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271: This Week: Krakatoa, From Hell, Rome

In this episode, we’ll learn about historical events that happened this week in history as they were depicted in Krakatoa East of Java, From Hell, and Rome.

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Note: This transcript is automatically generated. There will be mistakes, so please don’t use them for quotes. It is provided for reference use to find things better in the audio.

August 28, 1883. Indonesia.

There’s a ship moving along the ocean when off in the distance is a massive glow. The noise sounds like an explosion of some sort. When the camera cuts to inside the ship, one of the crew—maybe that’s the captain—tells someone else to blow the whistle before we take the wave.

Then, he looks back out the window as we can hear the wind picking up. Someone else helps him put on a coat, as if that’ll somehow help against what’s to come. Outside, the waves are getting choppier.

The camera cuts to somewhere on land and we can see people running and screaming. The sky is hazy, so it’s hard to tell what they’re running from.

A moment later and the camera cuts again back to the ocean.

Slowly, the horizon starts moving up.

Except…wait…the camera isn’t moving at all. That’s a massive wave covering the entire frame now, and it still seems to be growing larger.

There’s a shot of a lighthouse that gets completely engulfed in crashing waves. Another cut to houses, some of them looking like they’re on fire, and the waves knock them all down. The entire houses are washed away before the whole screen is filled with nothing more than ravaging water.

Trees, homes, buildings, any ships that happen to be in the harbor…there are scenes of chaos and destruction as the massive waves take out anything in their path.

The camera cuts back to the people running and screaming from earlier, and now we know what they’re running from. Another massive wave towers above the houses behind the running people before it comes crashing down and everything disappears for a moment before all we see is debris and pieces of things being carried on.

And that’s how the movie goes for the next few minutes.

But, the focus of the film shifts back to the ship we started our segment with. There’s a massive wave in front of it now. The captain and the others on the ship don’t have much choice—they’ll have to try to go through it. When the wave hits, it smashes through the windows and right into the men. But…amazingly, they make it through. They cheer the fact they survived. Back outside, after the wave passes, things seem to calm down as if to say the storm is over.

That scene comes from the 1968 film called Krakatoa, East of Java, and it depicts an event that happened this week in history—and also, last week in history.

But, there’s a lot more to the story than we see in the movie because the event we’re talking about is the massive 1883 eruption of the volcano on the island of Krakatoa and that eruption technically took place for months—from May to October of 1883. Most historians point to the date of May 20th, 1883 as the beginning since that’s when steam started venting from the volcano.

There would be eruptions of ash every so often. Some estimates say the ash reached heights of almost four miles into the sky—that’s about six kilometers.

Throughout the month of June, the eruptions started getting more violent. More ash filled the sky, with a second column being visible. Around this time, earthquakes started to shake the region. A third column of ash could be seen in early August.

As you can imagine, at this point with ash being thrown into the sky for literally months, the sky in the entire world was affected by this eruption. In fact, it even affected a lot of art around the time. A lot of paintings from that time period depict very colorful skies. Some have even speculated the sky in the famous painting by Edvard Munch called The Scream was influenced by the Krakatoa eruption and the hazy skies that the artist had seen over his home country of Norway just ten years before the painting.

Going back to our story, though, we’re in the August timeframe of 1883: Not quite to this week in history.

Remember how high the ash was before at an estimated four miles, or six kilometers? By August 25th, estimates for the ash were at about 17 miles, or over 27 kilometers. That’s almost 90,000 feet and over 27,000 meters.

Krakatoa had entered its climactic phase of the eruption.

People reported hearing eruptions every few minutes at this point. It wasn’t just ash being thrown into the sky. Burning hot pieces of rock and glassy lava substances known as pumice were seen falling from the sky—some of them hitting ships nearby.

Four huge explosions were heard in the early morning hours of August 27th. The largest of these explosions was so loud that it could be heard well over 3,000 miles away. That’s over 4,800 kilometers. People reported hearing what they thought was a cannon being shot.

Some believe this blast was the loudest sound in human history.

Others estimated there was about 200 megatons of energy released.

By comparison, the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima was about 15 kilotons of energy. That means the Krakatoa eruption was over 10,000 times more powerful than the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima, making it not only the loudest sound in human history but also being the most powerful explosion ever recorded.

Of course, those are best estimates based on the recorded data. It was 1883, after all, and the science of the time couldn’t quite track things as well as we can now.

