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

Krakatoa by Simon Winchester
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  • First Published:
    Apr 2003, 432 pages
    Apr 2004, 448 pages

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The change began somewhat inauspiciously in late June of 1596, when a ragged flotilla of four Dutch vessels dropped anchor in the roads off the northwestern Javanese pepper port of Banten and invited the Portuguese spice merchants, whose warehouses had long lined the shore, to come aboard. The voyage had been sponsored by the nine merchant-adventurers of the Compagnie van Verre of Amsterdam-in translation simply "The Long Distance Company" - who had been inspired by the idea of blazing a spice trade-route to the Indies. It had not gone at all well.

Cornelis de Houtman, who commanded the venture, turned out to be both an inept navigator and a cantankerous martinet. Not that he had lacked preparation: along with his brother Frederik he had already spent two years in Lisbon gathering intelligence on the Portuguese operations in the East. His expedition was grandly titled Eerste Scheepvart, "The First Ship Sailing". It excited much attention as, with 249 men aboard, it swept out into the Zuider Zee and, after provisioning at the merchant docks inshore of Texel, fell away from the roads on the morning of 2 April 1595. It promptly ran into a whole sea of troubles.

The provisioning had been too hasty. After only a few weeks scurvy broke out, with sailors suffering such rending stomach pains among their other symptoms that the Dutch still have a word for it, scheurbuik, "tearing-belly." Disputes raged between the on-board merchants and the ships' masters: One merchant was locked in his cabin in chains for the entire voyage, another was poisoned in India, a master fell victim to a mutiny. De Houtman proved himself to be no more than "a boaster and a ruffian." A short stopover in Madagascar for the convoy to catch its breath turned into a six-month deathwatch, during which so many crewmen died that there is still a Madagascan bay called the Dutch Cemetery. By the time the venture reached Banten only a hundred Dutchmen were still alive.

The surprised Portuguese at first made them welcome, probably assuming that so wretched a gaggle of starving men could hardly pose much of a challenge to the might of Lisbon. The head of the entrepôt sent a message to his immediate superior in Goa, on the Indian coast, though more for reasons of diplomatic propriety than of disquiet. He then introduced the visitors to the local Banten sultan, who was sufficiently impressed with them to enter into a treaty: the first formal document between Dutchmen and Javanese, whose three-and-a-half-century relationship would prove to be one of repression, exploitation, and too often most cruel colonization. "We are well content," the sultan wrote, "to have a permanent league of alliance and friendship with His Highness the Prince and with you, gentlemen."

This contentedness would not long survive. Some indication of what would evolve into a deeply unhappy relationship between the Dutch and their soon-to-be subject peoples came good and early, during the subsequent sojourn of the de Houtman expedition.

Much of Sumatra and Java had already become widely Islamicized (the earliest-known Muslim grave on Java dates from 1419, after which the creed took hold rapidly), and the local people and their leaders were acutely sensitive to the strange ways of the European infidels. The Portuguese had seemingly shown a measure of tact; the Dutch, on the other hand, had a reputation for being crass and insensitive in their dealings with the "primitives" they met. Cornelis de Houtman himself insulted the Banten sultan-contemporary accounts are not specific, speaking only of de Houtman's "rude behavior" - and was ordered to leave port.

De Houtman's flotilla sailed east. It was then attacked by pirates off Surabaya, a dozen more of his crew were killed, and one of the ships had to be abandoned and set ablaze because there were too few hands to work it. In retribution for the piracy he ordered a brief campaign of systematic rape and pillage off the coast of Madura. But by the time he reached Bali he had calmed down, just as many others have been similarly soothed.

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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