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10 Facts About Krakatoa's 1883 Eruption

On August 27, 1883, Krakatoa (alternately called Krakatau), an uninhabited volcanic island near Indonesia, erupted spectacularly, expelling huge clouds of gas and ash, generating massive tsunamis, and killing more than 36,000 people. Here are a few things you might not have known about one of the most powerful and devastating eruptions in modern history, which had effects worldwide.

1. SIGNS OF THE ERUPTION TO COME BEGAN IN MAY.

Krakatoa had been dormant for around 200 years when it woke up on May 20, 1883. A cloud of ash, reported by the captain of a German warship, rose nearly 7 miles above the island. According to an 1884 article in The Atlantic, while no one in Anjer, 25 miles from the island, or Merak, 35 miles away, reported anything unusual that day, the inhabitants of Batvia, 80 miles away, “were startled by a dull booming noise, followed by a violent rattling of doors and windows. Whether this proceeded from the air or from below was a matter of doubt, for unlike most earthquake shocks the quivering was only vertical.” There were rumblings and blasts from the volcano’s vents for the next three months.

2. THE ERUPTION STARTED ON AUGUST 26.

On the afternoon of August 26, Krakatowa began to erupt in earnest, sending ash clouds at least 22 miles above the island. According to The Atlantic,

“High waves first retreated, and then rolled upon both sides of the strait. During a night of pitchy darkness these horrors continued with increasing violence, augmented at midnight by electrical phenomena on a terrifying scale, which not only enveloped the ships in the vicinity, but embraced those at a distance of ten to twelve miles. The lurid gleam that played on the gigantic column of smoke and ashes was seen in Batava, eighty miles away. Some of the debris fell as fine ashes in Cheribon, five hundred miles to the eastward.”

But the most terrifying part of the disaster wouldn’t occur until the next day.

3. ONE ERUPTION ON AUGUST 27 WAS HEARD 2800 MILES AWAY.

Starting at 5:30 a.m. on August 27, Krakatoa experienced four massive explosions over the course of 4.5 hours. The blasts were so loud they could be heard as far away as Sri Lanka and Perth, Australia—3000 miles away. The force of the final blast at 10:02 a.m. was 10,000 times more powerful than the one unleashed by the atom bomb dropped on Hiroshima, and shockwaves generated by the eruption registered all over the world.

4. IT SPAWNED MASSIVE TSUNAMIS ...

Each eruption on Krakatoa caused massive tsunamis. When the volcano collapsed into the ocean, it generated a tsunami at least 120 feet tall, which was so powerful it tossed blocks of coral weighing 600 tons on shore, carried a steamship one mile inland, killing all 28 crewmen, and wiped out 165 villages in nearby Java and Sumatra. One field worker, 5 miles inland on Java, later recalled of the tsunami,

"[A]ll of a sudden there came a great noise. We … saw a great black thing, a long way off, coming towards us. It was very high and very strong, and we soon saw that it was water. Trees and houses were washed away … The people began to ... run for their lives. Not far off was some steep sloping ground. We all ran towards it and tried to climb up out of the way of the water. The wave was too quick for most of them, and many were drowned almost at my side ... There was a general rush to climb up in one particular place. This caused a great block ... A great struggle took place for a few moments, but ... one after another, they were washed down and carried far away by the rushing waters. You can see the marks on the hill side where the fight for life took place. Some ... dragged others down with them. They would not let go their hold, nor could those above them release themselves from this death-grip."

There was also one pretty hard-to-believe tale of survival. Simon Winchester, an expert on the eruption, wrote in the BBC about a German quarry manager who was swept away from the top of his three-story office building, which in turn sat on top of a hill nearly 100 feet tall. According to the quarry manager's accounts, written later, he was carried along on the wave's crest when "suddenly to his right, he saw, being swept alongside him, an enormous crocodile":  

"With incredible presence-of-mind he decided the only way to save himself was to leap aboard the crocodile and try to ride to safety on its back. How he did it is anyone's guess, but he insists he leapt on, dug his thumbs into the creature's eye-sockets to keep himself stable, and surfed on it for 3km. He held on until the wave broke on a distant hill, depositing him and a presumably very irritated croc on the jungle floor. He ran, survived, and wrote about the story."

Most of the 36,417 people who died—90 percent—were killed by tsunamis. The remaining 10 percent fell victim to falling debris called tephra and pyroclastic flows, hot, fast moving masses of volcanic gas and ash.