Then, after the massive explosions on August 27th, Krakatoa stopped eruptions almost immediately on August 28th. I say “almost” because there were still smaller eruptions that carried into October, but for the most part it was done on August 28th.

So, that’s the part we’re commemorating this week, the end of the climactic phase of the eruptions that happened by the morning of August 28th.

At that point, though, historic damage had been done.

And while the things we see in the movie surely can’t do the real thing justice, the movie is correct to show the tsunamis following the eruption. The massive explosions on August 27th were followed by waves almost 100 feet high, or about 30 meters.

Some tsunamis hit as far away as South Africa.

As you can imagine, the results were devastating.

Almost 70% of the island of Krakatoa itself was destroyed by the blast, and the entire region around the island was laid to waste. Towns were swallowed by the water. The entire island of Sebesi that was nearby had no survivors. There had been 3,000 people living there.

For months and even up to a year afterward, there were reports of victims’ bodies being found all around—even as far as Africa.

The official death toll was 36,417 people.

As a little side note, if you listened to last week’s episode of BOATS This Week you’ll know that for centuries people believed the eruption of Mount Vesuvius to have culminated on August 24th and August 25th, so that means for a long time people thought those two massive eruptions happened during the same historical week. I mean, different years, with Vesuvius’ eruption being in 79 AD and Krakatoa being in 1883, but the same historical week.

Except, of course, if you listened to last week’s episode you’ll know why the date changed for Vesuvius in 2018 after almost two thousand years of believing it was in August.

But, if you want to see the eruption of Krakatoa as it’s shown on screen check out the 1968 movie called Krakatoa: East of Java.

Oh—and to give you an idea of how historically accurate that movie is, even the title is wrong. The island of Krakatoa is not east of the island of Java. It’s west of Java, but the filmmakers wanted the whole movie to have the feel of being off in the “Far East” so they wanted the word “East” in the title.

But the eruption happens around an hour and 35 minutes into the film.  


August 31, 1888. London.

The first thing that stands out in the scene for our first segment this week is a lamp post. It’s illuminating the street corner in what is otherwise a very dark night. We can see the cobblestone streets, some buildings, and a sidewalk that…oh wait, what’s that? There seems to be someone lying on the sidewalk.

It’s really dark and hard to see, though.

As the movie plays, they’re lying completely motionless.

Are they okay?

Just then, around the corner from behind one of the buildings by the lamp post comes another light. This one seems to be a flashlight, though, because we can see it is held in the hand of a man. The man is also wearing a helmet of some sort and wearing a long cloak.

As he continues to walk toward the camera, his flashlight casts a bright light onto the sidewalk beneath him. When he reaches the person lying on the sidewalk, he stops to investigate. They still haven’t moved at all. Since the man with the flashlight is closer to the camera, we can see a little better now that he’s wearing a uniform.

This must be a policeman.

He shines his light on the person lying on the sidewalk. Then, he puts a whistle to his mouth and starts blowing.

The camera doesn’t change the angle or cut to anything new, but we see a slow fade with more policemen standing around the body lying on the sidewalk. There are four of them, now. Then, we see time passing by as more and more people start coming to investigate the scene. More police. More of a crowd starts to gather, too, as the darkness of night makes way for the morning’s light.

That brief description is how the 2001 movie From Hell tells the story of an event that happened this week in history when the body of Mary Ann Nichols was found in the Whitechapel district of London during the early morning hours of August 31st, 1888. Mary, who also went by the nickname Polly, was believed to be the first victim of the murderer known as Jack the Ripper.

Although, I’ll admit that there has been some debate about whether she was the first Ripper victim as some people at the time tied Mary’s murder to some previous murders. For example, in the movie From Hell we see a woman named Martha Tabram being murdered by the Ripper before Polly is…but, in the 135 years since the murders took place, most people have landed on Mary Ann Nichols as the first canonical Jack the Ripper victim.

And that is a good example of just how much mystery surrounds the case of Jack the Ripper because technically, as of this day, Jack the Ripper has never been officially identified.

What we do know, though, is that Mary Ann Nichols had gone to a local pub at about 11 PM on August 30th, 1888. She hung out there for about an hour and a half before leaving and going home.

But, she didn’t go to bed. You see, she was renting a bed at a lodging house. A little past 2 AM, the housekeeper came to demand her rent of fourpence for the bed.

Mary didn’t have the money, so she was kicked out.

So, Mary went back to work as a prostitute to try and earn money for her bed.

In the movie, we see Mary being murdered by someone in a carriage. The presumption here is that it was someone paying Mary to sleep with them and they ended up murdering her instead. To be honest, we don’t know that part. Of course, it’s plausible.

