This is part 3 of a series on the Mt Tambora eruption and how it shaped the world into the Victorian age. Part 1 dealt with the eruption and immediate impact. Part 2 turned to the famines in Ireland, and the near collapse of the British food supply almost leading to a real revolution. If you haven’t listened to those, I would suggest you go back and have a listen to them first.
For the United States, the period after 1812 was a time of reflection and growth. War with Britain had been partially successful. The population was growing and new lands were being brought into production. The political system was becoming increasingly mature and disputes between the Federalists under Hamilton and John Adams, and the Democratic Republicans were at least fading to a more workable level. They were even able to get Congress to establish a Bank of the United States. The population was like most countries, basically agrarian. 80% of the population involved in farming, usually supplemented by home industries like cotton weaving, barrel making, smithing and others similar activities. The main cities were on the east coast and they held only around 7% of the population. None of them were as large as London or Manchester and all had exceptionally primitive sewage disposal systems. There were signs of the growth of domestic manufacturing at a more professional level, and the invention of the steam ship by Sam Fulton in 1807 was beginning to point towards greater industrial progress. American science and education were also beginning to be come well established and respected.
Ironically much early American climate science was about deforestation causing temperature rises; a well understood phenomena today. Some New Englanders even worried that they would lose the brutal winter cold that they felt made them tougher than the Europeans, but temperatures began to decline from 1812 onwards. The growing season in 1815 was not good, and Canada also had some heavy crop losses. This is important as it weakened the resilience of farmers. Still they had a relatively mild winter and all seemed on track for a better 1816. When Mount Tambora erupted in 1815, the fall out devastated climate patterns around the world. The young nation was about to be hit in 1816 with catastrosphic climate change. To the north in Canada, Quebec City was hit by a massive 5 day snow storm on 12 April 1816, and Albany New York was buried. The disruption continued as far as Ohio.
Still, it seemed a freak event. Then May dawned and with it, a polar vortex inspired winter returned. Albany was badly hit and so was New Jersey. Even Virginia and Tennessee were struck by cold fronts, killing cotton and other crops. Ice an inch thick formed in rivers and streams in Maine. Vermont had snow. Settlers heading westwards to Pennsylvania had to dress in their winter clothes.
June brought wild swings in temperature. Dartmouth College recorded a sweltering heat, with some thunder and overnight rain. But it was followed by wild swings in the jet stream. This disrupted the polar vortex. As it swung south it formed a U bend around Eastern America, which let artic cold air to flow down from Northern Canada as far as Carolina. When the cold air hit the warmer New England fronts, powerful storms were produced. This caused on a knock on effect, blocking and disrupting various weather systems, which trapped extreme weather conditions like snow storms in place.
On 06 June 1816 Quebec was hit with a brutal cold, turning the incessant rain storms into snow. Temperatures dropped so low that birds fled from local forests to seek shelter in the warmer cities. Thousands died. Newly sheered sheep froze. In Montreal, the press advised poor farmers to plant potatoes and share spare seed with less fortunate neighbours. Some desperate Vermont famers tried tying the sheered fleeces back onto sheep to protect them, but it was hopeless.
Just as in Britain and Ireland as I explained last episode, the fragile agrarian societies were facing a disaster on an enormous scale, but were too technologically undeveloped and organisationally unsuited to respond effectively.
Even being indoors didn’t mean being warm. At an inaugural address in Concord delegates suffered cold hands and feet even inside. As they left, strong gales and snow nearly overturned carriages on the bridge, and when they reached their hotel, their rooms were freezing despite the fireplaces. Boston was hit with 40oF temperatures and snow. The beautiful Catskill Mountains so beloved of Thomas Cole, finest artist who has ever lived, and whose paintings are the summit of human civilisation, were buried in snow.
The ground froze nearly everywhere and frosts hit crops hard even in Massachusetts. and Manhattan. Near Salem travellers remarked on icicles forming, and forests frozen with frost. Remember this is in June. It might sound normal for winter, and I bet subconsciously a few listeners have forgotten this is summer we are talking about. Some desperate farmers built fires in their fields to keep crops from freezing.
