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A Krakatoa Curio

Victorian image of Krakatoa, c. 1883

This curious oil painting (on a sheet of milk-glass) has been sitting in the Moorabool ‘archives’ for a generation, a puzzle. It’s apparently night-time with a full moon, depicting shipping of the late 19th century, and a distinctive massive rocky protrusion. What on earth does this depict?

Is this Krakatoa?
Is this Krakatoa?

A little brain-storming and searching the internet comes to an interesting conclusion: this is Krakatoa, the mighty volcano of south-east Asia, shown in its pre-1883 eruption appearance.

Mid-19th century appearance of Krakatoa

Why has someone depicted Krakatoa?
It’s the infamous volcano in Indonesia that still grabs headlines, violently active and a very real threat.

Victorian image of Krakatoa, c. 1883
Possibly a sidewheel paddle steamer, not unusual in the region – it was the route from Singapore to Australia.

The shipping depicted in this image is the clue: it was inconveniently placed right in the centre of the Sunda Strait, the most direct route from the South China Sea to the Indian Ocean.

A traveller has been passing by some time in the 1870’s or early 1880’s, and witnessed the awesome sight of the brooding volcano up-close. Was this at night, with dark shadows of ships on an indigo sea, a full moon peeping though the clouds? That’s the initial impression.

But another possibility is the dramatic result of the eruption: the sky was as dark as night for days. This would be a scene with the sun barely piercing the clouds of ash…. Of course the flaw with this idea is the bulk of the volcano is still there in the pre-eruption configuration. If this was the intention of the artist – to show the day turned to night by the eruption – then it could not have been an eyewitness impression, but rather the imagination of a Victorian amateur artist.

The air grew steadily darker and darker, and at 10:30 a.m. we were in total darkness, just the same as on a very dark night. 

Captain Lindeman, Batavian steamship “Gouverneur-General Loudon“, August 28th 1883

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.

Captain W.J. Watson, Irish merchant ship “Charles Bal

Either way, it’s a fascinating depiction of the major event in the natural world for the Victorian era.

Victorian image of Krakatoa, c. 1883
“… just the same as on a very dark night”
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