Contrary to popular belief, the tsunami that devastated Sri Lanka in 2004 was not the first the island has experienced in modern times. As recently as August 1883, the massive eruption of Krakatoa, between Java and Sumatra in Indonesia, unleashed gigantic tidal waves that sped west across the Indian Ocean before reaching Sri Lanka. At Galle, a sequence of fourteen freak waves, each separated by a few minutes, was observed. The Ceylon Observer described the scene preceding the arrival of the waves, one eerily prescient of events 121 years later: “The sea receded as far as the landing stage on the jetty. The boats and canoes moored along the shore were left high and dry for about three minutes. A great number of prawns and fishes were taken up by the coolies and stragglers about the place before the water returned.” Further around the coast, a 3.5m-high wave hit Hambantota, while at Panama on the east coast “ships suddenly sunk downwards and were then drawn backwards to be left stuck in the drying mud, their anchors exposed – and just as suddenly were borne up by an inrushing surge of water. The local streams, with hitherto sweet water, all promptly turned salty for at least a mile and a half upriver” (as Simon Winchester describes it in his vivid account of the eruption, Krakatoa). What the 1883 tsunami mercifully lacked, however, was the destructive force of its 2004 counterpart. Only a single casualty was recorded in the entire island, at Panama, where a woman was swept away from the harbour bar – probably the unluckiest victim of a volcanic eruption more than 3000km distant.

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