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115 Adventures in theVolcano’sThroat: Tropical Landscape and Bodily Horror in R. M. Ballantyne’s Blown to Bits John Miller • The eruption of Krakatoa in 1883 was a catastrophic event, a then-unparalleled disaster that wiped an island from the globe and produced meteorological effects from which no part of the earth was immune. In his recent popular history of the explosions, Simon Winchester argues that Krakatoa “still attracts an endless procession of superlatives … the greatest detonation, the loudest sound, the most devastating volcanic event in modern recorded human history” (5).1 Details were at first slow to appear in the British press. Three days after the event, a Times report from Java gave a sparse but evocative description of the aftermath: Sky continues clear.Temperature fell ten degrees on 27th, now normal; native huts all along beach washed away. Birds roosted during ash rain; and cocks crowed as it cleared away; fish dizzy; town covered with thick layer ashes, giving reeds quaint bright look. Sad news just coming from West Coast; shall wire again. (“Volcanic Eruption,” 30 August 1883) The following day TheTimes published further information:“A portion of the Residency of Bantam is an ashy desert.The cattle are without food, and the population in despair” (“Volcanic Eruption,” 31August 1883). In time it became clear that the worst destruction had come from the succession of“tidal waves” that had battered SouthAsian coastlines and caused a death toll thatWinchester estimates at 36,000 (5).The Royal Society in London soon formed a committee to investigate the calamity, publishing The Eruption of Krakatoa and Subsequent Phenomena (1888),an assembly of first-hand accounts and scientific observations that made this dramatic event available to theVictorian public. While Winchester’s bestseller makes detailed use of the Krakatoa committee ’s work, it makes no mention of R. M. Ballantyne’s Blown to Bits (1889), the text that was perhaps even more influential in establishing Krakatoa in the popular consciousness.As a professional writer for whom money was always a pressing concern, Ballantyne had previously demonstrated his willingness, sometimes victorian review • Volume 34 Number 1 116 at his publishers’ prompting, to use fashionable topics as springboards for his writing.The controversy over the evolutionary relation of humans and gorillas that broke out in 1861 with the arrival in Britain of the French American explorer Paul du Chaillu stimulated Ballantyne to publish two works in rapid succession, The Red Eric and The Gorilla Hunters (both 1861), in which great apes played a significant role.The publication of Blown to Bits suggests Ballantyne’s determination to take full value from interest in the Society’s report, bringing the event to a wider, if mostly adolescent, readership while using it as a vehicle for a pious blend of education and adventure.2 Like the majority of Ballantyne’s over one hundred texts, however, Blown to Bits has received little serious notice.Although he was immensely successful in his day, Ballantyne has slipped almost entirely off the critical radar, his status resting on the reputation of the children’s classic The Coral Island (1858), though even this has received scant attention in recent years. Like many of Ballantyne’s novels, Blown to Bits appears to adhere rigidly to the generic conventions of imperial romance. The youthful hero Nigel Roy, travelling in the Malay Archipelago, falls in with the “Hermit of Rakata,” Van der Kemp, who leads him in a series of mishaps, hotly pursued by the sinister pirate Baderoon. The novel entertains its readers with comic interludes involving the black servant Moses and the eccentric Dutch naturalist Professor Verkimier. Meanwhile, the “moderately violent” (89) and sporadic rumblings of Krakatoa that punctuate the earlier stages of the text explode dramatically into full-scale disaster in the novel’s final chapters. The island is blown to smithereens in a “hurly-burly of confusion, smoke, and noise” (358), a disaster from which the heroes escape, finally arriving at a safe haven in the Cocos Islands. The tale ends, in the words of The Times, “satisfactorily with the settlement of a colony” (“Christmas Books”): Van der Kemp is reunited with his long-lost daughter, who—unsurprisingly—marries Nigel, so that they all...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1923-3280
Print ISSN
0848-1512
Pages
pp. 115-130
Launched on MUSE
2015-10-07
Open Access
No
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