Mt. Tambora Makes an Earth-Shattering Kaboom

On 10 April 1815 the Indonesian volcano Tambora (literally) blew its top in the only confirmed VEI-7 eruption since the Lake Taupo’s eruption circa AD 180. The volcano’s initial blast could be heard as far away as Sumatra, which was more than 1200 miles distant from ground zero. Approximately 11,000 people were killed by the lava, ash, and poisonous gasses that poured out of Tambora that day.

blast_Tambora_Smithsonian _magazine

The worst, believe it or not, was yet to come. The volcanic event lasted three long months, with falls of volcanic ash spreading as far as Borneo, Sulawesi, Java, and the Maluku Islands. The ash/dust cloud from the volcano spread throughout the atmosphere and blocked out the sun, creating a volcanic winter in parts of Asia and Africa in 1815 and across Europe and the East Coast of the USA in 1816.

Mount Tambora3 Indonesia - Google Maps-1

In Europe 1816 was called the Year Without a Summer. Bitter freezes and snow storms in July meant that crops failed and livestock died, resulting in the worst famines of the 19th century and massive social unrest. Starvation and epidemics preying on those weakened by hunger meant that the eventual toll of human life taken by the Tambora eruption was more than 71,000 people worldwide.

Honestly, the fatalities resulting indirectly from the explosion were probably in the millions. An estimated 100,000 people in Ireland died in the major typhus epidemic between 1816 and 1819, which rode on the back of the weather-related food shortage. In Switzerland the fatality rates in 1816 were around twice the yearly average, “giving an approximate European fatality total of 200,000 deaths” that would normally not have occured. Volcanic ash caused unusually active monsoons in China, resulting in hellish flooding in the Yangtze Valley that drowned entire villages, on top of rice failures and starvation throughout the rest of the country. India suffered a delayed summer monsoon, and the torrential rains that came too late not only failed to help the crops, the flooding caused widespread cholera from River Ganges in Bengal to the northern states of and into Pakistan, and even as far north as Moscow.

A small bright spot in this dystopian year was that it ready-made for imaginitive horrors as well as factual ones. Percy Bysshe Shelley, his wife Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, her step-sister Claire Clairmont, and their friends John William Polidori and Lord Byron all had to stay indoors at Villa Diodati in Lake Geneva that summer because of the cold and incessant rain. Faced with boredom and ennui, “they decided to have a contest to see who could write the scariest story, leading Shelley to write Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus and Lord Byron to write “A Fragment“, which Polidori later used as inspiration for The Vampyre — a precursor to Dracula. In addition, Lord Byron was inspired to write the poem “Darkness“, by a single day when “the fowls all went to roost at noon and candles had to be lit as at midnight”.

1816 was sadly the last full year of Jane Austen’s life, and she would never get to enjoy another summer after 1815. She felt so unwell she had stopped writing by March of 1817, and was bedridden from weakness and pain by April. The warmer weather of May and June was lost to her because she was in so much pain that she was pleading for death at that point.  Austen tragically died on 18 July 1817, unable to experience (or even be aware of) the lovely summer outside her window.  

That’s why I wanted Mary Crawford’s “renewal”, her return to romantic life after the heartbreak of Mansfield Park, to begin in the summer of 1817. To attempt to find happiness in the midst of war and famine just seemed a little too obscene in my opinion. It also seemed appropriate that Mary branch out on roads that Austen had only hinted at for her creation after that great author’s passing.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *