s Island sort of way. Despite what analysts say, people take their religious beliefs very seriously. So when I reached the end of the eruption, I wondered how Winchester was going to spin this book out for another fifty pages. It turns out that among the effects of the volcano was a religious rebellion. The East Indies, as they were called, were under Dutch colonial rule. This led to a bit of tension with the native Muslims (Islam has long been a major religion in Indonesia). As Winchester points out, the Islam in the region before the eruption was a syncretistic, almost laissez faire, faith. It blended with Hinduism and local beliefs, and even tolerated the Christian Dutch.
Symbolically, or literally, after the explosion that killed thousands, a religious movement that had been waiting for a sign came to life. A more strict Muslim sect saw the events as a predicted display of divine anger. A short-lived rebellion broke out, cut off by Christian repeating rifles, that led to a more strict version of Islam in the region. Although Winchester doesn’t linger on this too long—he is writing about a natural disaster after all—it does raise many very human responses. In the event of a cataclysm, science is cold comfort. We may rationalize, but human beings also feel. And it is religion that will attempt to answer for that pit in your stomach or that worry in your head. That’s what it does best. Science tells us that we can’t really stop volcanoes—we are too small and the planet too overwhelming. Religion, on the other hand, offers a grip on the very forces behind cataclysm—imagined or not. Although seeing natural disasters as divine punishment is never reasonable it is, in the words of a famous philosopher, human, all too human.