Tambora’s long echo through history and culture. Part 1: 1815-1816
By Talla Hopper
As KarenZ told us in a previous post, on 5 April 1815 the first of a series of explosions occurred at Tambora on the island of Sumbawa in the Indonesian archipelago. They were heard by Stamford Raffles the governor of Java over 800 miles away and, though we may not be aware of it, we are still hearing their echoes today.
I am not a scientist or volcanologist but I am interested in the social and cultural consequences of eruptions in history. The Tambora volcano ranks as a 7 in the Volcanic Explosivity Index, compared to 5 for Vesuvius in 79AD or 6 for Krakatoa in 1883 or Pinatubo in 1991. It was the largest eruption in the last 2000 years and, as we shall see, it eventually killed millions of people.
Climate scientists talk of ‘geoengineering’ the effects of a large volcano in an attempt to halt global warming. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-31475761 The effects of Tambora might change their minds.
In writing this article I have relied heavily on two recent books which cover both the immediate aftermath of the eruption and the longer term effects: ‘The Year Without Summer: 1816 and the volcano that darkened the world and changed history’ by William K. Klingaman and Nicholas P. Klingaman and ‘Tambora: the eruption that changed the world’ by Gillen d’Arcy Wood. I recommend both these books to anyone who wants to find out more about Tambora’s long reach.
As KarenZ explained, following the explosions of 5 April the main eruption occurred on the evening of 10 April. Within 24 hours it is estimated that the ash cloud was the size of Australia. Even 800 miles away Raffles reported that the ashfall was several inches thick.
The immediate death toll was horrific. Of the 12,000 inhabitants in the immediate vicinity of the volcano only 100 survived. The surrounding areas covered by ash were made uninhabitable, people, crops and animals died. Those who did not die immediately in the blast or tsunami died slowly of starvation or of respiratory infections caused by ash damage to their lungs. An estimated 70,000 to 80,000 thousand people died this way. This was just the beginning of Tambora’s death toll.
The explosions heard across Indonesia and Java were thought by many that heard them to be cannon from ships at sea. The Napoleonic War was perhaps the first World War with British and French ships fighting engagements across their empires. In January, Napoleon had broken out of Elba and begun his 100 days of freedom before his defeat at Waterloo. None of those who heard the volcanic explosions knew the sound was far deadlier than cannon.
Millions of tonnes of sulphur-dioxide was blasted into the stratosphere by the eruption, there it combined with hydroxide gas to produce a vast cloud of sulphuric acid droplets. The tropical jet streams began to disperse the cloud firstly in an east to west direction and then swirling to the north and south. Within two weeks the equator was circled, within a few months the whole earth was covered. Only gravity, or the highest reaching storm systems, could drag the droplets down.
In the summer and autumn of 1815 the crimson sunsets were spectacular enough to cause comment, especially the brightly coloured high-altitude cirrus clouds.
It has been estimated that the cloud reflected only 0.5% to 1% of incoming solar energy but this was enough to produce a 3 degree Fahrenheit drop in northern hemisphere average temperature. The disruption strengthened the jet streams of air that circle both hemispheres thus causing ‘blocks’ to develop in what is normally a north-south oscillation. The block over North America dragged down polar air causing severe and prolonged cold weather while Europe was subjected to unceasing, heavy, cold rain. Further east the Ukraine was unbearably hot.
At this time very few people thought that a volcanic eruption could influence weather conditions (Benjamin Franklin was one of the few), so when northern Italy received the heaviest snowstorm in memory on 15 December 1815 no one gave any thought to an eruption 8 months earlier. The religious processions that followed were organised because the snow was red or yellow in colour. Soon after blizzards of “brown or flesh-coloured” snow swirled through Hungary killing 10,000 sheep and oxen.
In the Spring of 1816 Americans noticed that a sunspot was clearly visible on the sun and some believed the unnatural weather was caused by this phenomenon. Many people reported that they were able to observe this spot without causing eye damage because of a thick haze of fine dust which was similar to the ‘smoking vapour’ that had engulfed Europe after the eruption of Laki 30 years earlier.
Despite the haze the early months of 1861 were mild in the United States, also caused by Tambora, but as winter turned to spring the weather turned colder. Snow fell across Canada and the northern United States in April, May, June and July as far south as Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. There was no hope of a harvest. The year without summer continued with frosts as far south as South Carolina in August.
