Tambora’s long echo through history and culture. Part 2: 1816 – present

By Talla Hopper:


Sketch of a sunset c1820-30 by J.M.W. Turner. A study has shown that the use of the colour Carmine increases in artists’ palettes in the years after a large volcanic eruption.

In the previous article on Tambora I concentrated on the immediate aftermath of the eruption and the devastation caused in Europe and North America in 1816. Now we will look India and China and the long reach of the worst eruption in 2000 years. Again, I got most of the information from ‘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.

India and China


The weather conditions that brought misery in Europe and America also caused famine, death and disease in Asia. Snow was reported in the summer of 1815 in some parts of China and the devastating cold appears to have lasted longer here than anywhere else. The worst affected province was Yunnan in the south-west of China. It normally has a pleasant climate bringing bumper harvests and was a rich, comfortable area known as the ‘Land of Eternal Spring’.   The effect of Tambora was to weaken the warm southerly monsoon winds, allowing the cold northerly wind from Mongolia to sweep south. All of China was affected but Yunnan was to endure a famine lasting from 1815 to 1818.

Rice is a crop that can put up with a great deal, but it does not cope with prolonged cold and this is precisely the condition brought about by the Tambora years. The rice crop failed completely. A poet called Li Yuyang documented the famine in a series of increasingly sombre verses:

“The clouds like a dragon’s breath on the mountains,

Winds howl, circling and swirling,

The Rain God shakes the stars, and the rain

Beats down on the world. An earthquake of rain.”

This is the beginning of the first poem of the series. Later poems cover topics such as the police beating back hungry crowds begging for food and houses collapsing from the unceasing cold rain. Finally Li Yuyang documents parents selling their children, then infanticide and the suicide of a desperate mother.

The Chinese regime was famously well organised, but the grain stores put aside for famine did not allow for years of bad weather, only one season was covered. By the second year there was very little help to be had and the severe situation showed up the years of neglect and bad management when the system had not been tested. The famine finally ended when the summer of 1818 brought the usual weather and a bumper harvest.

However, the remaining farmers of Yunnan had been changed by the awful experience and many decided that a cash crop was preferable to a subsistence food crop. The cash crop they chose to grow was opium.

A century later the hill tribes of Yunnan drifted south into Burma, Thailand and Laos whose northern highlands make up the “Golden Triangle” of opium production for the modern drugs gangs. The link between Tambora and the modern international drugs trade is a tenuous one, but it is a link nonetheless.

Thousands of people died in the famine in China but Tambora had not finished yet: the most deadly effect of all was about to be unleashed, and this begins in India.

Tambora’s cloud arrived early in India. By late April 1815 the temperature in Madras had fallen by 24 degrees F. A heavy load of ash has been found in the Arabian Sea which came directly from Tambora. The aerosol drops that remained in the atmosphere began to interact with weather patterns in the same way that caused devastation in America and Europe. The sun’s heat was kept out but the Earth’s heat was kept in: the stratosphere warmed but the surface cooled. This depressed the minimum and maximum temperatures which caused the disruption to the jet streams. In the Indian Ocean the winds bring the life giving and cooling monsoon rains. These rains fall for three months of the year and the winds also brought the trade fleets from the Indies and from the west: Africa and Arabia.

From November to March the winds are cool and come from the north but in May the land warms as the Earth tilts towards the sun, the winds change to the south and bring rain drawn up from the Indian Ocean. The rain is torrential but brings life in the form of quickly grown crops.

The monsoon failed in 1816. The trade winds faded to nothing. There were wild swings in temperature in the Bay of Bengal, from cold to hot, but there was no rain. The rivers, coming down from the Himalayas, still ran into the Bay but the tanks and wells of drinking water became stale. The drought broke in September 1816, when the monsoon would normally be declining, this year it brought horrendous floods. There was a resultant upswing in disease, most were waterborne as the rank, stagnant, water left over from the drought joined with the rainwater and spread over the land.

January 1817 brought more unseasonable rain and by May one of the endemic, seasonal diseases of the Bay of Bengal showed up at the wrong time, and in unusual strength. This disease is now known to the world as Cholera. It had been a mild local disease caught in the winter months of November to January. It did not kill many people as there was a built-up immunity in the local population. Somehow the disruption in the weather pattern of 1817 brought about a disruption in the disease’s normal path.

