Excerpt from Krakatoa by Simon Winchester, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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The Day the World Exploded: August 27, 1883

by Simon Winchester

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  • First Published:
    Apr 2003, 432 pages
    Apr 2004, 448 pages

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It was during the late summer of a.d. 79, while pursuing his official task of investigating piracy in the Bay of Naples, that Pliny was persuaded to explore a peculiar cloud formation that appeared to be coming from the summit of the local mountain, Vesuvius. He was duly rowed ashore, visited a local village to calm the panicked inhabitants -- and was promptly caught up in a massive eruption. He died of asphyxiation by volcanic gases on August 24, leaving behind him a vast reputation and, as memorial, a single word in the lexicon of modern vulcanology, Plinian. A Plinian eruption is now defined as an almighty, explosive eruption that all but destroys the entire volcano from which it emanates. And the most devastating Plinian event of the modern era occurred 1,804 years, almost to the day, after Pliny the Elder's death: at Krakatoa.)

Pepper has a confused reputation. There is no truth, for example, in the widely held belief that it was once used to hide the taste of putrefying meat; this charming thought perhaps derives from the equally delightful notion, still recognized by pharmacists today, that pepper can be used as a carminative, a potion that expels flatulence. But it was very much used as a preservative, and more commonly still as a seasoning. By the tenth century it was being imported into England; the Guild of Pepperers, one of the most ancient of London's city guilds, was established at least before 1180, which was when the body was first recorded (they were in court for some minor infraction); by 1328 the guild had been formally registered as an importer of spices in large, or gross, amounts: its members were called grossarii, from which comes the modern word grocer. Joseph Conrad caught the obsession, in Lord Jim:

The seventeenth-century traders went there for pepper, because the passion for pepper seemed to burn like a flame of love in the breast of Dutch and English adventurers about the time of James the First. Where wouldn't they go for pepper! For a bag of pepper they would cut each other's throats without hesitation, and would forswear their souls, of which they were so careful otherwise: the bizarre obstinacy of that desire made them defy death in a thousand shapes; the unknown seas, the loathsome and strange diseases; wounds, captivity, hunger, pestilence, and despair. It made them great! By heavens! it made them heroic . . .

The Western appetite for the trinity of flavorings increased almost exponentially during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries-the trade being dominated, at least after the Papal Donation of 1493, by the only serious maritime power of the day in the Orient, the Portuguese. Vasco da Gama, who opened up the East and made it as far as Calicut, was said to be exultant at finding out that the pepper he knew would sell for eighty ducats a hundredweight back in Venice (which was the European center for the trade) could be bought in India for only three. A steady stream of Portuguese merchantmen and explorers promptly left the Tagus for the Orient-one of them, Pedro Alvares Cabral, discovering and then claiming Brazil on the way-and for a while the Portuguese entirely dominated the business. The ancient overland route, ships to Arabia, camels to the Mediterranean, was utterly changed: Now it was massive sailing ships all the way, via West Africa and the Cape. And in just the same way as Roman currency became the common coin of the old route, so the Portuguese language became the lingua franca of the new.

But slowly time and technology intervened: By the sixteenth century the Dutch and the English, now with all their shipbuilding skills finely tuned, with all the oak they needed for their hulls and all the flax they wanted for their sails and all the cannonry their foundries could produce and the navigating wherewithal for making long journeys fast and safely, found they could outrun and outgun the fine vessels from Lisbon. More than a few Dutch ships, flagged with the Portuguese bandhera to get around the royal prohibition on non-Iberians trading in the Orient, were now coming home and whetting the appetites of the Amsterdam merchants for pepper and for profit. And so, slowly, under the force of these various imperatives, the balance of maritime power in the East started to change. The Portuguese from the warm and lazy south were slowly driven out and replaced by doughty Europeans from the cold and more ruthless north.

The foregoing is excerpted from Krakatoa by Simon Winchester. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced without written permission from HarperCollins Publishers, 10 East 53rd Street, New York, NY 10022.

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