What we do know is that at about 2:30 AM on August 31st, another lodging housekeeper named Emily Holland saw Mary walking down the street. Emily was Mary’s friend, so she recognized her. That was the last time anyone saw Mary alive.

At 3:30 AM, her body was found.

It wasn’t found by a policeman like the movie shows, though, but by a man named Charles Cross. He was a carman, so essentially a driver of horse-drawn carriages or carts.

While Charles was passing by, he noticed something unusual on the sidewalk. Initially he thought it was a tarp. When he got closer, he saw it was a body. Another carman passed by and Charles called him over, too. That guy’s name was Robert Paul, and together they investigated the body. They weren’t sure if she was dead or simply unconscious, so they pulled down her skirt—it was raised above her knee—and went to find a policeman. When they did, they told the officer—a man named Jonas Mizen—that she looked to be either dead or drunk.

Charles and Robert went back to work while the policeman investigated the woman’s body which was later identified to be Mary Ann Nichols.

Oh, and something we never see in the movie is that Mary Ann Nichols was born on August 26th, meaning she was murdered just five days after her 43rd birthday.

If you want to watch the morbid murder that happened this week in history, check out the 2001 movie called From Hell, named after the “From Hell” letter that Jack the Ripper sent to the authorities.

Mary Ann Nichols’ body is found around 22 minutes into the film.

And if you want to learn more about the true story, we covered that in episode #93 of Based on a True Story over at


September 2, 31 BCE. Off the coast of Greece in the Mediterranean Sea.

There’s no land as far as the eye can see. Well, as far as we can see in the movie at least. All we can see is water. In the foreground, a single rowboat is floating on the choppy waters. I counted ten people inside, although the camera is too far away to see any faces. The focus of the scene, though, is in the distance on the horizon.

That’s where we can see scores of ships, some closer, some further away—and almost all of them are ablaze. Huge plumes of smoke are rising into the sky, casting almost an orange glow above the waters. A ball of flame shoots through the smoke and explodes on one of the ships.

The camera then cuts to the rowboat, where we can see James Purefoy’s version of Mark Antony looking down at the water with a defeated look on his face.

That was a very quick scene, but that’s about all we get of an event that happened this week in history from the 2007 HBO miniseries called Rome. The event it’s showing there is the Battle of Actium, and the TV series is correct to show Mark Antony looking rather defeated because he was on the losing end of what would be a decisive victory for Octavian.

Octavian and Mark Antony had been at odds with each other…well, pretty much since the assassination of Julius Caesar in 44 BCE. We learned more about that back in episode #235 during the Ides of March. For a while after that, Octavian and Antony were allied as they tracked down Caesar’s assassins along with some other well-known historical figures such as Cleopatra.

Once they took care of the assassins, the rivalry between Octavian and Antony grew into a resentment that culminated in the Battle of Actium. Antony and Cleopatra had about 500 ships and 70,000 infantry while Octavian had 400 ships and 80,000 infantry. Despite large numbers of troops, the battle took place in the sea. After some intense fighting, Cleopatra fled with her Egyptian ships and Antony broke off the attack to follow her. The rest of Antony’s ships surrendered to Octavian. About a week later, Antony’s troops on land surrendered as well.

It was a decisive win for Octavian, who would later be known as Caesar Augustus, and cement him as the undisputed master of the Roman world.

If you want to watch the brief segment we talked about today, check out the HBO miniseries called Rome and we see the ships and Antony’s defeat happening at the beginning of the final episode in the whole series.

About a minute and a half into season 2, episode 10.

The Garden of the Fugitives: plaster casts of victims still in situ; many casts are in the Archaeological Museum of Naples.
Lancevortex, CC BY-SA 3.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

Men, women, and children were preserved the way they were that day—clutching valuables or arms wrapped around their loved ones.

The way the ash preserved the city is almost as if it was frozen in time. Approximately 2,000 of Pompeii’s residents never left, only to be rediscovered in 1748.

But, since we’re talking about the movie, there is one vitally important thing the filmmakers got wrong that you should know whenever you watch it.

And, to be fair, it’s not their fault they got it wrong.

You see, for almost that entire time, historians believed the date of the eruption took place this week in history. That’s because one of the people who survived was Pliny the Younger. He was only 17 at the time of the eruption, and although the uncle he lived with, Pliny the Elder, was one of the people killed at Pompeii, Pliny the Younger would go on to be an author whose writings have given us a lot of knowledge about what Roman life was like back then.

