MARGARET WARNER: Natural disasters often affect people and societies in ways that transcend the physical devastation. To explore that, we turn to British writer Simon Winchester author of "Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded, August 27, 1883." This 2003 bestseller was about a catastrophic volcanic eruption close to the scene of the current disaster.
And, Mr. Winchester, welcome. Thanks, for joining us.
SIMON WINCHESTER: Thank you.
MARGARET WARNER: First of all, tell us about the parallels in the two events themselves, between the eruption of Krakatoa 120 years ago and what we just witnessed.
SIMON WINCHESTER: Well, it was extraordinarily similar, really. It happened in geologically almost exactly the same place: The sort of suture line between the Australian plate on one side and the Eurasian plate on the other. The one in Sumatra ten days ago was technically a little bit different, but the India and the Burma plates are essentially the same thing. So 300 miles separate the two events, and the effects of them were almost the same, although one was a volcano and the other was an earthquake, but they both generated tsunamis.
In addition, the volcano generated an enormous bang. It was the largest sound ever generated on the surface of the planet, at least since mankind has been around to record it. It sent a plume of ash and smoke and rock 30 miles up into the upper atmosphere and then created four enormous tsunamis, which radiated outwards-- just as the ones at Banda Aceh did some while ago-- and killed what used to be the largest number killed in any volcanic eruption on the planet: 40,000. But it's a figure that rather pales into insignificance compared to this Indian Ocean disaster, but much the same physical effects. These enormous waves, rather taller, about a hundred and twenty, a hundred and thirty feet, and moving much more rapidly, about eight or nine hundred miles an hour because the affected areas were much, much closer to where the volcano erupted, but 40,000 people died and a lot of devastation.
MARGARET WARNER: And then what other effects did it have-- you outline some of these in your book-- beyond the physical devastation, beyond the deaths?
SIMON WINCHESTER: Well, the extraordinary thing that happened, specifically in Java and Sumatra, is that this event was immediately picked up by the religious leaders, who in those days were Muslims. The area was rapidly being converted from Hinduism to Islam. There were a lot of Arabs there who were priests or mullahs, and they said within a matter of days of the devastation, that this was clearly a sign from Allah-- Allah, who was annoyed, specifically angered by the fact that the Javanese and the Sumatrans were allowing themselves to be ruled by white, western, infidel Dutch imperialists.
"Rise up and kill them: is essentially what the mullahs said, and sure enough, within a matter of days, there was a degree of killing of Dutch soldiers and bureaucrats. Then the mullahs said, "No, no, no, don't do this in a piecemeal fashion, do it in an organized fashion." And sure enough over the next few years, careful planning went underway, triggered by Krakatoa, and five years later there was a massive rebellion, which was the beginning, one might say, of the end of Dutch rule in Java and Sumatra and the beginning of the creation of what is now the most populous Islamic state on Earth, Indonesia.
MARGARET WARNER: Now, in a piece you wrote recently, you say this is not an isolated incident and in terms of having this sort of kind of profound social and psychological change from a natural disaster, and you point to one in the United States. Tell us about that.
SIMON WINCHESTER: Well, indeed, San Francisco. I've just finished researching and indeed writing a book which is coming out in October on the San Francisco earthquake of 1906, April 18. And oddly enough-- I mean, I didn't anticipate this when I started work-- this also had a religious impact. The big difference I think between San Francisco and Krakatoa on the one hand and what happened at Banda Aceh on the other, is that all these events were transmitted around the world very rapidly because the news of them was by electricity and the undersea cable and Morse Code and the Reuters news agency, these events were known about very, very rapidly indeed. So people around the world had the information, but they didn't have the understanding.
And so there was a worldwide sense of bewilderment, that terrible things had happened, but there was no rational explanation for them. And so people turned in large numbers to God as an explanation. They did so in Krakatoa, and equally they did so also in San Francisco. And specifically what happened in San Francisco is that there was a very, very small movement beginning in southern California of Pentecostalist Christians, people who spoke in tongues, who believed in revelations by way of signs from heaven. The first meeting of this little Pentecostalist church took place on the Sunday just before the San Francisco earthquake. Wednesday came the earthquake. The pastors in the church said this is evidently a sign from heaven, from God, that He is angered by the licentiousness, the wanton behavior of San Franciscans. The result of this was that the next Sunday, the church, which had only attracted a few hundred disciples before, was swamped with thousands upon thousands of people. And the American Pentecostalist movement was in a sense born out of the San Francisco earthquake and remains today one of the largest and most politically relevant Christian movements in America.
MARGARET WARNER: Do you think the fact that we live in a more "scientific age" today, or that at least we understand the scientific phenomenon that led to, say, this earthquake and tsunami, changes the likelihood of similar profound effects?
SIMON WINCHESTER: I do. It is interesting, if you look at another recent devastating seismic event, which was the Tang Xian earthquake in China in 1979. Then still there wasn't total understanding of what had happened, and because Mao Zedong died at about the same time, the Chinese government at the time attempted to link these two events. But ever since the 1960s when the whole phenomenon, the whole science of plate tectonics has became generally understood in the world, there is now the facility for a rational explanation.
And although you are going to see around the Indian Ocean the Buddhists are going to behave in Sri Lanka and Thailand in a rather different way towards this tragedy than, let's say, the Hindus and Tamil Nadu, generally speaking, mankind accepts the scientific the rational explanation, and I think the kind of reaction that one saw in 1893 and 1906 isn't going to be duplicated, with one exception though.
MARGARET WARNER: Go ahead.
SIMON WINCHESTER: With one exception. In northern Sumatra at the moment, it has been widely reported that the mullahs there have said to their people that this is a sign from God, that the Muslims in northern Sumatra are not good Muslims, that they're drinking, that they're having premarital sex, that they're behaving in a way that is not the way that is laid down in the Koran. And so there is an attempt to link this to God; whether or not it will wash I don't know. I think science is probably going to be the dominant explanation.
MARGARET WARNER: Well, that is exactly what I was going to ask you about because we've read those same stories here, that what the imams are saying at least in Aceh Province. So what will you be looking for around the region in determining whether in fact this horrific disaster triggers deeper social or political change?
SIMON WINCHESTER: Well, it's going to be very interesting to see, generally, the reaction of the region to the United States. I think this is almost the most fascinating aspect. I don't think we are going to see a resurgence, for instance, of fundamentalist Islam in northern Sumatra. I don't think the Indians, the Sri Lankans are going to react in a particularly fanatical -- if I can use that in non-offensive way -- religious way towards this. I think there is generally a rational explanation but a great interest on it and how the West is reacting to it. And I think that the way that the United States, in particular, has reacted is already going down very well. So I think the political reaction is going to be much more important and interesting than the religious one.
MARGARET WARNER: Simon Winchester, thanks so much.
SIMON WINCHESTER: Thank you.