Dendrochronologists using data from tree rings believe that 1816 was the second coldest year since 1400. Only 1601 was colder – following an eruption in Peru. Although 1816 has gone down in history as ‘the Year Without Summer’ the following three years were also colder than normal.
In contrast to America’s mild winter, Europe had endured yet another cold and wet autumn and winter. Several other volcanoes, including Mount Mayon, had erupted in the first decade of the 19th century and the ten years before Tambora had been notably cold. Snow and sleet were still falling in England in April. Scotland experienced frost and snow from mid November 1815 to mid March 1816. Cattle had to be sold early for slaughter, as there was no winter feed. In Italy high farms still had snow covering them in May. Austria and Germany had very late frosts too.
The harvests were lost throughout the British Isles and most of Europe. The British government had kept the cost of wheat unnaturally high in order to protect the landowners during the Wars, now this high price caused suffering and famine as most labourers’ wages had to be spent on food. Manufacturing suffered as disposable incomes had disappeared. Bread riots broke out across England.
The rain continued throughout Europe accompanied by terrific thunderstorms. One English traveller spending the summer by the shore of Lake Geneva complained of “perpetual rain [which] confines us principally to the house” and described “thunderstorms …. grander and more terrific than I have ever seen before.” Brilliant streaks of lightening lit up the lake and “thunder came in frightful bursts over our heads amid the darkness”. Remember this traveller – we shall meet her in Part 2.
As the non-existent summer progressed floods broke out across central Europe drowning both the land and livestock. Germany and Switzerland were the worst affected but the harvests across the whole of Europe were ruined.
The terrible weather, combined with the sunspots and strange sunsets caused the superstitious to talk of the end of the world. Across the Americas and Europe there was an upsurge in church attendance. The usual number of ‘false prophets’ appeared to take advantage of the credulous.
As the crops failed, whole families took to the roads to try and find work, or a kindlier climate. The Smith family, who had been renting a farm in Norwich, Vermont, took to the road and finally settled in Palmyra in New York State. This area was full of “unusual excitement on the subject of religion” according to John Smith Jnr who was undoubtedly affected by this ferment as he went on to found the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, also called the Mormon Church.
In Ireland typhus broke out among the famine hit peasant farmers. The absentee landlords did little to help their distressed tenants in a situation which foreshadowed the more famous Potato Famine years later.
Lancaster Sands by J.M.W. Turner. Painted in the summer of 1816. It gives an idea of the misery of the year.
Autumn or Fall brought a cold drought to add to the misery of America while the storms grew more intense throughout Europe with hail falling in Spain and Portugal.
The price of grains, especially wheat, now rose beyond the reach of the poorest. Farmers who had managed to harvest something were urged to think of their compatriots while merchants urged them to sell abroad. Meat, though, was relatively cheap (but still beyond the reach of the poor) as farmers had no feed to keep their animals alive through the winter. Many farmers in New England decided to sell up and move to pastures new in Ohio which had much land and banks prepared to offer cheap loans. In Europe there was no new land to move into, but many began to think of moving to the Americas. In addition to basic food shortages in Europe, the grape and olive harvests also suffered. Some governments stopped the use of grain for distilling spirits. Bread riots continued across Britain, but the populace did not unite in Revolution, which was the biggest fear of the government.
The cold rains of autumn turned to snow and sleet across Europe by November but in America the cold drought turned to a mild November and December. The self-reliant Americans did not suffer from famine like the Europeans; they had a culture of fending for themselves rather than having to buy all their food and could cope in years of hardship.
In Europe the misery continued through 1817 with riots in Britain, France and Switzerland. An estimated 60,000 died in Ireland from Typhus. Hundreds of thousands must have died from famine across Europe. The blanket of sulphuric acid took several years to abate and temperatures did not return to anything like normal until the summer of 1818.
In Part 2 we’ll see that Tambora affected the rest of the world apart from America and Europe, and we’ll see how it changed the way we see the world. The year without summer might be over, but Tambora’s deadly echo still rumbled on.
Klingaman, William K. & Klingaman, Nicholas P. The Year Without Summer: 1816 and the volcano that darkened the world and changed history. St Martin’s Press, New York. 2013.
Wood, Gillen D’Arcy. Tambora: the eruption that changed the world. Princeton University Press. 2014