The Volcano That Rewrote History

Thomas Jefferson went broke, Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein, and Arctic exploration got a new life, all because a massive volcano erupted in 1815.

Earth Observatory/NASA

If you think this winter was unseasonably long and cold, you’re playing history’s tiniest violin.

Instead, with a year without summer, famines on multiples continents, an explosion in the Chinese opium trade, the global scourge of cholera, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, a golden age of Arctic exploration, and modern meteorology on its résumé, that distinction belongs to Tambora and its eruption in 1815 on the island of Sumbawa in Indonesia.

That story, and its portentous lessons on the consequences of global climate disturbances, is told with particular élan and a flair for the dramatic in Gillen D’Arcy Wood’s Tambora: The Eruption That Changed the World.

“I realized that there was this massive ecological event that occurred right in the middle of my [academic] period, which hadn’t really been fully discussed or fully explored by anyone,” Wood said in an interview with The Daily Beast. “I think I set out to write the book I couldn’t find.”

It turns out that Wood, a professor of English at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, was sitting in a climatology class at the university, and kept hearing about the eruption of Tambora, which was twice the size of Krakatau in magnitude—a major ecological disaster right in the heart of his scholarly area—Romantic and other early 19th-century literature.

“And so, as the Greeks say, shame is a very productive emotion,” he says, and he was galvanized to give this major historical event its due. Whatever his motivation, Wood uncovers for the reader the worldwide reaches of the eruption, and makes it a watershed date in the timeline of human history.

He begins in the place where devastation was most immediate—the island of Sumbawa and the surrounding region. When the volcano blew its top, thousands perished, immolated by fire, boiling magma, and ash. In the surrounding region, a deluge of ash fell for two straight days in a 600-kilometer radius, hitting islands like Borneo, Java, and Bali (which was covered in ash half-a-meter deep), and destroying food and water supplies. Parents by the thousands were forced to sell themselves or their children for rice. Perhaps even more tragic, notes Wood, was the number of parents who resorted to killing their children and dumping them on the beaches rather than sell their progeny or watch them starve.

However, the pall cast by Tambora’s ashes would cover more than just the islands surrounding the volcano. After its eruption knocked off roughly 4,000 feet from its height, the multitudes of sulfate aerosols filling the air almost exactly two centuries ago entered the Earth’s atmosphere, cooling temperatures to record lows in parts of China and the eastern United States, wreaking havoc on traditional weather systems such as the monsoons in India, and in a quirk of fate, melting some of the polar ice. While his book does not make it around the world in 80 days, Wood covers much of the Earth in tracing the volcano’s effects.

The reach of these climate shifts are at the heart of Wood’s book—which attempts to serve as a prophetic cry about what happens when the Earth’s weather is messed with (he will likely be as unpopular as the biblical prophets in some quarters).

In a bit of morbid voyeurism, what happens as a result of those changes in climate, the “you’ve been warned” sections, are some of the juicy parts of the book. Thomas Jefferson, always on the precipice of financial instability, was brought to ruin after his wheat crops were destroyed by the record cold wrought by Tambora, which occurred at the same time as the panic of 1819—among the causes of that panic was the sudden recovery of European agriculture after the Tambora hangover.

The worldwide cholera epidemic of the early 1800s kicked off in the Bengal delta after volcanic aerosols triggered a three-year disruption of South Asia’s life-giving monsoon.

Or, take for instance, Ireland’s forgotten famine of 1816-1818. Rain and snow fell ceaselessly in July 1816, destroying the country’s crops and hurling its people into starvation. On the heels of famine came an epidemic of typhus, during which Anglo-Irish overlords managed to plumb new depths of inhumanity in a society already sunk in it.

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Much like the case of Jared Diamond, who came to write about evolutionary biology despite his background researching gall bladder secretion, part of the value of Wood's writing is his background.

“It was certainly a new frontier for me. The task I set myself was to read the scientific literature, and to understand as best I could the physical processes behind the eruption,” says Wood.