Now I’m giving you a lot of verifiable information here. Plenty of newspapers, official records and diaries all bare this out. These were mostly written by people who will almost never starve in a famine, even if they have to pay much higher prices. Thomas Jefferson, Sir Robert Peel, President Monroe, the Trustees of Dartmouth College, John Quincy Adams were men who bore witness to suffering, but were still some steps removed from it. What we are missing are the lived experiences of those who didn’t write. We can catch glimpses of the desperation, but I’m betting these are nothing compared to the suffering of the most isolated settlers and poorest farmers who didn’t leave us accounts. How many suffered and died alone in the cold. Their farms long since swallowed up into the wilds again. Maybe just a ruined wall sticking up from the forest floor is a final mute testament. Can you imagine the horror? It is like something form Game of Thrones. Seeing Winter coming and knowing you don’t have enough food in the good times, let alone now to survive this. Seeing your children slowly starving to death in front of you as you try to hack some weeds from the frozen ground to boil into a soup. Some turned to faith, but for others well they took the traditional human response. They began to emigrate. Humans in general will always either seek to improve conditions if they can, or leave if they can’t, and if those aren’t possible then they try to tough it out.
One newspaper heart breaking said [QUOTE] the very face of nature still appears to be shrouded in death like gloom, and as she weeps, which well she may, for the barrenness of her fields and for the chilling blasts that whistle through her locks from unpropitious clime, her tears freeze fast to her cheeks as they are seen to flow. [END QUOTE]
Wells froze, crops died. Yields were massively down from highs of up to 40 tons down to around 5 tons on some farms. Most Americans were deeply religious, perhaps more so than the British of the period. Many interpreted prosperity as a sign of God’s favour and his sustaining hand, whilst misfortune, disaster and storms were signs of divine wrath. Layered on top of this were countless local superstitions that were set out in Almanacs, pamphlets and books. Pennsylvanian farmers had often expanded their famrs to meet European demand for grain in the Napoleonic Wars, often going into great debt. It was a situation almost identical to the problems faced by Irish farmers. Religious revivalism on many of the frontier communities intensified as the weather worsened. There was a break in the weather in some area’s in June so farmers decided Spring had finally arrived and tried a planting. This involved using wooden ploughs on water logged fields. Backbreaking work.
As June turned to July, wild swings in temperature left Virginia in a drought much to Jeffersons annoyance. President Madison was still not unduly alarmed. Perhaps if the weather was finally turning, a decent late harvest would see them through. The newspapers in Maine continued to worry, but famine seemed to have been avoided. Attention turned to the bitter political election to replace President Madison, one that was won by James Monroe. He was not a popular choice, with criticism of both his honesty and his intellect in comparison to his predecessor.
By August farmers were planting late crops and planning for a later harvest. They were on the cusp of a recovery. Pennsylvania and New England as a whole we’re optimistic despite a few snap frosts. Most people were actually praying for rain to break high temperatures. Almost as if it was a scene from a film, at noon on 20 August the skies darkened and a massive storm hit Amherst in New Hampshire. In the next few hours temperatures plunged up to 30 degrees. The snows and frosts returned with vengeance. The stormed travelled as a harbinger of more despair. The country froze from Connecticut to Maine, from Kentucky to Ohio. Pumpkins, cucumbers, Indian corn, vines and potatoes died off in droves. For New Hampshire this was dire news indeed. The state was bankrupt with only 100 dollars in reserve. The Governor was reduced to begging banks for loans to tide them over till tax season but he was rejected. Only a federal bail out to fund the militia saved the state. In desperation, the governor was reduced to using the local prison population as slave labour for construction projects to repair lost roads and bridges.
