The Year Without Summer: 1816 and the Volcano That Darkened the World and Changed History

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9780312676452: The Year Without Summer: 1816 and the Volcano That Darkened the World and Changed History

Like Winchester's Krakatoa, The Year Without Summer reveals a year of dramatic global change long forgotten by history

In the tradition of Krakatoa, The World Without Us, and Guns, Germs and Steel comes a sweeping history of the year that became known as 18-hundred-and-froze-to-death. 1816 was a remarkable year―mostly for the fact that there was no summer. As a result of a volcanic eruption in Indonesia, weather patterns were disrupted worldwide for months, allowing for excessive rain, frost, and snowfall through much of the Northeastern U.S. and Europe in the summer of 1816.

In the U.S., the extraordinary weather produced food shortages, religious revivals, and extensive migration from New England to the Midwest. In Europe, the cold and wet summer led to famine, food riots, the transformation of stable communities into wandering beggars, and one of the worst typhus epidemics in history. 1816 was the year Frankenstein was written. It was also the year Turner painted his fiery sunsets. All of these things are linked to global climate change―something we are quite aware of now, but that was utterly mysterious to people in the nineteenth century, who concocted all sorts of reasons for such an ungenial season.

Making use of a wealth of source material and employing a compelling narrative approach featuring peasants and royalty, politicians, writers, and scientists, The Year Without Summer by William K. Klingaman and Nicholas P. Klingaman examines not only the climate change engendered by this event, but also its effects on politics, the economy, the arts, and social structures.

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About the Author:

WILLIAM K. KLINGAMAN has taught at the University of Virginia and the University of Maryland. He is the author of six previous books, including narrative histories of the years 1918, 1929 and 1941.

NICHOLAS P. KLINGAMAN holds a Ph.D. in Meteorology from the University of Reading.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

