Tuesday, March 15, 2011

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.



Nicola Cornick said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Nicola Cornick said...

Oops, sorry about the previous comment! What I was trying to say was:

A fascinating piece, Joanna. I'd read about this but didn't realise quite how far-reaching the effects had been. The power of nature really is unstoppable and no matter how we master other aspects of life there are some things we cannot influence at all. It's easy to forget that until one sees the devastatation. Joining you in sending all my thoughts and prayers for the people of Japan and those other nationalities who have also lost loved ones.

Anonymous said...

Thank you, Nicola. I'm sure we all feel huge sympathy for those suffering in Japan. Day by day the news is more horrendous.

I heard the Japanese Ambassador say that Japan had been humbled. Truth is that we all can be humbled, when we think we can overcome the power of the natural world.

But back in 1816, with no knowledge and little food storage, things would have been so much worse.

Louise Allen said...

Fascinating post, Evelyn. These horrors are dreadful now, but 200years ago when they were barely understood, if at all, the mystery about what was happening and the feeling of powerlessness must have added to the distress

Jan Jones said...

Thoughtful post, Joanna. Worldwide ramifications, but without today's ability to pool worldwide help.

Thoughts and prayers to Japan indeed.