5. … AND RELEASED 11 CUBIC MILES OF ASH INTO THE ATMOSPHERE.

The sun in the area was blacked out for three days, and the cloud of ash spread 275 miles. “The matter expelled,” wrote The Atlantic, “rose to an elevation so tremendous that, on spreading itself out, it covered the whole western end of Java and the south of Sumatra for hundreds of square miles with a pall of impenetrable darkness.” There was so much ash that in Nicaragua, on the other side of the Pacific, the sun was blue. After the eruption, floating pumice fields—nearly 10 feet deep in places—clogged ports, interrupting trade.

6. WHEN THE ERUPTION WAS OVER, MOST OF THE ISLAND WAS GONE.

Pre-eruption, the island was 2625 feet high and 3 by 5.5-miles, with three vents. But the last eruption—which had an estimated force of 200 megatons of TNTblew the island apart. Only one-third of the island survived.

7. IT CHANGED THE COLOR OF THE SUNSETS …

All of the volcanic debris from Krakatoa’s eruption caused fiery red sunsets around the world up to three years afterward. Poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, who lived in London, described the Krakatoa sunsets as “more like inflamed flesh than the lucid reds of ordinary sunsets; the glow is intense; that is what strikes everyone; it has prolonged the daylight, and optically changed the season; it bathes the whole sky, it is mistaken for the reflection of a great fire.”

8. … WHICH MAY BE WHY THE BACKGROUND OF THE SCREAM IS SO VIBRANT.

In 2003, researchers announced in Sky and Telescope that they had found not only the exact location in Oslo, Norway, where Munch placed the figure in his famous 1893 painting, but that they had determined that particles in the air from Krakatoa’s eruption were responsible for the painting’s blood-red sky. “It was very satisfying to stand in the exact spot where an artist had his experience," paper author Donald Olson, a physics and astronomy professor at Texas State University, said in a press release. “The real importance of finding the location, though, was to determine the direction of view in the painting. We could see that Munch was looking to the south-west—exactly where the Krakatoa twilights appeared in the winter of 1883-84.” The scientists said that newspaper articles published after the eruption reported the red skies.

9. THE ERUPTION AFFECTED EARTH’S TEMPERATURE FOR YEARS AFTERWARD.

The volcanic debris in the atmosphere was so great that it filtered the amount of sunlight reaching Earth’s surface, causing global temperatures to fall 1.2 degrees Celsius the next year. Temperatures were finally normal again in 1888.    

10. THERE’S A NEW VOLCANO THERE TODAY.

In December 1927, fishermen discovered that a new volcano had emerged from the caldera of the former Krakatoa. It was named Anak Krakatau (Child of Krakatau), and it’s still active today. You can see it in action in the video above.

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How the Log Cabin Became an American Symbol
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Many Americans have a special fondness for the log cabin, viewing it as the home of heroic pioneers, or at least a great weekend escape. But it wasn’t always this way. The log cabin was originally disdained here in America—and it took decades of pop culture and political shifts to elevate the structure to the vaunted status it holds today.

THANK THE SWEDES

While there’s plenty of imagery portraying log cabins in the English colonies of Plymouth and Jamestown (established in Massachusetts and Virginia, respectively), these depictions couldn’t be further from the truth. The English had no history of log cabins—they preferred more “refined” frame houses, and would sometimes squat in subterranean dugouts until they could be built. In fact, the log cabin was first constructed in the New World in the short-lived colony of New Sweden, established in the Delaware River Valley in 1638. Such structures had been around continental Europe for centuries, and the Swedish colonists were simply using a skill that had been passed down through generations.

Log cabins might have remained a Swedish anomaly in the New World had it not been for the German and Scots-Irish who adopted them after arriving in the mid-1700s. But none of these log cabins looked much like the quaint, cozy structures we revere today. They often had dirt floors, were crawling with lice and other pests, and were prone to drafts; as one traveler remarked around 1802, the gaps between logs were "filled up with clay, but so very carelessly, that the light may be seen through in every part." Yet as uncomfortable as these cabins were, they offered impoverished immigrants an invaluable slice of freedom. Cheaper and far easier to construct than finer homes, the log cabin thus became the go-to home for newcomers to the New World, helping millions of desperate refugees turn their dreams of settling in America into a reality.

But the practicality of the structure did nothing for the log cabin's public image, or that of its inhabitants. Benjamin Franklin wrote that there were only two sorts of people, "those who are well dress'd and live comfortably in good houses," and those who "are poor, and dirty, and ragged and ignorant, and vicious and live in miserable cabins or garrets." Dr. Benjamin Rush, Surgeon General of the Middle Department of the Continental Army and a signatory to the Declaration of Independence, said the cabin dweller was “generally a man who has out-lived his credit or fortune in the cultivated parts."