1.
THE VOLCANO
 

JUST BEFORE SUNSET on April 5, 1815, a massive explosion shook the volcanic island of Sumbawa in the Indonesian archipelago. For two hours, a stream of lava erupted from Mount Tambora, the highest peak in the region, sending a plume of ash eighteen miles into the sky.
More than eight hundred miles away, Thomas Stamford Raffles, the lieutenant-governor of Java, heard the blast at his residence and assumed it came from cannon firing in the distance. Other British authorities on the island made the same mistake. Fearing a neighboring village was under attack, the commander of the city of Djogjokarta, in central Java, dispatched troops to repel the invaders. Officials along the coast interpreted the sounds as signals from a ship in distress, and launched rescue boats to look for survivors.
At Makassar on the southwestern tip of Sulawesi, 240 miles northeast of Tambora, the commander of the Benares, a cruiser of the British East India Company, reported “a firing of cannon” on April 5. The explosions appeared to come from the south; as they continued, “the reports seemed to approach much nearer, and sounded like heavy guns occasionally, with slighter reports between.” Assuming that pirates were in the area, the Benares put to sea and spent the next three days scouring nearby islands for any signs of trouble, but found nothing. Nearly five hundred miles farther to the east, the British resident on the island of Ternate heard “several very distinct reports like heavy cannon,” and sent another cruiser, the Teignmouth, to investigate. It, too, returned empty-handed.
British authorities might have been excused for assuming that the threatening sounds came from potential enemies rather than the earth itself. They were not yet accustomed to the frequent volcanic eruptions that plagued the Indonesian islands. Britain had gained control of Java and the surrounding islands less than four years earlier, when British troops overwhelmed a vastly outnumbered band of French defenders who themselves had held Java for only a short time, having taken it from the Dutch when France conquered the Netherlands in 1794. By the spring of 1815, neither the government in London nor the British East India Company was entirely certain that they wanted to keep the island, since the expense of administering and defending it had outweighed the commercial benefits thus far.
Responsibility for British policy on the scene lay squarely with Raffles himself. The son of a ship’s captain, Raffles—who actually was born at sea, off the coast of Jamaica—dreamt of a British maritime empire throughout South Asia, an “Eastern insular Empire” that would provide new markets for English cotton and woolen textiles, and a profitable supply of coffee and sugar for Europe. It was Raffles who had persuaded the governor general of India, Lord Minto, to seize Java in the first place. Raffles also hoped to use Java as an avenue to improve relations with Japan, which he viewed as a rising Asiatic power. Meanwhile, heeding Minto’s advice to “do as much good as we can” while governing Java, Raffles reformed the colonial administration of the island, limiting the powers of the great landowners over their tenants and ameliorating the worst abuses of slavery while banning the importation of slaves under fourteen years of age.
But Raffles’ interests in the region extended beyond politics and commerce. After years of study, he was sufficiently fluent in the Malay language to conduct discussions directly with local chieftains. He regularly employed botanists and zoologists to obtain—at his own expense—specimens of local flora and wildlife, some of which he had preserved in spirit and shipped back to Britain. In his capacity as president of the Batavian Society, dedicated to the study of Java’s natural history, Raffles frequently toured the island and recorded his observations of geological phenomena. Several weeks before Mount Tambora erupted, Raffles became the first European to ascend a nearby mountain known as Gunong Gede; by using thermometers to measure the difference in temperature between the base and the peak, Raffles and his companions determined that they had climbed at least seven thousand feet. “We had a most extensive prospect from the summit,” he subsequently wrote to a friend. “The islands all round were quite distinct and we traced the sea beyond the southernmost point of Sumatra; the surf on the south coast was visible to the naked eye.”
So Raffles’ scientific curiosity was piqued when the cannonlike explosions from the southeast continued throughout the night of April 5 and into the morning hours. Shortly after dawn, a light rain of ash provided evidence that a volcano somewhere in the region had erupted. Few suspected Mount Tambora. It was generally believed that Tambora was extinct, although natives living in the nearest village had reported rumblings from deep inside the mountain during the past year. Besides, few on Java believed that such powerful sounds could have come from a volcano several hundred miles away. As Raffles subsequently noted, “the sound appeared to be so close, that in each district it seemed near at hand, and was generally attributed to an eruption either from the mountains Merapi, Klut, or Bromo.”
As a fog of ash drifted across Java, the sun faded; the warm, humid air grew stifling, and everything seemed unnaturally still. The oppressive pressure, Raffles noted, “seemed to forbode an earthquake.” Over the next several days, however, the explosions gradually subsided. Volcanic ash continued to fall, but in diminishing quantities. Relieved, Raffles returned to his routine administrative duties.
*   *   *
FAR from Tambora and the island of Java, a different sort of shock greeted the rulers and citizens of Europe in April 1815: Napoléon had returned to Paris.
The Emperor had spent the past year ruling the island of Elba, a rocky, desolate piece of real estate of no discernible strategic importance off the coast of Italy. Sixteen miles long and only seven miles across at its widest point, Elba in the early nineteenth century was home mainly to goats, deserted ruins, a variety of vines and scraggly shrubs on arid hillsides, and approximately twelve thousand impoverished peasants with a well-deserved reputation for being “extremely irritable” and “almost universally ignorant.” Its primary natural resource was rocks. One French observer who visited Elba shortly before Napoléon’s arrival warned that the island’s unremittingly inhospitable topography was likely to “fatigue the senses and impart sensations of sorrow to the soul.”
Napoléon had been consigned to Elba by the victorious allied coalition of Britain, Prussia, Austria, and Russia shortly after abdicating the French throne on April 6, 1814. (Perhaps as an ironic jest, they allowed him to retain the title of “Emperor.”) But the Allied statesmen who gathered at Vienna to sort out the consequences of nearly two decades of war neglected to provide a jailer, or even an effective network of informants to keep them apprised of Napoléon’s movements. Encouraged by press reports of widespread popular disaffection with the restored Bourbon monarchy in Paris, Napoléon decided that his former subjects would welcome him back. And so on February 25, 1815, accompanied by slightly more than a thousand troops, forty horses, and four cannon, Napoléon sailed away from Elba unopposed.