To give you an idea of how dire this really was for people, remember that 80% of the population of New Hampshire were subsistence farmers. These farms weren’t anything like as productive as in the Connecticut river valleys. These were rural farms in hilly country that were hard to work even in the good times. The farmers relied utterly on supplementing their crops with the income from cattle, plus the family would do some piece work for things like textiles to add a little extra income on the side. Farmers were now in a real bind. Their crops were dead, but their cattle needed the hay and grain which had been lost. The industrial revolution hadn’t reached New Hampshire, so if you were a subsistence farmer, that was basically always going to be your life. Like it or not. Subsistence meant subsistence, as food storage options were limited. There weren’t railways and extensive food reserves that could be shuttled around. Costal regions could at least turn more heavily to fishing, but other area’s faced genuine famine. New foods were sort out; porcupine or wild pigeon.
Not that things were much better in the South. Even in South Carolina, frosts returned. Some local people noted that it didn’t matter at this point. There was nothing left to kill off. Wiser observers began to note that the weather would cause emigration. Jefferson was carefully observing the weather and was convinced that famine was inevitable. The bitter Presidential election campaign dragged on.
Perversely though some area’s remained drought hit for months, even suffering forest fires and record low river levels. They finally had their prayers for rain in Virginia answered, only for it to turn into a deluge that continued for days and caused massive flood, sweeping away fields. Costal area’s all received a massive battering from the storms. Other area’s still hadn’t seen any rain, just snow for months.
With brutal inevitability another blast of freezing weather and snow swept in on 10 September. Mountains in North Vermont were again buried in snow. Farmers began pulling up whatever was left in the ground, ready or not. In Quebec, the situation was desperate almost beyond description, almost as bad as in Ireland. Some local famers were reduced to trying to eat wild herbs.
The horror just didn’t end. I could list more and more weather disasters like this throughout the USA in September 1816. Floods, droughts, forest fires, frosts, dry wells, frozen ground, rotten crops, thunderstorms, hail, and snow. Maine farmers faced the awful choice of whether to eat next years seeds to survive, possibly leaving them to starve to death over winter and spring with nothing to plant or feed to cattle. One famer is recorded as having killed all his cattle and then committed suicide. In religious early C19th America this was shocking. Merchants did their best to throw gasoline on the fire by eagerly exporting expensive food supplies to the desperate French and the West Indies, despite the urging of newspapers for them to be patriotic and keep the needed food back to feed starving Americans. Letters crossing the Atlantic made it clear that the whole of Europe was also in the grip of a full blown crisis.
As in Britain the doctrine of free market economics had a powerful grip on the ruling class, who often refused to arrange any kind of aid or intervention. Many Governors thought prayer was the only real remedy.
Now though came the moment were we see the major impact of this climatic event on history. What I’ve described to you has been awful. It has hopefully driven home the impact that climate change can have, and the way a single eruption can affect the world. Now though we are about to see the impact on history. Just as we saw in previous episodes that it had triggered emigration in Ireland and nearly kicked off a revolution in England, in New England the damn was about to burst. Huge numbers of farmers decided enough was enough. The dam was about to burst and the first great migration west was triggered. The cry went up “Ohio or bust.” Illinois was also sparsely populated and advertising for settlers. After the war of 1812 the US had been actively cleansing these area’s of Native Americans, stealing land and selling it to white settlers.
