Tambora, The Volcano That Changed History

200 years ago, the eruption of the Indonesian volcano Tambora set off a series of events that would change world history. This is often overlooked for various reasons. The same year, 1815, is better remembered for the Battle of Waterloo and the Congress of Vienna. And the eruption of Krakatoa looms much larger in our memories, though it was a fraction of the one of Tambora; but the telegraph blew up the Krakatoa incident, much as the internet does with stories today.


Mount Tambora

It's a sunny afternoon in Stuttgart in 2014. The Stuttgart Beer Festival, the second largest beer festival in the world runs parallel to its better known cousin Oktoberfest in Munich. Groups of visitors stroll through the streets between stalls, bumper cars and brightly lit high-tech carousels. It smells of grilled sausages and roasted almonds. Nothing suggests that this light-hearted entertaining spectacle was the result of one of the worst natural disasters in recorded human history. A disaster that struck Indonesia 200 years ago.

April 5, 1815. On the Indonesian island of Celebes (what is today Sulawesi), a heavily armed sailing ship of the British East India Company was lying to port. Towards evening, the crew heard a mighty roar reminiscent of heavy artillery fire interspersed with gunfire. The captain immediately ordered a detachment of sailors aboard and sailed clear for action on the tropical sea expecting to encounter pirates out on the prowl - without success, the waters were empty of ships.

It must have been about three quarters of an hour later in Batavia (modern day Jakarta) which was then the largest port in the island of Java. Located about 1,500 kilometers east of Celebes (Sulawesi), a low rumble could be heard. Because it sounded like thunder of cannons, the Vice Governor of the British colony Sir Stamford Raffles (1781-1826) suspected a ship in distress. He sent a sweeping search into the ocean waters - but no trace of castaways or ship could be found.

In Batavia (Jakarta), the next morning started with a warm rain of ashes. A volcano had erupted - and judging by the volume of his thundering he had to be located in close proximity to the port city. The residents were expecting earthquakes as they had always accompanied the volcanic eruptions of the past. But for five anxious days nothing happened. 

Starting the evening of April 10, 1815, and continuing the next day, a series of violent explosions shook the entire 4,000 km long Indonesian archipelago. In the book "Volcanoes" by Time-Life-Publishing the following days are described: "In Gresik, on the coast of Java, which was about 500 miles from the center of the explosions, a correspondent of Raffles' awoke from a particularly long sleep on the morning of  April 12. Outside, it was still dark but when he held his clock to light a lamp, the bewildered man found that it was already half past eight and half an hour after sunrise. At 9 o'clock it still wasn't bright. 'At 10 clock,' he wrote to Raffles later, 'I could see a faint glimmer of light in the sky, and an hour later, the birds began to chirp as usual at dawn.' While the roar of distant explosions continued, the writer sat down to a candlelit breakfast.

For three days, the skies over much of Indonesia remained dark. The British colonial administration in Batavia received reports that the island of Sumbawa, a thousand miles away, was the center of the disaster. There, the 4000 meter high volcano Tambora had silently towered over the rain-forest since time immemorial. But three years previously, the giant had awoken. Accompanied by earthquakes, it had begun to expel clouds of steam and ash.

A few days after the titanic explosions, Raffles a boatload of rice to the disaster area. When the sailors approached Sumbawa, they had difficulty recognizing the island. Of the former conical summit of Mount Tambora only a broad, torn plateau remained. Thousands of uprooted trees and strange formations of pumice were floating on the sea and effectively barred the way to the coast. When the ship was finally able to land, the captain of the sailing ship, Lieutenant Owen Phillips, beheld an apocalyptic image. In the streets of ruined villages lay thousands of dead bodies. The majority of the island was covered by a 60-cm-thick layer of mud and ash that had destroyed the crops. Among the survivors, many of whom had been turned deaf by the mighty thunder, cholera was endemic.Those who could still walk had fled inland in search of edible plants. The local Raja under shock told the British officer what had happened. This gave rise to the description that on April 10 at 7 o'clock in the evening three separate columns of fire erupted near the peak of Mount Tambora appearing to come from inside the crater. At great height, their upper ends joined together in the air to form a wild tangled, irregular spiral. After a short time, the whole mountain was like a mass of liquid fire that spread in all directions.

Geologists today talk of pyroclastic flow; the phenomenon is the same that surprised the inhabitants in the ancient cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum in their sleep. It's a mixture of red-hot ash and gas that can be more than 800 degrees Celsius hot and spread like an avalanche. Pyroclastic flows race faster than Formula 1 cars. They burn, choke or poison anything in their way.

The Indonesian archipelago is part of the so-called Ring of Fire, a chain of volcanoes that encompasses the entire Pacific from Antarctica on the West Coast of South and North America to Alaska, across Siberia, Japan and the Philippines to New Zealand. The volcanoes forming part of the ring are among the most dangerous in the world. Where the Pacific Ocean meets land, oceanic and continental tectonic plates meet. Oceanic plates consist mainly of light basaltic rocks. Volcanoes that rise from the ocean floor are comparatively good-natured like the large composite volcanoes of Hawaii. Their lava and is poor in gas and has a low viscosity. Lava from Hawaii's volcanoes seems to be rippling like a mountain stream in the Alps - an eerily beautiful and rather harmless spectacle.

