Setting the scene

Imagine a tranquil pacific heaven. Sandy beaches, warm ocean and gentle breezes. This is in many ways as close to paradise as humans have come. Plenty of fish in the seas. It is a world away from the horrors of Europe in 1815. A Europe where the Napoleonic Wars were entering their final, lethal stages. The battle for the Enlightenment seemed on a knife edge in Europe, and the seeds of it were clinging on in the fledgling United States. Everything seemed to revolve around people in Europe if you take the narrow view, one that is heavily centred on Western civilisation.

Jane Austin published Emma, the War of 1812 officially ended, the British conquered Ceylon, countries in Europe were being created and breakthroughs in technology were being made. All in all, it would seem like the old school of history, the view of the age of man shaping the world was particularly applicable.

In Java in April 1815, one particular man Thomas Stamford Raffles, the Lt Governor was going to have a very, very bad day even in paradise. In fact he was going to have a series of them. They would sharply crush the notion that something as insignificant as mankind was the cause of the greatest events in 1815. Napoleon might have restarted the wars, and appeared to shape the course of history, but in fact nature was going to do something spectacular and heartbreaking.

Raffles was a really interesting guy. He was an aristocratic and had been a key player in the conquest of Java from the French. He was appointed Lt Governor during the 45 day campaign to take Java from the French. He was clever and able to negotiate local politics but at the same time he led military actions against native Javanese who resisted. He crushed the Javanese Princes and looted a royal archive. He also seized nearby territories for the British in case Java was to be returned to the Dutch after the Napoleonic Wars ended. In this respect he appeared much like the typical image of a heartless European conqueror. He had another side though; he was interested in history, arranging the cataloguing of numerous historical sites of importance in Java. He instituted farming reforms, and made modest attempts at curtailing the slave trade although he owned slaves himself. In his future governorships he would go further to abolish slavery entirely as well as writing a history of Java and going on to found Singapore. He would write a book on Zoology and be instrumental in the founding of London Zoo.

You can see in him a prototype for many of the Victorian empire builders who often curiously blended extreme military hawkishness with immense intellectual drive and curiosity.

The event

On the 05 April 1815 Mount Tambora, located in the north of Sawumba Island near Java would begin the first in a series of mega eruptions. These would have devastating impacts not just on the local area, but eventually around the world.

Whatever our modern views on colonial military conquest, it is important to recognise the sheer talent of men like Raffles. Yet during the eruption of Mt Tambora, it is painfully clear how little power or influence even a man of the energy and intellect like Raffles could actually have.

Between 05 April 1815 and 10 April 1815, Mt Tambora would erupt three main times. These eruptions would be some of the largest in recorded human history. They were on a scale that can only be realistically be described using language like biblical, or cataclysmic. There’s a great article in Wired magazine that gave a fantastic scientific summary of the sheer energy involved. I’m going to quote it now, but you can find it online on Wired magazines website.

[QUOTE] An explosive eruption like Tambora releases huge amount of energy. A rough estimate for the 1815 event is ~1.4 x 1020joules of energy were released across the few days of eruption. One ton of TNT releases ~4.2 x 109 joules, so this eruption was 33 billion tons of TNT. That’s 2.2 million Little Boys (the first atomic bomb). The US uses about 1.17 x 1020 joules of power each year (at least in 2007), so Tambora, in the span of a few days, released about the same amount of energy as the consumption of the entire United States in one year (or ~ 1/4 of the entire world’s annual energy consumption!) If you want to compare it to other geologic events, the 2004 Indonesian earthquake that generated the Boxing Day tsunami releases ~110 petajoules of energy (1015joules). That still leaves Tambora ~1200 times more powerful than that M9.3 earthquake. [END QUOTE]


What do those numbers mean? Honestly I don’t know. The human mind can’t really cope with that kind of scale. We can’t grasp it. Put it this way, the explosions of Mt Tambora could even be heard as far away as 1,615 miles in Sumatra. That’s like an explosion going off in New York City that could be heard in Denver Colorado. Scientists can use the Volcanic Explosivity Index to record how explosive an eruption is. This scale is logarithmic, running from 0-8. That means each step up the scale is ten times more powerful than the last.

