The island of Krakatau (Krakatoa) is in the Sunda Strait between Java and Sumatra. It is part of the Indonesian Island Arc. Volcanic activity is due to subduction of the Indo-Australian tectonic plate as it moves northward towards mainland Asia. The island is about 3 miles wide and 5.5 miles long (9 by 5 kilometers). Before the historic eruption, it had three linked volcanic peaks: Perboewatan, the northernmost and most active; Danan in the middle; and the largest, Rakata, forming the southern end of the island. Krakatau and the two nearby islands, Lang and Verlatan, are remnants of a previous large eruption that left an undersea caldera between them.
In May 1883, the captain of the Elizabeth, a German warship, reported seeing clouds of ash above Krakatau. He estimated them to be more than 6 miles (9.6 km) high. For the next two months, commercial vessels and chartered sightseeing boats frequented the strait and reported thundering noises and incandescent clouds. People on nearby islands held festivals celebrating the natural fireworks that lit the night sky. Celebration would come to a tragic halt on Aug. 27.