Cholera now broke out across India, carried by the traders, farmers and soldiers of the new British colony. In November 1817 the British Grand Army, camped near the river Sinde in north central India were suddenly struck by cholera. Between 15th and 20th November 5000 men, women and children died. Ten thousand people died in this single event.

Soon the numbers of dead reached millions. The newly invigorated trade winds took Cholera first to the Dutch Indies and East Asia, then on the overland trade routes to Arabia and Russia, finally it reached Europe, Africa and America. By the 1830’s millions were dead. People continue to die today of Cholera: there was an outbreak in Haiti after the devastating earthquake. It is Tambora’s lasting legacy to the world.

There are other legacies of Tambora. The search for the Northwest Passage, which resulted in the disaster of Franklin’s expedition, was set in motion by the short-lived opening up of the Passage in 1817 by the weather chaos caused by Tambora. In Switzerland, Ignace Venetz formulated the idea that the Earth had been subjected to repeated Ice Ages when he was asked to help save a village at risk of flooding from a newly formed glacial dam.

Cultural consequences

An event as huge as the Tambora eruption must change the way people think about their world, whether they know the reason or not. Tambora had some unexpected consequences, some of which are noted below.

The cholera epidemics that came out of the Indian sub-continent may have had the effect of changing the minds of European colonists in the tropics. Until the onset of this deadly disease it appears Europeans thought of tropical parts of the world as being much the same as temperate parts, apart from the climate of course. Now these areas were regarded with some dread, as somewhere a deadly disease could appear without warning and wipe out millions. From this time onwards the tropics were regarded as dangerous places for the delicate health of white women and children. Regular long leave in cooler areas was prescribed for white men. An inevitable culture of “them and us” began.

Then consider the traditional Christmas Card. Much of the iconography of Victorian Christmas, the snowy scene with a stage coach heading for the glowing lights of the distant village owes a lot to Charles Dickens’ depictions of London and England in ‘A Christmas Carol’ and his other books. But Dickens was born in 1812 and his imagination might have been coloured by the cold and snowy winters of his early childhood.


‘The Fighting Temeraire tugged to her last Berth to be broken up, 1838’ by J.M.W. Turner showing Turner’s continuing obsession with weather. (Voted Britain’s favourite painting in 2005).

The paintings that have illustrated these two articles were painted during and immediately after the strange and awful weather created by Tambora. Both Constable and Turner were profoundly influenced by what they saw in 1815 and 1816. Constable was on his honeymoon when he painted ‘Weymouth Beach’ and Turner was painting a series of pictures for northern patrons when he painted ‘Lancaster Sands’. Already both artists were formidably talented but they both became obsessed by clouds and atmospheric effects. Turner’s paintings influenced many later artists, in particular the Impressionists.

Finally, remember the traveller in Switzerland complaining about the terrible weather in 1816? I mentioned her in Part 1 and she was, of course, Mary Godwin, later Shelley and the author of Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus. This is perhaps the most remarkable and enduring cultural consequence of Tambora’s weather: not only was the now universal idea of the mad scientist creating a monster born during this summer, but also the myth of the Vampire as an aristocrat.

The Shelleys were in Europe to save money, to get away from Mary’s disapproving father and to travel in Europe, which had been closed to British travellers for many years due to the Napoleonic Wars. They didn’t like France, due to the bad weather and the attitude of the French (who obviously would not particularly like the attitude of the English at this time) and so they went on to Switzerland to be thrilled by the mountains and soothed by the lakes. The thrill of sensation was fashionable and an appreciation of the terrors of nature was also cultivated. The awful weather, particularly the tremendous thunderstorms of the summer, would have heightened their already fervid imaginations.

They settled by the shore of Lake Geneva and spent a lot of time with another poet, Lord Byron, who had also left England to save money and escape notoriety. He had employed a doctor/companion called John Polidori who was part friend, part servant. Poets were probably the equivalent of pop or movie stars in our time; they were celebrities and they were also educated and clever. Byron was famously ‘mad, bad and dangerous to know’. He was probably not very nice, particularly to someone like John Polidori who had his own literary aspirations.