Six days later he landed at Golfe Juan, about a mile west of Cannes. “Frenchmen! In my exile I have heard your complaints and your wishes,” he exclaimed. “I have arrived in spite of every obstacle, and every danger.” Napoléon marched north rapidly, opposition crumbling as his entourage expanded at every town. “Taking towns at his liking and crowns at his leisure / From Elba to Lyons and Paris he goes,” crowed Lord Byron, who admired Napoléon and fancied himself an English counterpart of the Eagle. Although many of Napoléon’s former subjects—particularly his troops—greeted him enthusiastically, others responded more warily. Their caution reflected the heavy costs of Napoléon’s previous quest for glory: more than 900,000 French soldiers dead, and a depleted national treasury now saddled with millions of francs of reparations due the Allies. Napoléon attempted to allay their anxieties by publicly disavowing any new imperial ambitions. “I want less to be sovereign of France,” he told the people of Grenoble, “than the first of her citizens.”
News of Napoléon’s flight reached Vienna on March 7. Stunned, the Allied representatives decided within hours to send troops to oppose Napoléon, but they also embargoed the news from France for several days until they were prepared to make a public statement. Several days later, they jointly declared that by reappearing in France, Napoléon had proved himself “an enemy and disturber of the peace of the world,” and that together, “the sovereigns of Europe would be ready to give the King of France and the French nation the assistance necessary to restore peace.”
King Louis XVIII would need all the help he could get. Twenty-two years after the execution of his brother, Louis XVI, few Frenchmen outside of a die-hard circle of royalists desired to return to the days of a pre-Revolutionary monarchy. Too much land belonging to the king, the aristocracy, and the church had been dispensed to too many members of the Third Estate to turn back the clock. Nor had a year of life under the restored Bourbon dynasty endeared King Louis to his subjects. Facing an immense national debt which he inherited from Napoléon, Louis’ ministers found it necessary to slash the army budget, cancelling contracts for military supplies and throwing nearly three hundred thousand soldiers out of work. The government also reduced spending on public construction projects while maintaining an oppressive array of taxes. As unemployment rose along with the price of bread, hungry citizens in Channel ports rioted against the shipment of grain to Britain. “We are really going on very badly,” wrote one government official, “and we must do better if we do not wish to perish completely.”
Louis himself engendered little personal loyalty, or even respect; a British bishop once said that the French king was “a man fit only to cook his own capons.” Fifty-eight years old and so grossly overweight that he could not sit on a horse, Louis abhorred hard work and delegated authority with alacrity. Despite a modest measure of charm in private conversations, Louis never developed a compelling public presence. Certainly he paled in comparison with the charismatic former emperor. As Napoléon hastened towards the capital in March, covering two hundred miles in six days, Louis grew increasingly anxious. Ominous strains of the incendiary Marseillaise rang through Paris streets; royal troops deserted en masse and went over to Napoléon; and newspaper editorials likened the situation to the eve of the Terror, when nobles and monarchists were slaughtered. Recognizing that, as one writer put it, “the Parisians love for their King has so died down that barely a spark remains,” Louis decided on the evening of March 18 to flee Paris.
Three days later, Napoléon entered the city without a shot being fired. By the first week of April, however, it was clear that the weary and impoverished French public lacked any appetite for ambitious schemes to restore the glory of the empire. Napoléon’s proposals for new taxes to fund a revitalized army met with widespread opposition. Visible signs of disaffection appeared; rallies in support of the emperor’s return clashed with demonstrations demanding his ouster. To bolster his defenses against the Allied assault he knew was coming, Napoléon issued orders on April 8 for a general mobilization of the French nation. Meanwhile, he assured the sovereigns of Europe (whom he formally referred to as “my brothers”) that he wanted nothing more than “the maintenance of an honourable peace.”
But more than anything else, France—and the rest of Europe—desperately needed a breathing space. A year earlier, the Marquis de Caulaincourt had written that “the need for rest was so universally felt through every class of society, and in the army, that peace at any price had become the ruling passion of the day.” Napoléon’s return from Elba only deepened the prevailing exhaustion. “Our objective is to make sure that our children have years of peace,” noted the Austrian general Karl Schwarzenberg, “and that the world has some repose. The Emperor Napoléon had shown all too plainly of late that he desires neither of these things.”
*   *   *
AROUND seven o’clock on the evening of April 10, Mount Tambora erupted once again, this time far more violently. Three columns of flaming lava shot into the air, meeting briefly at their peak in what one eyewitness termed “a troubled confused manner.” Almost immediately the entire mountain appeared to be consumed by liquid fire, a fountain of ash, water, and molten rock shooting in every direction. Pumice stones—some walnut-sized but others twice the size of a man’s fist—rained down upon the village of Sanggar, nineteen miles away. After an hour, so much ash and dust had been hurled into the atmosphere that darkness hid the fiery mountaintop from view.
As the ash clouds thickened, hot lava racing down the mountain slope heated the air above it to thousands of degrees. The air quickly rose, leaving behind a vacuum into which cooler air rushed from all directions. The resulting whirlwind tore up trees by the roots and swept up men, cattle, and horses. Virtually every house in Sanggar was flattened. The village of Tambora, closer to the volcano, vanished under a flood of pumice. Cascading lava slammed into the ocean, destroying all aquatic life in its path, and creating tsunamis nearly fifteen feet high which swept away everything within their reach. Violent explosions from the reaction of lava with cold seawater threw even greater quantities of ash into the atmosphere, and created vast fields of pumice stones along the shoreline. These fields, some of which were three miles wide, were light enough to float; they drifted out to sea where they were driven west by the prevailing winds and ocean currents. Like giant icebergs, the pumice fields remained a hazard to ships for years after the eruption. The British ship Fairlie encountered one in the South Indian Ocean in October 1815, more than 2,000 miles west-southwest of Tambora. The crew initially mistook the ash for seaweed, but when they approached they were shocked “to find it [composed of] burnt cinders, evidently volcanic. The sea was covered with it during the next two days.” As there was no land for hundreds of miles (and evidently being unable to believe that the pumice could have traveled that far) the crew attributed the field to an underwater eruption of unknown location.
At ten o’clock the magma columns—which now consisted almost entirely of molten rock and ash, most of the water having boiled away and evaporated—collapsed under their own weight. The eruption destroyed the top three thousand feet of the volcano, blasting it into the air in pieces, leaving behind only a large crater three miles wide and half a mile deep, as though the mountain had been struck by a meteor. Propelled by the force of the eruption, gray and black particles of ash, dust, and soot rose high into the atmosphere, some as high as twenty-five miles above the crumbling peak of the mountain, where the winds began to spread them in all directions. As they moved...

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