The trickle soon became a desperate flood. By October 1816 40-50 wagons a day were leaving New England for Ohio through Zanesville alone. Several thousand were thought to go through Zanesville and many met with misfortune. Emigrants on the trail passed the wreckage of wagons and saw the corpses of horses and oxen strewn along the way. Imagine just how hard this decision was to take. To take a family with young children into utterly unknown territory. The gender roles of 1816 would have put the main responsibility for the decision, and the success of the venture, on the man’s shoulders. Women would have a say, especially if the couple were a happy and well matched partnership, but ultimately everything would rest on the mans skill and judgement. The psychological pressure on everyone in the family must have been immense. A difficult journey could doom them before they arrived. The man’s death or serious injury would leave the woman and any children in a dire predicament. In an era where physical strength counted immensely, especially when undertaking a hard physical journey, the loss of the man would leave the others with few options. Much employment would be closed to women either due to social prejudice or the resulting lack of experience. There were tough frontier women who were every bit the equal of any man, but they were the exception. In general the women would be faced with giving up, or attaching themselves to other families or taking employment in the nearest town, but this was becoming thin on the ground. Children would add to the heavy weight the adults had to wrestle with. One witness described a settler passing through New York from Maine, who was heading to Tennessee. The witness said he was
[QUOTE] somewhat depressed by fatigue, drawing behind him a hand cart containing all his effects, chattels and provisions, and two children of age too feeble to travel; behind followed the elder children and wife, bearing in her arms a robust infant seven months old. [END QUOTE]
They had covered 400 miles of the journey and still had 800 left to go. Think about what that really means. Put yourself in their shoes if you can. Conditions were desperate enough that a walk of 1,200 miles with at least 5 children from that description, seemed a good idea. The only provisions those that you can physically carry. Your children are utterly dependent on you. No one will really provide help if you live or die. A walk might sound ok, but it is day after day, so none of the family will be earning wages unless they stop to labour or trade, but thousands of others will be doing the same. Every day’s walk requires calories not just to move but to provide the energy to carry the food that provides the calories to carry the food. Some shocked bystanders donated 20 dollars to the struggling man with the hand cart, so this family were lucky for the moment.
Clothes were often highly unsuitable for conditions by todays standards. Thin cotton shirts perhaps with knitted waist coats, a coat and an overcoat of wool or tweed, maybe knitted mittens and a fur hat. The mountain men would be far better off. Skilled hunters and trappers dressed in animal skins and furs with huge bearskin or buffalo skin overcoats and thick fur gloves and hats meant that they could weather the terrible conditions in the Catskill Mountains. Armed with Kentucky Long Rifles they were well equipped and were highly sought after guides for richer emigrant wagon trains. Tough men who would have legendary names on the early frontier learnt their trade from the early mountain men who survived this winter.
Farmers who remained in New England watched starving wolves come closer, taking cattle and perhaps who knew, one day them. Some famers ate the stems of potato plants, wild pigeons or hedgehogs. Vermont switched on mass to surviving on mackerel. The dreadful conditions triggered immense religious revivalism.
Some Native American tribes also suffered. Many sold surplus grain to white settlers in good years. Crop losses of up to 90% reduce them to having to ask churches and charities for help. It is really difficult to know how hard the Natives were hit by this event. They had the advantage of deep local knowledge and immense wilderness skills, plus they had far lower population numbers to support. But they would have found hunting in these conditions extremely hard, especially when combined with the crop losses and not had some of the technologies available to the incoming American settlers. They would also have faced immense racism and violent skirmishes with the newcomers.
Emigration from New England didn’t ease the pressure as boats of desperate Irish immigrants arrived fleeing the human catastrophe unfolding in Ireland that I talked about last episode. Many starved to death in the streets. Not all died though. Thomas “Broken Hand” Fitzpatrick arrived in 1816 from Ireland, and he would go on to found the famous Rocky Mountain Fur Company and run with legends like Jim Bridger, Jed Smith and even Kit Carson himself. Without the famine, who knows if the great trapping and raiding into Missouri and the other amazing events with the Comanches and the Crows in Utah, Wyoming and so many other places, would have unfolded as they did.
The out going President Madison gave a curiously upbeat final annual speech to congress on the state of the nation. He lauded the government finances running a fiscal surplus, spoke approvingly of the tranquil life on the frontier, encouraged the founding of a national university and the building of more roads, plus paying down the national debt. He did open the speech with remarks about the weather, expressing his disappointment, but confident that the USA as a whole had a varied climate and plenty of food so things would be fine. He mentioned that the lack of food much encourage [QUOTE] an economy of consumption more than usual [END] but that overall [QUOTE] they could give thanks to providence for the remarkable health which has distinguished the present year. [END QUOTE]
In effect the US government had adopted basically the same attitude as the British government under Lord Liverpool, but had actually taken fewer practical steps than the British had in Britain or as Sir Robert Peel had as governor of Ireland despite the far worse situation.
