In terms of volcano celebrity status, Mount Tambora’s name is rarely mentioned. If someone asks you to name a dramatic volcanic eruption, more than likely, it is Mount Vesuvius, Krakatoa, or Mount St. Helens that most frequently comes to mind. Odds are that the eruption of Mount Tambora wasn’t even mentioned in your history classes. That is astonishing, considering what happened. The eruption of Mount Tambora in 1815 was the largest explosion in recorded history. Its aftermath not only robbed much of the world of an entire season, but it also brought down an empire and even gave birth to one of the world’s most famous monsters.
Mount Tambora is located on Sumbawa Island in Indonesia. The volcano had been dormant for 1,000 years, but that all changed on April 5, 1815. Over the next five days, the volcano reawakened with a fierce vengeance, sending an ash cloud 27 miles (43 km) into the atmosphere, with booming explosions that they were heard in Mauritius, some 3,000 miles (4,800 km) away. The eruption and tsunamis resulted in an immediate loss of life to 36,417 people. The consequences of the explosion would extend far beyond Indonesia, however. This volcano’s eruption literally affected every person on earth.
Within weeks, the ash from Tambora encircled the planet at the equator. From there, it moved outward, to the north and south, transforming the climate as it spread. By September — just five months after the eruption — meteorological enthusiast Thomas Forster recorded unusual, breathtaking sunsets near London. “Fair dry day,” he wrote in his weather diary—but “at sunset a fine red blush marked by diverging red and blue bars.”
The ash-charged atmosphere painted the skies throughout the world, and aspiring artists took advantage of the spectacle. Joseph Mallard William Turner captured vivid multicolored skyscapes that appear to our eyes as abstract and imaginative, but he was simply showing us what he saw. In Germany, Caspar David Friedrich painted a sky with such colors that one scientific study determined was a reflection of the “optical aerosol depth” of the colossal volcanic eruption that year.
Unfortunately, the benefits of the vivid sunrises and sunsets were vastly overshadowed by the devastation of the ecosystem. For the next three years, almost everyone on the planet experienced a shortage of food because of what became known as “The Year Without a Summer.” Winterlike conditions prevailed in 1816, even in the summer months, killing the crops and spreading destruction among humanity. In New England, reports of more than 1,800 people freezing to death in 1816 are on record. In Vermont, citizens were forced to eat porcupine and boiled nettles. The peasants of Yunnan, China reported sucking on white clay for nourishment. In Germany, they referred to 1817 as the “Year of the Beggar.”
History records the decade of 1810–19 as the coldest in the historical record. The overall decline of the average global temperature was 1.5 degrees Celsius. Scottish meteorologist George Mackenzie kept meticulous records of cloudy skies between 1803 and 1821 over various parts of the British Isles. Prior to Mount Tambora’s eruption, he recorded an average of 20 clear, sunny days. For the decade after the eruption, that number dropped to 5. For the year of 1816, there were no clear days at all.
The devastating effects of the change in weather patterns also impacted the imperialistic plans of one of the greatest military commanders in history. Napoleon Bonaparte emerged from his exile in Elba in February 1815, just two months before Mount Tambora’s awakening. He began the Hundred Days campaign to recapture his glory and his empire.
Timing was not on his side, however. Napoleon and his troops marched on the battlefield at Waterloo, Belgium on June 18, 1815. His soldiers were drenched by the pouring rain, and their movements were greatly impaired by the thick mud. Although Tambora had not yet triggered the frigid conditions that would follow, historians believe the volcanic ash had already begun to play havoc with the weather at that point. The abysmal meteorological conditions at Waterloo are credited for the crushing and final defeat Napoleon experienced there. Victor Hugo made note of the weather at Waterloo, emphasizing that the rain was no mere summer storm. In Les Misérables, he wrote, “…an unseasonably clouded sky sufficed to bring about the collapse of a World.”
With such a dramatic effect on the weather patterns, it goes without saying that tourism took a hit. One group of English tourists were attempting to enjoy the summer months of 1816 near Geneva, Switzerland, but the weather did not permit much time at the nearby lake. Instead, the travelers spent long, dreary days indoors, trying to find ways to pass the time.
The dismal weather brought breathtaking electrical storms. One of them inspired Percy to pen “Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage” with the words:
The sky is changed—and such a change! Oh night,
And storm, and darkness, ye are wondrous strong…
And now again ’tis black,—and now, the glee
Of the loud hills shakes with its mountain-mirth,
As if they did rejoice o’er a young earthquake’s birth.
Mary later wrote about the experience, observing, “It proved a wet, ungenial summer, and incessant rain often confined us for days to the house.” To pass the time, they often told each other ghost stories. As the dreary days dragged on, however, they started to run out of stories to tell. This prompted Byron to suggest that they each try to write their own ghost story.
While this may have been an easy task for the two professional poets, Mary found the challenge quite intimidating. She wrote, “Have you thought of a story? I was asked each morning, and each morning I was forced to reply with a mortifying negative.” Finally, after a long period of writer’s block, she had a nightmare that was horrifying, but at last, an idea began to take hold in her mind. One night, unable to sleep, she got up after midnight and began to put her disturbing thoughts to paper:
“I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together. I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life, and stir with an uneasy, half vital motion. Frightful must it be; for supremely frightful would be the effect of any human endeavour to mock the stupendous mechanism of the Creator of the world.”
What started as a ghost story to be told to three friends developed into something she hoped might be published as a short story. Percy saw even more promise in the work and encouraged her to expand it into a novel. It was published in 1818, under her married name, Mary Shelley. It was titled, Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus.
Despite the dramatic and lasting effects of the eruption of Mount Tambora, it has strangely been dwarfed by other less-spectacular volcanic explosions. The Volcanic Explosivity Index (VEI) is used to measure the explosiveness of a volcanic eruption. Like the Richter Scale, which measures earthquakes, the VEI is logarithmic from VEI-2 and up; an increase of 1 index indicates an eruption that is 10 times as powerful as the preceding index.
The 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens registered a VEI of 5, as did the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in A.D. 79. Krakatoa’s eruption in 1883 was responsible for one of the loudest sounds ever created on the planet; its VEI was 6. In contrast to all of these, Mount Tambora’s eruption triggered a VEI of 7. It is, by far, the most powerful volcanic explosion in recorded history and only the second explosion with a VEI of 7 since the 1257 eruption of Mount Rinjani. (Click here for a list of large volcanic eruptions)
While it may not reign in the popular culture as the most famous of volcanoes, there can be no doubt that Mount Tambora’s massive volcanic cloud continues to cast a long shadow over human history.
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