So, when Pliny gave us the date of the eruption as being August 24th and 25th. Since there was no archaeological finds to dispute that, there was no reason to question it.

That was true for centuries throughout history even up through the time of the movie because it wasn’t until 2018 that an archaeological find at Pompeii changed all of that.

It was a date.

Someone found the date of October 17th inscribed at Pompeii.

Even more archaeological evidence found in 2018 included some fruits still on branches from autumn-bearing fruits. Of course, the movie was released in 2014, so the filmmakers were still operating under the belief that the eruption of Mount Vesuvius took place this week in history.

So, that’s why I thought this would still be a great movie to cover this week because if nothing else, the 2014 movie Pompeii is just another great example of how we’re always learning new things about history every day.

Or, to quote Italy’s culture minister, Alberto Bonisoli: “Today, with much humility, perhaps we will rewrite the history books because we date the eruption to the second half of October.”

If you want to watch the beginning of the eruption sequence, it starts about an hour and six minutes into the movie.


August 27, 1964. Los Angeles, California.

As the camera pans down from the night sky, we can see we’re at the famous Chinese Theatre in Los Angeles. There’s a massive crowd of people gathered outside, red carpets, fancy cars, and a lot of press photographers snapping photos.

There’s also a small band playing a song, and on either side of the theater the marquee boldly states the movie that’s premiering tonight: Mary Poppins, starring Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke.

The camera cuts down to ground level now, and we can see everyone is dressed in their finest tuxedos and dresses. Walking among the nicely dressed people in attendance is a costumed version of Mickey Mouse’s beloved dog, Pluto. We can also see Goofy, too. They’re both among the crowd that’s now watching as a car pulls up to the red carpet.

A man in a red suit opens up the back door. Stepping out is a woman in a yellow dress. She’s all smiles as she steps out, then looks back at the car just as Tom Hanks’ character, Walt Disney, steps out of the car to join her on the red carpet.

He waves to the crowd.

There are cuts among the crowd. More memorable Disney characters. There’s Victoria Summer’s version of Julie Andrews in the crowd, greeting the guests.

Then, another car pulls up to the red carpet. Inside is Emma Thompson’s character, P.L. Travers. Her driver, Paul Giamatti’s character, Ralph, rushes around the car to get the door for her. She steps out onto the red carpet, and looks up at the huge theater in front of her.

Ralph looks at her and says, “This is your night. None of this would be possible without you.”

This is how the 2013 movie Saving Mr. Banks depicts an event that happened this week in history when the Disney classic movie Mary Poppins premiered at the Chinese Theatre in Los Angeles on August 27th, 1964.

Pamela Lyndon Travers, who went by the pen name P.L. Travers and is played by Emma Thompson in the movie, really was the woman who wrote the Mary Poppins books. And I say books because there were eight books in the series. Her first one was published in 1934, and it was an immediate hit.

As the story goes, it was Walt Disney’s kids who loved the book so much that they convinced their dad to make a movie out of it. He tried to do that in 1938, but Travers refused his offer because she didn’t think it’d be a good movie. She simply didn’t believe a film version of Mary Poppins would do her creation justice.

It took Walt Disney over 20 years to finally convince Travers to let him turn her book into a movie. When she finally gave him permission to do so in 1961, she still required final approvals on the script. As you can imagine, she was very picky and wanted a lot of changes…but, according to the contract, while Travers had script approval rights, Disney had the final cut approval, so he was able to overrule her on things like the songs for the movie.

While we don’t see this happening in the movie segment we heard about today, the idea of P.L. Travers arriving later than Disney has some basis in truth because it really is true that Travers wasn’t given an invitation to the premiere of her own film. Knowing how picky she was about everything, it wouldn’t surprise me if that was on purpose by Disney to try to not spoil the evening…but, of course, that’s my speculation.

She did manage to get one anyway, so she showed up to the premiere and after the movie, she walked up to Walt Disney and told him that the animated sequence in the film had to be cut out. I’m paraphrasing, of course, but basically Walt Disney simply told her it was too late for that.

And the rest, as they say, is history. Disney’s film version of Mary Poppins was a massive success and as the film debut of Julie Andrews helped launch her into stardom as well.

If you want to watch the scene that happened this week in history, check out the 2013 movie called Saving Mr. Banks. It’s all about the making of the Mary Poppins film, and we can see how it depicts the premiere of the classic film at about an hour and 51 minutes into the movie.



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