As for cabins themselves, they were generally seen as “rude” and “miserable,” and no self-respecting American would deign to live in one. Not permanently, at least. Cabins back then were temporary stepping stones meant to be abandoned once something better could be afforded; barring that good fortune, they were to be covered with clapboard and added to as the cornerstone for a finer home.

LOG CABIN PRIDE

But the log cabin and its inhabitants’ public image got a makeover after the War of 1812. The nation had just defeated the British for a second time, and Americans were feeling good, forging their own identity and distinguishing themselves from the old world. Log cabins—ubiquitous and appropriately rustic—started taking on an all-American sheen.

Soon enough, writers and artists were portraying them in a positive light. One notable example is James Fenimore Cooper’s 1823 novel The Pioneers, where the house of protagonist Natty Bumppo is described as being “a rough cabin of logs.” That scene in turn is thought to have inspired artist Thomas Cole’s 1826 painting, Daniel Boone Sitting at the Door of His Cabin on the Great Osage Lake. Together, these works helped spark an entire movement that saw the pioneer as a hero. Log cabin dwellers were no longer disdained for their rough edges; these same edges were what made them romantic and distinctly American.

A "Harrison & Tyler" woodcut used in the 1840 campaign
A "Harrison & Tyler" woodcut used in the 1840 campaign
Library of Congress // Public Domain

Similar shifts occurred in the political realm during the 1840 election. President Martin van Buren faced an uphill battle for reelection that year, and a politically aligned newspaper thought it could give him a leg up by launching a classist attack against rival William Henry Harrison: “Give [Harrison] a barrel of Hard Cider, and settle a pension of $2000 a year on him, and my word for it, he will sit the remainder of his days in his Log Cabin.” In other words: Harrison was an ignorant hick.

It was a lie—the wealthy Harrison actually lived in a mansion—but most of the public didn’t know it, and his rivals assumed voters would scorn Harrison’s poverty. They were wrong: Millions of Americans still lived in log cabins, struggling day-in-and-day-out, and they were not impressed. (“No sneer could have been more galling,” John McMaster wrote in his 1883 A History of the People of the United States from the Revolution to the Civil War.)

In no time at all, Americans rich and poor were displaying their Harrison love and log cabin pride by holding cabin raisings and patronizing specially-constructed log cabin bars, marching in massive parades with log cabins pulled by teams of horses, and purchasing heaps of Harrison-themed, log cabin-stamped merchandise, including tea sets, hair brushes, and hope chests. With his eye on the prize, Harrison gamely played into this fib, telling frenzied crowds that he’d rather relax in his log cabin than run for president, but that he had heeded their call to run for the White House. That fall, he won handily.

Though Harrison died 32 days into his term, his log cabin campaign became a reliable template for candidates in the years ahead. Franklin Pierce downplayed his family’s wealth in 1852, instead focusing on a brief time spent in a log cabin as a baby. James Buchanan did the same in 1856, and Lincoln’s log cabin youth was brought up consistently come 1860. “Like President Harrison, Mr. Lincoln has spent about one third part of his life in a log cabin,” one biography read.

"Across the Continent: Westward the Course of Empire Takes its Way" by Frances Flora Palmer
"Across the Continent: Westward the Course of Empire Takes its Way"
Frances Flora Palmer, Library of Congress

Log cabins became an even more persistent presence in the arts, culture, and commerce in the decades ahead, making cameos in iconic images like Frances Flora Bond Palmer’s 1868 painting Across the Continent: Westward the Course of Empire Takes its Way, in which the cabin is the symbol of an ever-expanding American empire. The log cabin also figured into tales high and low, such as The Log-Cabin Lady—a prescriptive memoir about escaping low-class drudgery—and The Log-Cabin Bishop, an uplifting account of a man who brought religion to the frontier. The Log Cabin Library dime novels even peddled swashbuckling adventures to young boys.

FALSE MEMORIES

Most powerful in terms of ingraining log cabin adoration in young Americans, though, were the scores of false histories that projected the log cabin back onto Plymouth and Jamestown. Historians of the late-19th century had heard so much about the log cabin that they just assumed it was key to American growth and expansion, leading to assertions like John G. Palfrey’s 1860 claim, “[Settlers] made themselves comfortable in log-houses,” and images like W.L. Williams 1890s painting, Plymouth in 1622. The latter shows the colony as a smattering of log cabins and was widely distributed to elementary school classrooms, cementing the image of a cabin-laden Plymouth.

