Today is the 200th anniversary of the explosion of Tambora on Sumbawa Island, Indonesia, the largest volcanic eruption in recorded history. The explosion was heard in Sumatra, over 1000 miles away, and reached 7 on the Volcanic Explosivity Index (VEI). The only recent comparable eruption was the explosion at Lake Taupo in New Zealand, 1600 years before Tambora. In the aftermath of the later explosion the Indonesian dust cloud blanketed the atmosphere, causing widespread havoc – the resulting conditions meant that 1816 became known colloquially as the ‘year without a summer’.
Volcanic eruptions in the nineteenth century were of great meteorological interest but to the Romantic movement of the period they placed mankind’s relationship with the power of nature into stark perspective. Literary figures such as Lord Byron (a Fellow of the Royal Society, somewhat surprisingly) wrote around the event: his 1816 poem Darkness takes its lead from the wide-ranging and profound impact of Tambora:
The bright sun was extinguish’d, and the stars
Did wander darkling in the eternal space,
Rayless, and pathless, and the icy earth
Swung blind and blackening in the moonless air
Huddled before a fire at Lord Byron’s villa near Geneva, in June of that miserable year, Byron proposed that he and his guests Percy Bysshe Shelley and Mary Godwin (later Mary Shelley) and his physician John Polidori should each write a ghost story – resulting, famously, in the modern myths of both Polidori’s The Vampyre and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; or, The modern Prometheus. But creative responses to the widespread atmospheric changes were not limited to English-speaking poets in rainy Switzerland. In Indonesia too, verses were written about the eruption:
Bunyi bahananya sangat berjabuh Its noise reverberated loudly
Ditempuh air timpa habu Torrents of water mixed with ash descended
Berteriak memanggil anak dan ibu Children and mothers screamed and cried
Disangkanya dunia menjadi kelabu Believing the world had turned to ash
(from ‘Mount Tambora in 1815: A Volcanic Eruption in Indonesia and Its Aftermath’, Bernice de Jong Boers, Indonesia No. 60 (October 1995), p.37)
Technology and communications of the period of the Tambora explosion were not sufficiently advanced to assess the scientific significance of the eruption. Rapid exploitation of global audiences who might have witnessed significant parts of the event was not yet possible and this helps to explain the lack of material regarding Tambora within the archives of the Royal Society. Almost 70 years on, in 1883, another volcanic eruption took place in a similar geographical location. By contrast, Krakatoa became (and remains) a by-word for explosive force despite reaching just 6 on the VEI. Each interval on the scale represents a tenfold increase in magnitude, measured by observed ejecta criteria, so Krakatoa’s explosion was smaller than Tambora’s although its legacy was felt by millions around the world.
The Royal Society’s approach to documenting monumental events of this nature had changed substantially and the organisation solicited correspondence from a willing audience, as highlighted in Katherine’s recent blog. Comparison between the two events shows the technological advances that had taken place to enable widespread analysis of (for example) sunset phenomena, therefore contributing to the fame of the later explosion.
This was the first genuine citizenship engagement experiment by the Royal Society; it generated around 300-400 letters in response, many of which were transcribed. These formed part of the evidence presented in the Society’s Krakatoa report, published in 1888. I have been cataloguing and categorising the letters that were kept, working in the Royal Society Library (a tremendous pleasure!) on a studentship from King’s College London.
I have focused on cataloguing the correspondence received from two stretches of the African coast (MS/515/2/4 and MS/515/2/5). One particularly fascinating letter from Zanzibar (MS/515/2/4/8) relates the experience of an unknown woman witnessing human skulls and bones washed up along the beach from the post-Krakatoa tidal wave – a rather ghoulish tale reminiscent of Frankensteinian science and the darkness of that summer of 1816.