The April 20, 2010 explosion of the Deepwater Horizon is undoubtedly an immense tragedy. Even months afterwards, crude oil continues to spill into the sea; the full extent of the enormous economic and ecological damages will likely not be understood for many more months or even years to come. While we should in no way minimize the significance of this terrible event, history shows that nature has brought about catastrophes that are even more terrible and destructive — and on an exponentially greater scale. What follows is the true story of one 19th-century insurance professional that lived in the hottest spot of the volcanic region commonly called the Pacific Ring of Fire.

The respectable Mr. Schuit had the uncommon fortune of being a Lloyd’s of London agent in the Sunda Strait in 1883, situated among the 25,000 islands in the vast archipelago commonly known as the East Indies. He loved to watch the shipping lanes from his spacious wooden deck as steam-powered vessels and sailboats glided past. The warm tropical breezes and ample compensation made it seem like the complete package.

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