So let’s put Mt Tambora on the scale and relate it to a few eruptions you might have heard of. The basic on all the time eruptions in Hawaii that you might have seen beautiful pictures of, they clock in at 0-1 on the scale. The Soufriere Hills Volcanoes in Monsarrat are on the 3, whilst stepping up to 4 includes major eruptions like Eyjafjallajökull (2010) in Iceland which was a huge media event, it ground all the planes and was on the news and I’m sure we all remember it. These are big, pretty disruptive events, but that only got up to a number 4 on the scale. Stepping up to 5 now includes terrifying events like Mt Vesuvius and Mt Saint Helens. If you remember the Mt Saint Helen’s eruption it was staggering. I can still remember the impression it made on me as a young child watching news reports.

Moving up another step to 6 gets to Pinatubo, which cooled global temperatures by about 1 degrees and also includes Mt Krakatoa. Ok, I think you are beginning to get an idea now because now we are stepping up to 7, which includes monsters like Mt Tambora. You have not experienced anything like this in your life time and you should be profoundly grateful. Tambora is the only confirmed VEI 7 eruption during human recorded history.

There’s a Minoan eruption of Thera in the middle of the second millennium BC may have been, and it is suspected, although not proved, that the eruption of Samalas volcano in 1257 was also a VEI scale 7 eruption and it might have helped trigger the mini ice age. The reality is then that no human being on Earth today has experienced anything as powerful as a VEI 7 volcano, and Mt Tambora is the only confirmed VEI7 incident in recorded human history.

A VEI 7 eruption is capable of changing the climate on a global scale. It can end civilisations. Raffles and men like him would be in the middle of observing and trying to pick up the pieces. Then the changes would spread around the world. We will look at the wider impact next episode. These would include the spread of Cholera, changes in art and literature to reflect mass famine, increased migration in the United States, deaths world wide, flooding and devastating changes to weather, including reduced sunlight for months. For now, we are going to look at the eruption and its immediate impact in more detail.

The amount of material blasted out into the air caused a zone of darkness covering a radius of (373miles) 600km. If you are struggling with that distance, imagine the distance from New York City to Pittsberg Ohio or from London to north of Glasgow in Scotland. Then turn it from day time to night time and leave it like that for two whole days. Now try to imagine that you have no idea how volcanoes work, or any kind of modern science. No electric lights or backup generators. No satellites or radios or reserve communications. Imagine instead that you live on an island in the pacific and there is a massive noise then darkness falls. If you are educated like Raffles you might look for natural causes but you would be wholly ignorant of almost the entire scientific knowledge you need to have an understanding of what is happening. Even though the great Benjamin Franklin had recently proposed that volcanoes might affect the weather in some, fully understanding of what a volcano does and how it works was over a century away. For the uneducated and for the bulk of the native populations in the local, this would be framed in more religious terms.

Remember that beautiful scene I told you to picture at the beginning. Well it was gone; blasted out of existence by the titanic forces of Mt Tambora. Erased. Volcanoes have a number of destructive characteristics. There is the initial explosion, which contains immense energy. This not only forces magma to the surface, but also rips rock from the volcanic chambers and surface free. There is also the massive devastating pyroclastic flows: waves of superheated gas containing gas, ash and rock that can travel hundreds of kilometres an hour. Often people nearby have only a few moments before they get hit and killed. Humans are simply too fragile to survive close to a VEI7 explosion. Even those further away are in terrible danger. The immense heat and energy can cause hurricanes of ash and debris. Toxic gases can kill thousands, and the thick clouds of ash can become so heavy that breathing is impossible, or people & buildings can be crushed under the weight. If near water, devastating Tsunami’s can be created. In the case of Tambora, one travelled 500km, finally hitting the East coast of Java with a 2 metre high wave.

