The 1883 Eruption of Krakatoa

Relive one of the world's most infamous eruptions through the correspondence of the people who bore witness to it and its after effects

Two views of Krakatoa (1888) by Krakatoa. Rep.Roy.Soc.Com.The Royal Society

The day the world exploded

On August 26th 1883, a violent eruption began in Indonesia at Krakatoa, locally known as Krakatau. During the next 24 hours, hot avalanches of ash raced down the volcano and across the sea. Most of the volcanic island collapsed into the ocean, triggering tsunamis and creating a giant underwater crater, or caldera.  The eruption devastated surrounding islands and the coast of Java, causing over 36,000 fatalities. 

Map of the Sunda Straits before the Krakatoa eruption (1888) by Krakatoa. Rep.Roy.Soc.Com.The Royal Society

This map shows the Krakatau islands in the Sunda Straits prior to the 1883 eruption.

Many eyewitness accounts of the eruption were sent from the port of Anjer, Java, which was the local telegraph station.

Volcanic action in and around the straits of Sunda (1883-08-28) by Ceylon ObserverThe Royal Society

The recently invented telegram turned the eruption of Krakatoa quickly into a global news event.

The Volcanic Eruption in the Sunda Straits (1883-10-01) by London China TelegraphThe Royal Society

The London China Telegraph reported that the eruption was heard hundreds of miles away.

Letter of appointment to the Krakatoa committee (1884-01-22) by Walter WhiteThe Royal Society

Citizen Science 

The Royal Society set up the Krakatoa Committee to 'collect the various accounts' of the eruption and its 'attendant phenomena'. George Symons FRS (1838-1900), a meteorologist, chaired the committee, and put out a public appeal for information. Correspondents from around the world sent in reports, making the eruption of Krakatoa an early example of 'crowd-sourcing' data to understand a natural hazard event.

German postcard addressed to chairman of the Krakatoa committee (1885-02-26) by UnknownThe Royal Society

In response to the call for observations, letters and postcards were sent from across the world.

Extract from a letter from Commander Vereker HMS Magpie (1884-04-20) by Foley Charles Pendergast Vereker (1850-1900)The Royal Society

Reports were sent from ships.

Letter detailing the Krakatoa eruption (1883-08-27) by J. PrautzThe Royal Society

On board the 'Hope' moored near present-day Jakarta, the captain reported that it became 'dark as night' and 'rained down ashes as fine as dust or sulphur powder'.

Account of skulls, bones and pumice stone found on the beach at Zanzibar from Miss. Allen, relating to the 1883 eruption of Krakatau (Krakatoa) by Annie AllenThe Royal Society

Debris from Krakatoa travelled across the Indian Ocean. In this account from July 1884, medical missionary Annie Allen describes how pumice and human skulls washed up on the beach in Zanzibar.

Bubble plates (1884-04-22) by Ralph Abercromby (1842-1897)The Royal Society

Many sketches were sent, such as this sketch of volcanic ash particles viewed under a microscope. These tiny 'bubble plates' of glass were collected on the ship 'Arabella', 1100 miles from Krakatoa.

Cloud shadow, noon (1888) by Leo Krauss and Company (fl.1880s-1890s), Eduard Moritz Pechuël-Loesche (1840-1913)The Royal Society

Unusual sunsets

Within days of the eruption, observers began to notice an unusually vivid 'afterglow', after sunset. The first report was from Hawaii in September 1883, and by December 1883 bright twilights had been seen from Australia to northern Europe. The effect was understood to be due to the scattering of sunlight by tiny particles, high in the atmosphere.

Diagram showing the colours of the abnormal sunsets (1883) by UnknownThe Royal Society

Many correspondents commented on the lurid twilight colours. This sketch of a sunset by meteorologist Rollo Russell (1849-1914) shows the sky colour grading from an 'opalescent green' near the horizon, to pink.

Krakatoa afterglow effects (1884-01-11) by Archibald Henry Swinton (1845-1936)The Royal Society

These watercolours show the typical features of the afterglow, as seen from Guildford, England, between November 1883 and January 1884.

Sunset phenomena, relating to the 1883 eruption of Krakatau by Karl Johann Kiessling (1839-1905)The Royal Society

German physicist Karl Johan Kiessling (1839-1905) sent this watercolour of a sunset to the Krakatoa Committee. Kiessling was the first to explain these twilight phenomena in terms of scattering of sunlight by particles.

The blood-red sunsets (1883-11-28) by Ed. Arthur Jackson and Charles J. ThorntonThe Royal Society

After-glows sparked a lot of interest, with this letter to the editor of The Standard proclaiming that "the rich, lurid glare of the 'after-glow' had all the appearance of an immense illumination".

Revelation from the sky (1884-01-14) by Sydney HodgesThe Royal Society

Artist Sydney Hodges commented wryly in the St James's Gazette on the excitement sparked by the 'audacious' sunsets of late 1883. 'And the people went quite crazy .. as if .. sunsets had been only now invented'.

Sunrise halo (1888) by Leo Krauss and Company (fl.1880s-1890s), Eduard Moritz Pechuël-Loesche (1840-1913)The Royal Society

View of Krakatoa May Eruption (1888-05) by Krakatoa. Rep.Roy.Soc.Com.The Royal Society

The Krakatoa Report

The Royal Society Krakatoa Committee published its report on the eruption in 1888. This splendid volume includes six colour lithographs of sunsets from Chelsea Embankment, and a remarkable analysis of the many effects of the eruption around the world: from air and sea waves, to optical, geological, electrical and magnetic phenomena.  

Thin sections of the rocks of Krakatoa (1888) by Krakatoa. Rep.Roy.Soc.Com.The Royal Society

This lithograph from the Royal Society Report shows the mineralogy and texture of some older volcanic rocks from Krakatoa, as seen under a microscope. These images give valuable clues to the nature of the Krakatoa magmas.

Sound range of the Krakatoa explosions (1888) by Krakatoa. Rep.Roy.Soc.Com.The Royal Society

The explosions on August 27th were heard as far away as Alice Springs (3500 km) and Rodrigues island (4800 km), where they sounded like distant cannons or artillery fire.

Congratulations on the Krakatoa report (1888-01-21) by George Gabriel Stokes (1819-1903)The Royal Society

In January 1888, the President of the Royal Society, Sir George Stokes (1819-1903), wrote to congratulate George Symons on his 'long labour' on the report, but couldn't resist critiquing the typeface of the title page.

"Is Krakatoa a myth?" "Is Krakatoa a myth?" (1888-06-21) by Douglas Archibald (b. 1851)The Royal Society

The Krakatoa memoir was completed in late 1887, but the printing of the coloured plates proved to be a challenge. In July 1888, Douglas Archibald wrote to George Symons, asking "Is Krakatoa a myth?".

Atmospheric effects of the Krakatoa eruption (1888) by Cambridge Scientific Instrument Company, after William Ascroft (1832-1914)The Royal Society

Atmospheric effects of the Krakatoa eruption (1888) by Cambridge Scientific Instrument Company, after William Ascroft (1832-1914)The Royal Society

Credits: Story

This online exhibition is a collaboration between the Royal Society and the AHRC-funded project "Constructing Scientific Communities", based at the Universities of Oxford and Leicester.

Curators: Amber L. Madden-Nadeau and Prof. David M. Pyle, Department of Earth Sciences, University of Oxford

All rights reserved © The Royal Society 2019

For more information about the Royal Society Library and Archive please visit our website:

For more information on "Constructing Scientific Communities" please visit:

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
Google apps