In contrast, continental plates consist mostly of granitic rocks rich in quartz or, to use a chemical term, silica. Along the Ring of Fire, oceanic plates are pushed underneath continental plates. On the surfaces friction heat is generated which can reach 700 kilometers down. On these friction surfaces , magma accumulates and is pressed upwards. On the way to the surface, it gets mixed with liquefied surrounding rock. If this material is siliceous as in the continental crust it becomes a viscous magma that doesn't flow as easily as the one in Hawaii. It clogs the volcanic vent. The magma builds pressure on the lava dome that can make it grow several meters per month. In time, the mountain can't withstand the forces any longer and explodes.

On Sumbawa and its neighboring islands, about 10 000 people were choked, burned by lava or hot ashes or drowned in the powerful tsunami triggered by the quake that followed the eruption. Another 80,000 to 100,000 people died in the following weeks, starving because their fields were buried under masses of ash or struck down by epidemics.

The eruption of Mount Tambora is considered the most devastating volcanic eruption in recorded history. It was way stronger than the eruption of  Krakatoa in 1883. The latter only looms large in our history books because it signaled the beginning of the media age; telegraph lines carried the news all over the globe in 1883 and by printed press into every living room in Europe and America. The energy released by the Tambora eruption equaled six and a half million Hiroshima bombs. Calculations arrive at 150 cubic kilometers of pulverized rock having been catapulted into the atmosphere; that is as much ash as Lake Tahoe contains water. The ash rain fell on an area of ​​two and a half million square kilometers - about one third of Australia. Winds spread fine particles through the atmosphere all around the globe.

The European spring of 1816 was a kaleidoscope of disastrous weather conditions. In Hungary, severe thunderstorms produce reddish brown snow. Southern Italy is covered with yellow flakes. The fields of southern Germany were flooded by torrential rain. Persistent cold kept farmers from plowing and planting their fields to the end of April. April was followed by winter-like cold that made fountains freeze. By the end of June, the growth of crops was barely ankle high. On July 10, severe hailstorms ravaged the sparsely sprouting crops, and on July 31, it snowed.

The crop failure affected people at a particularly inopportune time. Europe had been devastated by the Napoleonic Wars. Agriculture was ailing for lack of manpower, the warehouses were exhausted. The crippled and the unemployed roamed the countryside;they begged or stole to survive. The rural population was additionally burdened by statute labor and taxes to pay for the wars.

All that in turn led to a significant rise in food prices. Statistics show that the prices for bread, meat, wine and many more victuals increased within a few months by a factor three or even four. Many could no longer afford to buy food. From Sicily to Scotland, tens of thousands of starving people were begging for bread. In desperation, they slaughtered horses, dogs and cats, fried rats and consumed carrion. Starving people tried to live off the forest, by gathering and eating grass, clover, moss, roots, overcooked nettles and rowan berries. Educational pamphlets were distributed to help to distinguish edible wild plants from toxic ones. In order to get at least something into their stomachs, people stretched bread dough with hay flowers, ground straw and ground tree bark. The Museum of Bread Culture in Ulm in Germany holds a small booklet from 1834 written by a man named Authenried containing thorough instructions for making bread from wood.

According to estimates of a nutritionist at Tufts University in Massachusetts, hundreds of thousands of people died in Europe alone. Exact numbers will never be known. Malnutrition is rarely reported in historical sources as a cause of death. Hungry people are so weakened that they finally die of infections. Statistics of the Kingdom of Württemberg show that mortality rose steeply and the number of births declined significantly. Diarrhea, wasting sickness, fever, scurvy , and dozens of other diseases killed the starving and emaciated population. Many more died years later of tuberculosis, which had taken root in their weakened bodies.

"Our Father, who art in heaven, give us our daily bread ..." Some suspected a divine punishment: When the need was worst in winter 1816/17, the bells were rung daily at many places. Apparently, too many people had led an ungodly life. The real reason, the volcanic eruption on the other side of the world, no one suspected.

Not even the natural scientists of the time understood the cause. Some blamed the cold, wet summer on sun spots or on the advance of Arctic ice in the North Atlantic which had been reported by sailors. Others said Benjamin Franklin, the versatile co-author of the American Declaration of Independence, was to blame for everything. Through his invention of the lightning rod, the earth core had been heated electrically disturbing its natural balance. It is ironic that the maligned Franklin would probably have come up with the correct solution. Decades earlier, he had linked the unusually harsh winter of 1784/85 to a "dry fog" triggered by outbreaks of a Japanese and an Icelandic volcano.