There is also a following wave of rock, ash and pumice that can rain down for days. This choking ash can mean that plant and animal life is swiftly killed, with rivers being turned into ash filled soup. Within 24 hours the ash cloud thrown up by Mt Tambora covered an area the size of Australia. By the end of the year, the ash would have risen and spread out into the stratosphere to form an invisible but powerful veil of ash around the entire planet. This would reflect sunlight, and drastic cool global temperatures.

We were lucky, if that’s the right word, to have witnesses like Raffles to record the event. Perhaps at another time in human history we wouldn’t know about it except from the geological record. Even lacking the most basic equipment, these observation accounts are invaluable and also chilling. For example Raffles says he was informed by an employee that


At ten, P. M. of the 1st of April, we heard a noise resembling a cannonade, which lasted, at intervals, till nine o’clock next day; it continued at times loud, at others resembling distant thunder; but on the night of the 10th, the explosions became truly tremendous, frequently shaking the earth and sea violently. Towards morning they again slackened, and continued to lessen gradually till the 14th, when they ceased altogether. On the morning of the 3rd of April, ashes began to fall like fine snow; and in the course of the day they were half-an-inch deep on the ground. From that time till the 11th the air was constantly impregnated with them to such a degree, that it was unpleasant to stir out of doors. On the morning of the 11th, the opposite shore of Bali was completely obscured in a dense cloud, which gradually approached the Java shore, and was dreary and terrific. By one, P. M., candles were necessary; by four, P.M., it was pitch-dark; and so it continued until two o’clock of the afternoon of the 12th, ashes continuing to fall abundantly: they were eight inches in depth at this time.’


Perhaps you think of ash as a bit of dust. A minor inconvenience. Well when it comes to Volcanoes, it isn’t. A volcanic ash cloud can contain

Carbon dioxide

Sulfates (sulfur dioxide)

Hydrochloric acid

Hydroflouric acid

As well as various minerals and fibres. All of these can cause horrific lung damage.

Perhaps you could visualise it more like this. Imagine you go and light five giant BBQ’s in your back garden. Now wait until the heat has died down enough that the coals are grey and just about approachable. Now get inside a small shed say. Then have two friends tip the whole lot onto your head, and they then shut you inside. Picture the heat, the fact that you can’t go anywhere, the ash fills your eyes and burns your lungs. Every breath you take is congested and a fiery agony. Imagine the pain and twisted horror as you realise there’s no escape and no help. This is the world of the survivor in their last moments. If you are far enough away, then it is a rain of cold ash. That brings darkness like Raffles described.

12,000 human beings died in the initial eruptions in ash falls, pyroclastic flows and clouds of superheated gas up to 1,000oC. Some of their carbonised remains were buried under the lava.

In C19th Java and the Pacific, there were no international rescue services that could help. No cars or planes to evacuate. No aid workers being flown in. No dried food supplies and water tankers. No emergency generators. Nothing. One of the most devasting natural disasters in human history was striking at a time when humans hadn’t even fully mastered primitive steam engines in any but the most basic ways.

On the back of this were the Tsunamis and flooding triggered by the eruptions, and reaching up higher into the atmosphere was a layer of ash that would bring darkness to the region.

Now I really, really need to remind you that the whole world in the C19th was basically either agrarian, pastoral or hunter-gather with little in the way of food or water storage as we would understand it today. So that meant most food production was highly localised. Disruption to local food production, even for a single season could result in real hardship, even if the wider country the area was located in was unaffected; local famines could and did erupt savagely. The area’s covered by ash were absolutely out of production. Death by starvation was absolutely guaranteed for a large number of the survivors. There was nothing they could do. They were doomed. That’s hard to get your head round today. There are no accounts from them. I can only picture some of the ash covered survivors walking around in a daze, blinded and slowly starving. Unable to find water or relief, the ash blighting their lungs.

Raffles dispatched Lt Philips to try to see what was going on and give aid. He discovered emptied villages, and desperate people reduced to eating plant stems and palm leaves.