A set of 1970s Lincoln Logs
A set of 1970s Lincoln Logs
Tinker*Tailor loves Lalka, Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0

From then on, the log cabin was portrayed as the ultimate proverbial rag from which the rich nation of the U.S. had emerged, as when historian Warder Stevens declared in 1916, “The story of America is written in log cabins.” It’s this tradition of myth-making and believing that inspired subsequent outpourings of log cabin nostalgia: Lincoln Logs in the interwar years, log cabin chic of the 1990s, and today’s reality programs showing urbanites fleeing to the woods.

These days, the log cabin is emblazoned on money and sewn onto flags; it fascinates modern artists like Will Ryman (who created a gold-resin-covered log cabin at the New Orleans Museum of Art); and it appears in music of all genres, from country crooner Porter Wagoner’s 1965 track “An Old Log Cabin for Sale” to T-Pain and Lil Wayne’s 2008 romantic rap “Can’t Believe It.” That said, perhaps the log cabin itself is the nation’s greatest rags-to-riches story; it went from being sneered at as a poor immigrants’ hovel to being revered as an American icon. Not bad for something that writer John Filson, discussing Boone’s home circa 1784, described as “not extraordinary.”

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Did Queen Victoria Really Save Prince Albert From Drowning in an Icy Lake?
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Not many British queens have also served as daring emergency rescuers. But when the moment arose, Queen Victoria was ready to save the day. In 1841, she saved her husband, Prince Albert, from an icy lake he had fallen into while skating.

The incident didn't need much dramatization when it was included in an episode of the PBS drama Victoria. It really was a life-or-death situation, and 21-year-old Victoria was the hero.

On a cold February day in 1841, Victoria and Albert, who had married almost exactly a year earlier, went for a walk around the gardens of Buckingham Palace. Albert, an avid sportsman who loved to skate and play hockey, strapped on his ice skates and headed out onto the lake. In a diary entry, Victoria wrote that the ice was smooth and hard that day—mostly. As he skated toward her, she noticed that the ice around a bridge looked a little thin.

"I, standing alone on the bank," she wrote in her journal that evening, "said, ‘it is unsafe here,' and no sooner had I said this, than the ice cracked, and Albert was in the water up to his head, even for a moment below." By her own telling, Victoria screamed and reached out her arm to him, holding onto her lady-in-waiting, the only attendant present.

Albert grabbed Victoria's arm and she was able to pull him to safety. He had cut his chin and was dripping wet, but returned home, took a hot bath and a nap, and was up a few hours later to socialize when their uncle Leopold (Victoria and Albert were first cousins) came to visit.

"Her Majesty manifested the greatest courage upon the occasion, and acted with the most intrepid coolness," an account of the event that appeared in The Times a few days later proclaimed. "As soon as the Prince was safe on dry land, the queen gave way to the natural emotions of joy and thankfulness at his providential escape."

Albert recounted his side of the experience in a letter to his step-grandmother, Duchess Caroline of Saxe-Gotha-Altenburg. "I was making my way to Victoria, who was standing on the bank with one of her ladies," he described, when "I fell plump into the water, and had to swim for two or three minutes in order to get out. Victoria was the only person with the presence of mind to lend me assistance, her lady being more occupied in screaming for help." (Both the queen's diary entry and the newspaper account give the lady-in-waiting a little more credit, suggesting that she at least served as an anchor for the queen as she reached out to the prince.)

According to The Times, the problem was bird-related. That morning, the groundskeepers in charge of the various waterfowl that called the lake home had broken the ice around the edges of the water so that the birds could drink. By the time the queen and the prince arrived, those spots had frozen over with a deceptively thin layer of ice.

Thanks to Victoria, though, Albert emerged from the incident with little more than a bad cold and went on to live for another 20 years.

Had Albert died that day on the ice, it could have completely changed European history. Victoria and Albert had already had a daughter, and the future King Edward VII was conceived around this time. If Albert had died, seven of Victoria’s children wouldn’t have been born—children who were married to nobles and rulers across Europe (during World War I, seven of their direct descendants were on thrones as king or queen). And if the future Edward VII hadn’t been conceived, Albert died, and everything else remained the same, it’s possible Kaiser Wilhelm II may have become the ruler of both Germany and the United Kingdom.

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