There had been no summer. Soon October passed and winter came. With it came more snow and storms. To some it felt like the end of days had arrived. Conditions worsened and by May 1817 the wave of emigration reached immense levels. 260 wagons travelled west through the Genesse Valley in just 9 days. This means that the eruption of Mt Tambora had triggered a wave of mass migration that would reshape the American colonies into the journey from the east coast to the west.
This was a hugely diverse group of migrants. Families, single farmers, religious communities, displaced southerners and ambitious adventurers, even a few new messiahs. Maine alone lost between 10-15,000 people to the emigrant trains heading west, whilst in Vermont some towns lost nearly their entire young population. The Smith family from Vermont didn’t go all the way west, instead they settled in the Genesse Valley near Palmyra, where a few years later in 1820 Joseph Smith Jnr would, according to him, meet God and Jesus who warned him of Church corruption, and who would later send the Angel Moroni to show him the location of the real gospels written on golden plate. These, the angel said, were buried in nearby hills. Smith recovered them and wrote them as down as The Book of Mormon. He went on to found the Church of Jesus Christ and the Latter Day Saints in 1830, also known as the Mormons. Without the Mt Tambora eruption and climate change it is unlikely his family would have settled in that valley when they did. So the eruption is in part responsible for creating a new religion.
Populations in Ohio, Illinois, and Indiana skyrocketed. They went from struggling to attract people to seeing massive population growth, but although the climate was wonderful for agriculture, it was a harsh frontier life. There were no real industries to support settlers. Families might be so isolated they wouldn’t see another human for months. Stone was also scarce so building materials were difficult to find. The frontier life was extremely isolated and hard. Self reliance would be an increasingly needed talent, which would feed into the later mindset of the expansion into what is called the Old West.
Whilst the United States reshaped itself, and Britain and Ireland drowned in excessive rainfall, Europe was suffering. Belgium was underwater. But hardest hit of all was central Europe. Here in the darkness, and the rain, and the starvation would find fullest artist expression with the birth of the truly gothic. The heart of this complex journey in the storm wrecked Switzerland was George Noel Gordon, better known to history as Lord Bryon. In 1816 a group of people were staying in a Chateau on the southern edge of Lake Geneva. They had a terrible journey to get there, and were now basically stuck there because of the weather. If you had to pick a group of people to be stranded together, you really wouldn’t want to pick this particular mix. At its heart was the 28 year old Lord Bryon. Chased out of England, dogged by the incest scandal, debt, a failed marriage, affairs, drug addiction and a reputation as one of the finest poets to ever hold a pen. This included an affair with Lady Caroline Lamb, who was married to Lord Lamb better known to Victorian fans as Lord Melbourne or Dear Lord M. Lord Byron did leave a legitimate daughter behind in England; the great Victorian Ada Lovelace – the worlds first computer programmer
Byron was accompanied by Percy Shelly, whose poetry and wit he greatly admired, and Percy’s lover Mary Godwin aka Mary Shelly. There was also the wannabe poet Dr Polodori, who was professionally jealous of Lord Byron’s attachment to Shelly’s work over his own. Thrown into the mix was Claire Clairmont, half sister of Mary Godwin, who was pregnant with Lord Bryons child. Byron and Percy made various trips and visited the local social scene. The weather alternated between driving rain, flooding and damp, depressing fogs. Then came the famous night, where they challenged each other to write a ghost story. Bryon had moments of inspiration and wrote some of his best poetry, but didn’t seem to take the challenge too serious. Mary though was working hard on the definitive Gothic novel, based off her experiences with Galvanism. Dr Polodori was edged out of the company, and wrote a story called The Vampyre, which inspired Bram Stokers Dracula. So whatever his companions thought of him, he did have some talent. It is worth a read – it is free on Project Gutenberg and in pretty good in places; although the ending is frankly dire.
