No. 39: A Blast from the Past
Plate 1 in The eruption of Krakatoa, and subsequent phenomena. Report of the Krakatoa Committee of the Royal Society (London, Trubner & Co., 1888)
An eggplant-size specimen of volcanic pumice in our collection connects a Freeport mariner to the cataclysmic eruption of Krakatoa in late August, 1883. By 1881, Captain Rufus S. Randall was winding down a long, successful career as a mariner, that he began in 1841 at age 11 as a ship’s boy following the loss of his father at sea. He ultimately progressed to becoming a ship master by 25, and captained numerous vessels around the world, including the 2110-ton ship JOHN A. BRIGGS, launched at Freeport in 1878 - the largest ship built there -, and the 1106-ton bark OASIS, also built at Freeport in 1871 by Briggs & Cushing.
Randall was also a stake-holder in these two vessels, not uncommon for a shipmaster; he held a 5/64th share in the JOHN A. BRIGGS, and a substantial ¼ share in the OASIS. After ending his blue-water days, he took up farming in Freeport, but remained a ship manager/agent for Briggs & Cushing who were majority shareholders in these vessels. Whenever these ships returned to the US, ships that Randall knew well having commanded them, he would travel to New York or Philadelphia to manage the discharging of their cargo, and enable subsequent refits and drydocking for new ‘metaling’ – the replacement of the anti-fouling copper alloy sheathing below the waterline.
The Randall collection at MMM includes a number of personal journals of the captain’s, which reveal glimpses, in his blessedly legible, succinct entries, of a mariner’s life that is, not surprisingly, as much concerned for family and friends ashore as for the workings of his vessels.
The late summer of 1883 found Randall savoring the husbandry of his semi-retired farming life in Freeport: “August 23 - Commenced digging potatoes. They are first class.” “August 25 – Pull and stack yellow eye beans.” But the pastoral reverie was jarred: “August 29, 1883 – Hear of a terrible earthquake which has destroyed parts of Java about the Straits of Sunda. The OASIS will be due at Anjer in about 30 days. Am glad I got some insurance on her.” [The week before: “August 20 – Go to Portland, insure at Portland Lloyds $3000 my part Bark OASIS.”]
The farmer is pushed aside as the seasoned voyager in Randall noted this extraordinary news flashing around the globe on the telegraph wires; he might well have had growing concern for the vessel which had underwritten his Freeport property, as his ¼ share of the OASIS approached a port that had been wiped off the earth in an epic geological disaster that generated the loudest detonation ever recorded and a tsunami that went around the world. He could only project her location based on dead reckoning from shipping reports.
One such report in the New York Herald “Vessels Spoken” column of Sept. 8, 1883 had the OASIS, Capt. Call, master, for Anjer, reported ‘on the Line’ (at the Equator) at longitude 30˚W, (off the coast of Brazil), on August 10, presumably reaching southward into the south Atlantic to catch the westerly trade winds across the Indian Ocean toward Indonesia. Randall was undoubtedly calculating just how close the OASIS would have come to the Sunda Straits in 17 days, the day of the eruption on Aug 27.
With the benefit of hindsight (and Google Earth), assuming a 10,500 mile track to Java from the OASIS equatorial spotting, and assuming (optimistically) 200 mile daily runs for the OASIS (about 8+ knots/hr steady for 24 hours), the ship could have traveled 3400 miles from her spoken location, placing her very roughly off Cape Town on the day the Krakatoa tsunami propagated around the world’s oceans. (It was recorded reaching Port Elizabeth, South Africa about 13 hours after the blast at a crest height of 1 meter.) Because such waves cannot be detected at sea (only when they break ashore), the wave itself was not the danger to the ship, but rather the state of affairs in Java.
Randall’s diary for the rest of the 1883 year bears no mention of the OASIS. Meantime, he spent several weeks away from Freeport, tending to the JOHN A. BRIGGS which turned around in Philadelphia; between the scribbled notations of cash outlays for mending and provisioning the big ship, he lamented being overcome with homesickness for the farm and his family. With relief, he was home to Freeport again by Thanksgiving, the BRIGGS loaded, manned and departed; he was planning a hen house for the new year, and sleighing into Portland with his wife for shopping after the first snow. Then came New Year’s Eve.
“Monday, Dec 31, 1883: Harness up and take a sleigh ride. Brigg’s and Cushing get a letter from Capt. Call, OASIS, from Samarang.” Big news. The ship is heard from at the large port on the north side of Java [now spelled Semarang]; Anjer [now Anyer], only 30 open sea miles from the Krakatoa caldera, had been wiped out; thousands had died. Vast floating mats of pyroclastic ejecta – cinders, ash, pumice – were reported drifting for miles at sea, some supporting tree trunks and even corpses. Captain Call would likely have received word of the disaster from westbound shipping as he worked OASIS up to the Sunda Strait, but he would have had to formulate a Plan B given that his port-of-call was annihilated.
(below) MMM’s January 1884 edition of the 1868 Admiralty chart of the approaches to Sunda Straits has overlay notations related to the eruption. The red arrow points to Anjer “Totally destroyed” and a sentence that sweeps up the coastline “All these villages totally destroyed by the volcanic eruption …”
(below) The same chart attempts to fathom the chaos at the other side of the strait, with a welter of new soundings widely diverging from the old. The colored ellipse indicates the rough outline of the vanished island, much it spewed not only into the nearby ocean but literally around the world in a trans-global dust cloud. Pumice chokes the surrounding waters, as the chart warns (red arrows). Is it floating, or awash against a new concealed volcanic hazard? A mariner’s nightmare.
We have no record of Call’s Java landfall, but to reach Samarang he would have passed through Sunda let’s say Oct 1, maybe five weeks after the eruption. The debris from the volcano lingered in the ocean for months, with reports of floating pumice mats reaching Africa over a year later, worn and rounded. Though the pumice nodule in MMM’s Randall collection has no recorded provenance beyond coming from the family, it seems not unlikely to be associated with the passage of the bark OASIS through Sunda in the aftermath, a unique keepsake brought home to Randall at the Freeport farm by Capt. Call, one shipmaster of the OASIS to another. The New York Herald reported the OASIS outbound from Manila for New York on April 15, 1884; her cargo was probably Java sugar, Philippine hemp and likely included one small piece of pumice plucked from mightily troubled waters.
January 7, 1884: Got $1800 check from Briggs & Cushing, my part of £1500 sent from bark OASIS at Samarang, Java. Clear sledding ahead for the 54 year-old shipmaster; Rufus died in 1888, four years and one fine henhouse later.