The science included in Tambora is the required reading, but informative as it may be, don’t be surprised to find yourself skimming ahead to the juicy stories in which Wood describes personal journeys of those swept up in the event. His book is a veritable who’s who of the 19th-century: Thomas Mellon, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Louis Agassiz, Charles Dickens, Mary Shelley, Comte de Buffon, Warren Hastings, John Keats, Lord Byron, Stamford Raffles, William Carleton, Samuel Coleridge, and Ignace Venetz make cameo appearances as Wood illustrates the impact Tambora had on their lives and work.

In the cases of Mary Shelley, her husband, Percy Shelley, and friend Lord Byron, the widespread climate impact of Tambora and the fearsome weather it triggered in Switzerland provided the inspiration for Byron’s Child Harolde’s Pilgrimage, Percy Shelley’s Mont Blanc, and of course, Mary’s Frankenstein. After surviving storms in Switzerland, the group of friends would be devastated by the scourge of cholera that made its way from India through Europe.

The benefit of having an expert in the humanities as a guide becomes clear when Wood writes passionately about the poetry of Li Yuyang in the Yunnan province. Yuyang’s poetry rendered in traumatic prose the sorrow of a proud state now starving. Unable to feed itself, farmers in the Yunnan would turn to opium production, radically transforming the region to what Wood calls, “a rogue narco-state in thrall to the international drug trade.”

“I think it was at that moment that I realized I had a book on my hands,” says Wood. “The Tambora warming of the poles was connected to the sudden flurry in expeditions that you get in the late eighteen-teens.”

Wood is talking about one of the great ironies of Tambora’s historic footprint. Although much of the global destruction the volcano wrought through its effect on climate has not been thoroughly explored, one effect that has been documented is the melting of the Arctic ice cap. As a result, the British clamored to explore the north, rekindling that long-held dream of finding a Northwest Passage. This urging for exploration was led by Sir John Barrow of the British Admiralty, who Wood believes was behind an 1817 Royal Society memo detailing the warming of the ice cap. That memo, apparently, has become a smoking gun for climate change deniers, who point to the time period as evidence of natural variability in climate.

The part they miss is that the warming, tied to the volcanic phosphates, was fleeting. No doubt Sir John Franklin, who came to be known as “The Man Who Ate His Boots,” and his doomed 1845 Arctic expedition team would have loved to have known just how fleeting before they ran into a land of ice where a few years before there had been open sea.

The book is full of quirks of history. For instance, Stamford Raffles, whose History of Java was one of the first and most prominent books of Southeast Asian historiography, had his hopes for a prosperous colony in Java destroyed by Tambora and its aftereffect, and would then go on to found a new colony in Singapore in 1819. He is also the founder of the London Zoo.

Tambora also triggered a contagion of end-of-times fever, most notably the Bologna Prophecy, which involved an astronomer outdoing Harold Camping by declaring the world would end on July 18, 1816. His prophecy kicked off a vertiginous frenzy of doomsaying, and he was thrown in jail by fearful Bolognese officials. Alas, as Wood points out, the fever had spread all over Europe. In Ghent, three-quarters of the population reportedly mistook some regimental music for the call of the Day of Judgment and went running out in the street. The Queen of Sweden led 6,000 peasants to prayer at a cathedral for deliverance.

While the book is meant to serve as a wake-up call for the societal nastiness that awaits a changed global climate (and it strains in parts to do so), amid all the doom and gloom, Wood does highlight some of humanity’s resiliency. Nation-states began moving toward systems for dealing with health and food crises, the widespread loss in livestock prompted a German to create the ancestor of the bicycle, and modern meteorology was developed. That resiliency is what some who oppose climate change legislation point to, arguing that humans can innovate their way out of any disaster that ensues.

“I think those who say that, ‘Oh yes, we can rely on innovation’—hope is not a strategy,” counters Wood emphatically.

Besides, the price tag for that motivation—famine, disease, Harold Campings everywhere—is surely too steep.