Claire Clairmont was not a welcome presence. She begged Bryon to see her, but he wouldn’t do so alone. She was instead forced to settle for copying drafts of his latest works ready for his publisher. In the background the situation across Europe deteriorated. Switzerland had to ban the export of food, and even forbade baking white bread to save flour. Daylight was sometimes only a few hours a day. Crops rotted, potatoes were ruined in Germany. Unlike in Britain, where the free market was expected to solve problems by the invisible hand, in Prussia and Austria, massive relief efforts were underway. As a side note, relief efforts were also underway for the Prince Regent, whose overeating and overindulgence was causing his bowels to be inflamed.
Eventually the Shelley’s and Claire Clairemonth would return to England in autumn whilst Bryon drifted to Italy, had affairs with an Italian Countess, wrote Don Juan and renewed his friendship with Dr Polodori. Meanwhile Switzerland teetered on the brink of disintegration. It was the worst hit country in Europe. Thousands of beggars roamed the country. The individual cantons began to barricade themselves from their neighbours and prevent the sharing of food. Many of the women and children begging were described as looking like walking corpses. Famine was affecting up to 20% of the population in some areas. Desperate Swiss authorities encouraged people to leave the country, just as Peel had done in Ireland in 1816. Civilisation itself seemed to be on the brink of collapse. Some of the desperate populations of Bavaria were reduced to boiling weeds. As merchants in Laichingen rationed relief supplies and loaned money from the poor relief funds so they could buy cheap property, it seemed like society itself would break down. 26,000 people died of famine in Eastern Hungary alone. Germans often fled to Russian or the United States.
Yet as decay and destruction gathered around them, it was a great time for art and literature. The artist Turner drew great inspiration from the stormy skies and strange sunsets, Jane Austin wrote but her health declined. She would die in July 1817. Schubert produced dark master pieces like Der Konig in Thule. Bryon continued his poetry. The Russian Mystic and Writer Baroness De Krudener predicted the end of days and encourage the people of Switzerland to rise up and take from the rich to survive. Percy Shelley’s estranged wife Harriet committed suicide. Within 3 weeks Percy and Mary married. Claire gave birth to Bryon’s child, but Bryon refused to accept any responsibility. He would drift around Italy, writing the 4th canto of his masterpiece, Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, eventually taking custody of his child before having her shut up in a convent where she died. Mary would never forgive him for this. He was eventually swept up in the fight for Greek independence. He died of fever aged only 36. Mary was still inspired by the weather, the bleakness, the death and finished the ultimate Gothic master piece – Frankenstein. She would continue to write, even after Percy was drowned in a storm at sea in 1822. Fortunately before he died, Percy was able to give us the epic Ozymandis. Romanticism was to become a serious cultural theme through the Victorian era, especially in Britain and Germany. Whilst romanticism started in the C18th much of its finest flowering was born as a result of the weather of 1816.
The years of 1816-1817 had rocked the world. I could go country by country and list more and more tragedies, famines, and deaths. It was in a way like the black death. A trigger for change through horror. The vibrant art reflected this, but it wasn’t triumphant or religious. Instead, the Gothic, Romantic and Bryonic do not express heroes or heroines succeeding against the odds. They don’t require nobility, common sense or even morality from the characters. Romanticism is about the relationship with nature and the triumph of passion over reason. The erratic over the sane and the feeling over the intellect. It is a rejection of mere pastoralism or arcadianism. A happy ending is definitely not required. Dr Frankenstein is not in anyway a moral or sympathetic character. He is driven to rebel against the natural order in frantic hubris and obsession. Much of the back drop of the novel is against the dire weather in Switzerland, and you can see why given where and when it was inspired. It includes heavily the motif of fire and Prometheus. Dr Frankstein is a warning against obsession and attempting to challenge the natural order of things. Romanticism might be about connection with nature, but it had a strong strain of doom and catastrophe running through it, alongside it’s inspirational elements. It was in my view a reflection of the authors subconscious feelings of helplessness and doom in the face of the climate. In a way it became part of the DNA of Victorian culture, and a counterweight to the belief in progress and modernity, or increasingly linked to Romantic Nationalism and Ethnic Nationalism. Romanticism would therefore be a huge part of the Victorian world, often blended with the Gothic as Mary Shelly had done in Frankenstein.
