Overview:

Over centuries, Islam slowly seeped into Indonesia. After Krakatoa blew, the religion went viral in the archipelago.

Reading Time: 5 minutes

Starting at 11:05 p.m. on October 11, 2002, three terrorist bombs detonated in quick succession on the picturesque Indonesian island of Bali, killing 202 people, mostly Western tourists, in the teeming bar district.

Historians said it had been a very long time coming—119 years, by some estimates.

One precursor to the 2002 massacre was the cataclysmic eruption of Krakatoa volcano in 1883 on what was then a small, uninhabited Indonesian island southeast of what is now Singapore and Malaysia.

The eruption also arguably led to Indonesia ultimately becoming the most populous Muslim nation on earth. Ironically, Bali—where Krakatoa originally rose from the ocean—is today the only Hindu-majority province in Indonesia, while most of the rest of the nation became predominantly Muslim after the 1883 eruption. Less than 2% of Indonesia’s overall populace is now Hindu; 87% is Muslim.

When, after millennia of tectonic shifting and seismic rumbling deep in the earth, Krakatoa finally blew its top on August 27, 1883, it threw up a roiling plume of smoke, steam, gas, ash, and other super-heated subterranean debris 30 miles into the air.

The eruption was literally an earthshaking and world-changing event, causing two-thirds of the island to disappear beneath the waters of the Strait of Sunda at the southern Asian convergence of the Indian and Pacific oceans.

Krakatoa’s spectacular eruption had much the same effect as would a major military nuclear exchange, which could be expected to cause a “nuclear winter” when enormous amounts of blast debris soar upwards, pollute the atmosphere and, so to speak, blot out the sun for months—causing crops to fail across vast areas, even worldwide.

When the volcano erupted within the strait, incidentally the scene of a battle between Allied and Japanese armies in March 1942, its geological thrashing kicked up a tsunami with waves up to 125 feet high that killed 36,000 people in the area.

The final catastrophic eruption had been slow to build, with random explosions inexorably increasing in vigor over months. The initial mild vibrations of subterranean geologic activity began in late May 1883 and were gently felt on other islands far distant from Krakatoa.

In a long article on the eruption and aftermath in the September 1884 edition of The Atlantic magazine, writer E.W. Sturdy described the awesome magnitude of Krakatoa’s primal reawakening:

On the morning of [August 27] there was still a more gigantic explosion heard in the Andaman Islands and in India, which produced along both shores of the strait an immense tidal movement, occasioning that great loss of life recounted in the daily press. The matter expelled 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. Abnormal atmospheric and magnetic displays were observed, compass needles rotated violently, and the barometer rose and fell many tenths of an inch in a minute. Between ten and twelve o’clock in the forenoon of that day the subterranean powers burst their prison walls with a terrific detonation, which spread consternation and alarm among the dwellers within a circle whose diameter lay across nearly three thousand miles.

By later that day, the volcano cone and nearly two-thirds of the five-miles-long, two-miles-wide island it created had disappeared into the ocean.

It had been clear two days earlier that something enormous was in the throes of happening. The captain of a British ship in the area noted that thundering noise in the area of Krakatoa was becoming “more furious and alarming” and that debris thrown into the air “was being propelled with amazing velocity … To us it looked like blinding rain, and had the appearance of a furious squall, of ashen hue.”

By nightfall, the ship’s crew had grown ever more frightened:

The night was 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.

Renowned conservative pundit George F. Will also paid homage to the power of Krakatoa in a 2003 Washington Post column, “When Krakatoa Blew”:

The Earth is a work in violent progress. The engine of its evolution is heat—boiling gas, molten rock and other stuff—left over from the planet’s formation 4.5 billion years ago. The heat frequently bursts through Earth’s crust, although rarely as catastrophically as it did 120 years ago on the island of Krakatoa.

In a 2003 piece in The Guardian, writer Robert MacFarlane added to the awe:

Under the impact of [Krakatoa’s] blast, 13 per cent of the Earth’s surface vibrated. Six cubic miles of rock were vaporised. The pneumatic shock waves from the explosion flowed seven times round the earth (they were assiduously recorded by gentlemen meteorologists in London). The eardrums of the hundreds of people who were on board ships in the seas around the island were instantly shattered.

So, indeed, it was manifestly a spectacularly unique event in world history.

During the months following Krakatoa’s eruption, the grim aftermath included not only the backbreaking and tedious work of repairing damaged structures and burying the legions of victims but also the advent of a surprising religious transformation throughout the area—as long-simmering resentment of the archipelago’s colonial Dutch overlords (since their arrival in the 1600s) came to a rebellious head.

Before Krakatoa blew its stack—“with a force hitherto unknown to mankind”—citizens of the Indonesian archipelago were mostly Hindu but also adhered to a smattering of indigenous traditional faiths and other religions, including Islam. Muslim traders are believed to have started traveling to the Indonesian archipelago in the 7th century, but the 14th to early 19th centuries “saw almost no organized Muslim missionary activity” in the region, wrote Van Nieuwenhuijze in Aspects of Islam in Post-Colonial Indonesia (1958).

In a 2003 CNN review of Winchester’s definitive nonfiction book on the historic eruption—Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded—Adam Dunn explained:

In one chapter, “Rebellion of a Ruined People,” Winchester describes how the aftermath of the eruption spawned a rising anti-Dutch sentiment, culminating in the slaughter of 24 colonial workers and their families on July 9, 1888, by “hajjis.” “It was essentially the beginning of the end of Dutch rule,” Winchester says, “and the beginning of the beginning of what is now the most populous Islamic state on earth, Indonesia.”

By this time, Muslims, both Arab and from non-Semitic regions, had grown into a significant minority in Indonesia and included zealots, some recruited as missionaries among locals or sent by Arab mentors from elsewhere. Wrote Dunn:

“The Muslim missionaries … [were] very fiery young men,” Winchester says. “They told the Javanese (who were clearly in the mood to believe it) that Krakatoa’s eruption was a sign from Allah that he was furious with them for allowing themselves to be ruled by white, western, Dutch, infidel colonials. The mullahs from Arabia advised them [the Javans] to rise up and kill them [the Dutch].”

However, not everyone is on board with Winchester’s theory of how Indonesia historically embraced Islam, particularly Muslims who contend that theirs is a faith of personal independence, peace and non-evangelism. But the evidence is compelling.

There were also other political factors in changes that occurred in Indonesia after Krakatoa disappeared in a primeval flash.

One was a novel written by Eduard Douwes Dekker, a disgruntled former Dutch colonial official in Indonesia. Dekker’s whistleblower tale of corruption and cruelty against Indonesians by the Dutch colonial administration—Max Havelaar: Or the Coffee Auctions of the Dutch Trading Company (1860)—ultimately would “play a key role in shaping and modifying Dutch colonial policy in the Dutch East Indies in the nineteenth and early twentieth century.”

But, according to Winchester, the damage was already done, leading inevitably to the archipelago’s independence from the Netherlands in 1945 (after occupation by Japanese forces during World War II) and to the ultimate embrace of majoritarian Islam throughout the islands.

Indonesia’s experience is another example of how divine religions, even when dormant for centuries, can, marinated in the right political soup, come back to life in a rolling boil.

The 2002 bombings in Bali by a home-grown, Al-Qaeda-linked Islamic terrorist group were yet another spasm of political violence under the disingenuous guise of faith.

Krakatoa is an unindicted accomplice.

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Rick Snedeker

Rick Snedeker is a retired American journalist/editor who now writes in various media and pens nonfiction books. He has received nine past top South Dakota state awards for newspaper column, editorial,...