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Cape captain's Krakatoa ordeal


A tsunami claimed over 200 more lives in Indonesia this weekend, following an eruption on Anak Krakatau, one of the world’s most infamous volcanic islands.

The island is on the site of the Krakatoa volcano, which claimed over 36,000 lives during the final week of August in 1883.

Brewster sea captain Benjamin C. Baker and the crew of the barque W.H. Besse somehow survived passing through the elemental fury stirred by the volcano eruption on Krakatoa Island.

The Besse approached the Sunda Strait on Aug. 26, 1883, but the Cape Cod captain avoided the area after being warned of the impending disaster by a Dutch captain.

Following sunrise the next day, darkness overtook the sky. “All hands were called on deck, every bit of canvas furled, the port anchor let go, and Captain Baker, with the fortitude of one resolved to die at his post, calmly awaited the catastrophe,” wrote J. Henry Sears in his book, Brewster Ship Masters, in 1906.

The ship was then slammed by a squall, which included “a heavy shower of sand and ashes.”

The ocean was full of dead people, animals, trees, and ash. Illnesses, such as Java fever, overcame several crew members, including the first mate.

The Besse dispatched its anchor that day, which might have been a lifesaving move. “Scarcely had the sails and port anchor been disposed of than the squall struck the side of the barque with terrific force. The starboard anchor was then let go with 80 fathoms of chain,” Sears noted.

The Besse somehow made it back to Boston several months after the record eruption, with only seven surviving crew members. Upon its arrival in South Boston, one of those crew members was asked about their journey. “You bet,” he replied. “You bet we had a hard voyage.”


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© 2020 by Don Wilding.

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