Mt Tambora had shaken world. In its art, its literature, its society, its geography and its science. The Victorian age couldn’t have unfolded how it did without this great event. Join me next time as we turn back to England, where if Waterloo was its greatest triumph, a new event was to be its Nadir. It is time to witness the massacre of Peterloo.
Tag: CLIMATE CHANGE
EP014 DARKNESS FALLS: MT TAMBORA PT2
The episode you are about to hear is part 2 on the eruption of Mt Tambora in 1815, and its immense effects around the world that lingered long into the Victorian period. If you haven’t listened to pt 1, please listen to that first. The ash and dust from Mt Tambora had spread out around the entire world by winter of 1815. Last episode I described the enormous dust cloud in the pacific. I made a mistake though when I got the location of Pittsburgh wrong, which is in Pennsylvania. Well done to eagle eyed listener Jonathan for spotting that. I apologise to all you lovely listeners who live in either Pennsylvania or Ohio. Both states are lovely, and one day I would love to visit both for beer and burgers. So here’s hoping.
I just wanted to mention before we get going that the show now has a new logo and artwork. Don’t worry, I haven’t been bought out by Disney as a new addition to the Marvel Universe. It is just that I wanted something that was a bit brighter and a bit more focused on Victoria. I’ll miss the Lady of Shallot as she got us on the air, but I love the new look and owe Rob at Totalus Rankium an immense thank you for the amazing design work.
Also a huge thank you for the most recent iTunes reviews by Tigpack, Holh123 and Ms Pod-a-lot. I really love getting these reviews, and they help new listeners find the show. If you want to say a thank to me for making the show, well head to iTunes, make sure you are logged in, search for the Age of Victoria Podcast, and click on Ratings & Reviews. Then click on Write a Review. Then tell the world what you think.
Play show introduction including contact details.
[QUOTE] I had a dream, which was not all a dream.
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;
Morn came, and went – and came, and brought no day.
Men forgot their passions in the dread
Of this their desolation; and all hearts
Were chill’d into selfish prayer for light.
Lord Bryon “Doom” 1-9
The climate chaos in Europe in 1816 inspired Bryon to write those chilling words. Now everyone would have to deal with the consequences. They are almost to vast to be believed at first. When talking about climate change, sometimes the small numbers can mislead people into thinking that the impact is also small. The world can seem so vast and immutable that the idea a minor thing like a volcano in South East Asia could change world climates and up end civilisations seems too fantastic. That’s because the human mind is very geared to the immediate, the fight or flight response. We aren’t very good with the idea of system changes and disruption.
The year of 1816 is a powerful illustration of the wild effect small changes in climate numbers can have. It was unfortunate that the eruption occurred during a very vulnerable period in Europe. The continent was already experiencing a cold decade since 1810, and previous volcanic eruptions had exacerbated this cooling trend. If these eruptions were like putting too much gasoline or petrol on the BBQ, well the massive Mt Tambora eruption was like having the air force drop napalm on it. The scale of the eruption was cataclysmic. The release of aerosols disrupted the critical North Atlantic Oscillation and the Jet stream changing the weather in Europe immensely.
One immediate impact was to strengthen the polar vortex. This is a common outcome of disruptions to the jet stream. Some listeners might recall in 2017-2018 North American temperatures plummeted as a result of just such a strengthening of the polar vortex caused by disruptions of the jet stream. Likewise a weakened jet stream has been responsible for the incredible hot summer in Europe & the UK in 2018. The model of how changes to the jet stream affect weather is well established and you can see it in both the 1815-1816 event and the more recent polar vortex events caused by climate change.
Now you might be jumping up in your seat saying “come on, how do we know what the volcano did to temperatures.” Well in the first place we are really, really lucky that weather observation was a great passion in the C18th and C19th. Thomas Jefferson was an obsessive observer of weather, even taking observations on 4th Jul 1776, a time when he was rather busy! The Royal Navy kept meticulous air & sea temperature records, along with notes on the weather & cloud formations. Even during battle no interruption to recording was permitted. Their study of the trade winds and climate theory intensified throughout the C19th.