200 years later, we still don't fully understand all the correlations of how volcanic eruptions affect the weather. The titanic explosion of Mount Tambora ejected huge amounts of sulfurous gases to a height of about 70 kilometers. There they formed together with a steam fog tiny droplets of sulfuric acid. These so-called aerosols spread with the winds around the earth. The droplets refracted solar radiation that could no longer pass through the atmosphere. As a result, surface temperatures dropped.

The aerosol veil conjured by Tambora pushed the average global temperatures to drop by one to two degrees Celsius - in some regions by up to five degrees. Some researchers speculate that volcanic eruptions of this magnitude also trigger El Niño - irregularities in the distribution of warm and cold currents in the Pacific. El Niño turns the weather in many regions of the world on its head; it can, for example, trigger droughts in Australia and Indonesia, typhoons in Tahiti or torrential rains in the deserts of Chile and Peru.

About 350 active volcanoes are currently counted on Earth. Every year about 50 of them erupt. At least half a billion people are threatened directly or indirectly by volcanic eruptions, which is mainly due to the rapidly increasing world population and the ever-growing mega-cities constantly growing along the Ring of Fire.

In 1816, the whole world was affected, not only Europe: Along the east coast of Canada and the young United States, there was virtually no spring. Right in the middle of summer, cold, frost and snow destroyed the crops. Freshly shorn sheep froze to death in the protection of stables, and birds fell dead from the trees. Hunger and poverty among the farmers, artisans and laborers of North America were great; some historians assume that the hunger years of 1816-17 were one of the triggers for settlers to cross the Appalachian Mountains into the Midwest.

At the same time, China was hit by devastating floods. Thousands of people died. In India, the monsoon rains didn't fall leaving large regions with parched fields while countless people left their homes. Some researchers suggest that a worldwide cholera epidemic was caused by this migration the north of India. The disease had been limited to the Hindu pilgrimage routes along the Ganges. Now, migrants displaced by famine carried the pathogen to the rain rich Bay of Bengal. From there, the bacterium Vibrio cholera reached British troops and with them entered Nepal and Afghanistan. It thereby reached the silk route and over it the Caspian Sea from where it spread up the Volga to the Baltic states; in the other direction it used Muslim pilgrimage routes to Mecca and the Middle East. When the first wave of cholera hit New York in the summer of 1832, the inhabitants of the city fled in panic into the countryside. No one suspected that this epidemic was an indirect consequence of the volcanic eruption in distant Indonesia.

Many European sovereigns - displaying the arrogance of absolutist power - accepted the catastrophe as an unalterable fact. The Swiss-French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) had even argued that it is in the interest of population control, if a larger number of people die every now and then. King Frederick I of Württemberg ignored hunger and misery in his kingdom for months. Instead he indulged his passion for hunting. Fortunately for his subjects, the monarch died in late October 1816. His son and heir William I and his wife, the Russian Grand Duchess Catherine, reacted a few days after his accession to the throne. He passed a law that forbade the export of grain and imported grain from Russia. In addition, they had the supplies from the magisterial warehouses distributed to the people. And that was just covering the bare necessities. In 1818, William I had set up an agricultural academy in Hohenheim Castle, to teach farmers how to do business in order to avoid as far as possible the repeat of a devastating famine.

According to a study from Tufts University, the foundations of modern disaster relief were actually created in the famine years of 1816/17. The insight that the common man deserves help in times of need, that governments can deal with natural disasters, and that the right to food is a fundamental right began to evolve. However, this was by no means out of compassion: The ruling class also attended their hungry and desperate subjects out of fear that they could band together and plan uprisings. The French Revolution of 1789 was a stark reminder.

The price of oats had also risen to unprecedented heights. Keeping horses became a drain on the finances of even the well-heeled. This led to the invention of the velocipede, the predecessor of the bicycle. Baron Karl von Drais showed that with his invention he could half the travelling time for pedestrians over long distances, as the local German newspapers related in autumn 1817.

Summer on the British isles was even more dreary than usual. Percy and Mary Shelley decide therefore to spend their summer holidays at Lord Byron's on lake Geneva in the hope for more clement weather there. As we now know, there was no summer that year, and the company kept busy inventing ghost stories. Prometheus Unbound and Frankenstein are products of the volcano Tambora, you wouldn't have guessed that, would you?

A sunny afternoon at the Stuttgart Beer Festival, the second largest beer festival in the world: No one remembers that this serene spectacle has its origins in the most devastating volcanic eruption in history on the distant island of Sumbawa. And yet, the fair was launched in 1818 as a direct response to the famine. After starvation, the first heavily laden harvest wagons had rolled into town in autumn 1817 and were welcomed by crying, cheering people. The fair was an exhibition and agricultural fair intended to encourage the farmers of the Kingdom to use modern methods in agriculture and animal husbandry. It should help to prevent future catastrophes.

Further reading
1,000 Years Fun at the Fair
Robert Koch: With System Against Disease
Royal connections Can Be Deceiving