1816 The Year with No Summer
The terrible events in Japan have shown us how puny we are when nature shows its power.
The horror of it drove me to research the Year with No Summer, 1816, which Nicola mentioned in her post earlier this month.
Back in April 1815, Mt Tamboro erupted in Indonesia. It was the largest eruption in recorded time; four times as big as Krakatoa, in 1883. Before the explosion, the volcano was 14,100 feet high. After it, the volcano was only 9,354 feet high. It’s hard to imagine the power that could do that, or the devastation that would be caused.
Sir Stamford Raffles was in Java, nearly 800 miles away. His memoirs record:
“The first explosions were heard on this Island in the evening of 5 April, they were noticed in every quarter, and continued at intervals until the following day. The noise was, in the first instance, almost universally attributed to distant cannon; so much so, that a detachment of troops were marched from Djocjocarta, in the expectation that a neighbouring post was attacked, and along the coast boats were in two instances dispatched in quest of a supposed ship in distress.”
In London, there were fantastic sunsets in June and July 1815, with brilliant oranges and red at the horizon and purple and pink skies above. It’s been suggested that we can see the yellowish effects in some of J M W Turner’s sunsets, like this one, Chichester Canal circa 1828.
Nowadays, we know about volcanic ash clouds. We remember Mt St Helens, and the Icelandic volcano last year. In 1816, no one understood what was causing the extraordinary weather. It was like 3 winters in 18 months. There was twelve inches of snow in Quebec City in June 1816. There was a drought in North America that summer, followed by September frost that killed the few surviving crops. That caused a major migration of farmers from New England to the Upper Midwest.
In Europe, the problem wasn’t drought, it was cold and incessant rain. Harvests failed. There was famine in Ireland. Starving refugees fled from Wales. There were riots across Europe as starving people looked for the causes of their distress and someone to blame.
The hardships led to innovations, however. In Germany, the shortage of oats to feed the horses spawned ideas that eventually led to the development of the bicycle. In Switzerland, the Shelleys and their friends were kept indoors by the “wet, ungenial summer”. They amused themselves with a contest to write scary stories. The result, as we know, was Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and John William Polidori’s The Vampyre. The effects are with us still.
Nature, like Mt Tamboro, can be beautiful, but we underestimate its power at our peril. The people we write about in our books did not understand what was happening, but they certainly suffered the malign aftereffects. Not romantic, perhaps, but a true backdrop to what we write.
With all our sympathies to the people who are suffering in Japan, especially those who have lost family and friends.