The Rajah of Saugar told Lt Philips during the initial investigations

[QUOTE] Between nine and ten p.m. ashes began to fall, and soon after a violent whirlwind ensued, which blew down nearly every house in the village of Saugar, carrying the tops and light parts along with it.

“In the part of Saugar adjoining [Mount Tambora] its effects were much more violent, tearing up by the roots the largest trees and carrying them into the air together with men, houses, cattle, and whatever else came within its influence. This will account for the immense number of floating trees seen at sea.

“The sea rose nearly twelve feet higher than it had ever been known to be before, and completely spoiled the only small spots of rice lands in Saugar, sweeping away houses and every thing within its reach. [END QUOTE]

An entry from the British Naval Chronicle 1815 July to December vol 34 shows how dreadful the local situation was. This is a bit of a long quote, so bare with me

[QUOTE] Eruption of Mount Tomboro. Extract of a Letter, dated the 29th of May, 1815, from Batavia, from a Merchant of that Place.

“We have had one of the most tremendous eruptions of the Mountain Tomboro, that ever perhaps took place in any part of the world; this mountain is situation on the island of Subawa, and is distant from Batavia not less than 350 miles. We heard the explosions here distinctly, and had some of the ashes. It was totally dark at Macassar long after the sun was up; and at noon, at Sourabaya, the sun succeeded in enlightening the good folks so as to allow them to see some yards around; the ashes lay at Macassar, which is 250 miles from Sambawa, 1 1/2 inches deep. Captain Feen, of the Dispatch,and Captain Eatwell, of the Benares, who have visited the island since the eruptions, both declare, that the anchorage is much changed, and that they found the sea, for many miles around the island, so completely covered with trunks of trees, pumice stone &c. as he was told, that a village was inundated, and had three fathoms of water over it. Great numbers of the miserable inhabitants have perished, and others die daily. The crops of paddy (rice) have been utterly destroyed over a great part of the island; so that the situation of the unfortunate survivors will be really pitiable.” [END QUOTE]

Lt Philip would state

[QUOTE] the extreme misery to which the inhabitants have been reduced is shocking to behold. There were still on the road side the remains of several corpses, and the marks of many others where they had been interred: the villages almost entirely deserted and the houses fallen down, the surviving inhabitants having dispersed in search of food.” [END QUOTE]

As the locals reeled, and the Europeans struggle to think of a meaningful response, the cloud of ash rose inexorably up into the atmosphere. For some of the immediate local tribes, the even could only be understood in religious terms. The further away from the eruption, the less knowledge there was of it.

The local impacts would be devastating, causing immediate deaths of around 70,000 people from starvation or lack of water on top of the 12,000 that had been immediately killed in the eruption. Some villages literally sank. Cattle and horses died in droves, and rich rice fields were destroyed. Temperatures plummeted and many people were plunged into darkness. Officials reported having to light candles during the day to work. Tsunamis wrecked costal regions. Worse though, the immense disruption to the South Asian Monsoon would cause famines and create the conditions in India for the rise of the great scourge of the Victorian age, and its most famous disease – Cholera. A disease that will continue to wreck havoc, even today.

The massive famines in China weakened government control and led to massive rebellions against the Qing dynasty. The knock on effect of this, it has been suggested, was to allow Yunna to become a Chinese narco state. It would play a central role in global poppy production, in turn influencing Victorian Britain’s Opium Wars.

Sadly most of the sources from this period are from the more insulated aristocracy. As you can see from the quote of the Raja, even the rich suffered of course, but we don’t have the same local accounts from famine stricken peasants or workers in South East Asia as we do of the Irish population during the terrible Irish famines.

People around the world would be struck by freak weather in ways they couldn’t understand or deal with. Ireland, Switzerland and America were extremely hard hit as we will see next episode and the one after. During these episodes on Mt Tambora the climate disruption we will see the massive changes it wrecks on human civilisation and how it changes the very direction of history itself. Join me next time as we see what happens to the world as Summer itself fails, and the weather seems to dive into insanity. Kings, emperors, peasants or soldiers. No one, and no where would be untouched, and the impact would have far reaching consequences for the shape of history.