Mary was 18 that year, Percy Shelley was 27. They travelled with Clare Clairmont, Mary’s step-sister who had been Lord Byron’s lover and was pregnant with his child. Byron had taken a lovely house, the Villa Diodati, for the summer. On the night of 13 June 1816 Byron wrote that he had witnessed the “mightiest of storms” that he had ever seen.

On 18 June the young aristocrats, equally bored and thrilled by the weather, met at the Villa Diodati and told ghost and horror stories to one another. Their imaginations were fired by the weather, the awful state of the famine-struck people they had met on their travels, and by the latest ideas of the time – the industrial revolution was hitting its stride and was countered by the Romantic Movement. Lord Byron’s poem “Darkness” came from this night of story-telling. Mary’s story was honed by her through the rest of the year and was published in 1818. Frankenstein’s creature is perhaps conjured from the awful suffering they saw during that year of famine with the multitudes of refugees struggling through the mud and ice.

John Polidori’s story – which was, of course, dismissed by Byron – was later published as ‘The Vampyre’ where for the first time a blood-sucking revenant was described as an aristocrat rather than a peasant. It was probably Polidori’s revenge on Byron for treating him so badly. This version of the vampire story was taken up Bram Stoker for his Count Dracula.

So two of the most popular, and current, horror stories were born on the same night – forged by Mount Tambora’s terrible weather. Remember that the next time you see a ‘Twilight’ film or ‘Frankenstein’.

 Image5Woman before the Rising Sun (or Woman before the Setting Sun) by Caspar David Friedrich c1818-20. The colours are believed to accurately show the Tambora effect.


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

585 thoughts on “Tambora’s long echo through history and culture. Part 2: 1816 – present

  1. And another comment about the upcoming “San Andreas” movie. In another trailer for the movie, someone states that it’s “the largest quake in history… is coming” Well, that would make it at least a Mag 9.5 (Chile – 1960). So, for sake of argument, let’s assume a Mag 9.6. Running a 9.6 through the Wells-Coppersmith equations in a strike-slip style of quake, that’s an average displacement of about 208.93 meters, with a maximum of 721.11 meters. For comparison, the 1906 San Fransisco quake had an observed displacement of about 8 feet and lead to the modern science of geology as we know it. A Mag 9.6 also yields MMI-X (extreme shaking) out to about 74 km from the epicenter.

    Why a ship trying to avoid the movie tsunami would be backing down is anybodies guess, but from the direction the screws are spinning, that’s what it is doing.

  2. …and here is something else to read and inwardly digest. Being maths phobic I only sort of vaguely understand what these statisticians are developing. I know it’s not volcanic driven but I would be interested in hearing views and comments and maybe a simple (if possible) explanation on how these models are being created. What data is being used etc. I did see a program about that fault and the part it is playing in earthquake prediction. It was really interesting. if I can find it on youtube tonight I will post a link to it.
    However it’s time to make evening meal right now so will leave you with this link first…..

    • This is about predicting where a fault may fail – not when. That is quite important, for instance in Turkey where a series of strong earthquakes seems to be culminating towards Istanbul. This kind of model may show whether it will peter out or that the series is likely to continue. If the input data is good enough, otherwise they would just get more accurate errors rather than more reliable answers.

  3. The important thing to remember about models: They are only as good as the data and relationships that go into them. That’s why financial types will eagerly tell you that “past performance is not a good indicator of future yields.” Plus, it covers their arse when they sell you a stock that tanks. (Hello GTC Biotheraputics – I owned that one for a while just so that I could truthfully say that “I own goats.” They raised genetically modified goats that produced human insulin in their milk. That stock did a literal face-plant)

    New Guest Post By Albert. → Volcanic Winters.


    • Chris Pearce @clpearce
      Sakurajima erupts 5/21 6:16 am, ash to 4,100 meters, 6th highest recorded asahi.com/articles/ASH5P… cc: @eruptionsblog

      Note – this isn’t a photo of that eruption. But it’s been very active today nonetheless.

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s