Many, many Americans like Timothy Dwight and many Europeans across the continent religiously recorded temperatures and weather patterns. Ironically there was ongoing debate in New England about whether the climate was warming up and whether deforestation was to blame. Observers noticed the effect of deforestation on the soil and how it increased the problem of drought and water run off, with drier soils expected to be warmer therefore creating a feedback loop. The basics of climate change were being understood in the earl C19th but a lot of the links and main causes were still unknown. The jet stream wouldn’t even be discovered until after WW2. Modern scientists have measured the aerosol remnants of the eruption in ice core samples and lake sediments. They have also recorded the plummeting temperatures in tree ring growth. As solar dimming went into effect around the world, land then sea temperatures dropped. Sunsets became increasingly red or orange and strange, enough to show up in analysis of art work of the period. People became fearful of portents. There is even a popular supposition that the eruption might have influenced the weather the day and night before the Battle of Waterloo, destroying Napoleon’s last fading hope of victory.
Before we look into events on the ground, we need to have a quick think about famine. There’s a fairly fashionable view that famines are only caused by political mismanagement or bad economic decisions, and that there is always enough food to feed people. It is just that bad economics means people can’t afford the higher prices of food in times of scarcity. What you need to remember about this idea, which I am not challenging, is that it is mostly applicable to post industrial societies where human mismanagement is the trigger for most famines. In the pre-industrial world and the Victorian era, absolute food supplies could be wiped out. Excessive rain, flooding, drought, volcanoes, plague, deforestation, desertification and inundation from the sea could mean that absolute food levels declined precipitously.
In Britain, the great struggle of the day in 1815 was dealing with the post Napoleonic War economy and the increasingly dysfunctional Royal Family. On a continent wrecked by war, a series of poor harvests had made the populations immensely war weary and fragile. Now millions of soldiers were being discharged and the civilian authorities would have to integrate them back into economies that badly needed rebuilding. This was difficult as the ruling classes mostly had little to no interest in the welfare of the general population provided the overall wealth of the nations territories was maintained. Free market economics was the ruling philosophy in Britain. The market would determine people’s monetary worth. Most educated people thought government interference in the economy would always make things worse.
Britain as a whole enjoyed a good harvest in the Autumn of 1815. It was the calm before the storm. Winter in England seemed colder than usual. March saw some recovery with excessive rain, then April had some snows preventing travel in places. This delayed the growing season, but wasn’t extreme. Scotland had a miserable, freezing winter and lots of storms. Even in May conditions didn’t seem to improve in Scotland. Across Europe in May snows fell. Farm land across the UK remained unproductive and the weather threw great, great lashes of snow, sleet and rain at farmers. The Royal Cornwall Gazette raised concerns about farmers having to give up on some crops Unfortunately the government was led by the mediocre Lord Liverpool, with Lord Castlereagh periodically usurping his meagre authority. King George III descended further into blindness and irreversible madness, whilst the Prince Regent (the future King George IV) became increasingly fat, extravagant and despised. By March 1815 the Prince Regent had wracked up personal debts of over £1,480,600. A sum of money that was simply mind boggling at the time. For comparison, the HMS Caledonian, one of the finest First Rate warships ever built for the Royal Navy in the Age of Sail, cost £96,381 to build and another £6,711 to fit out. In other words, the Prince Regents debts could have covered the cost of a world class battleship and had change to perhaps build a supporting frigate and operate them both. His debts were nothing like as much in the national interest either.
There’s great quote here about the state Britain was in in 1816
[QUOTE] Lord Liverpool entered 1816 facing a host of problems as Britain made the transition from war to a peacetime economy. A trade recession caused in part by the termination of wartime contracts forced numerous businesses to cut wages or lay off workers and others to declare bankruptcy. The ranks of the employed swelled further as the government rapidly demobilised the army, throwing more than a third of a million men into the labour market [END QUOTE]
It was in this atmosphere that debate raged over the corn laws. They were designed to keep grain prices high by preventing imports. They weren’t meant to punish the poor per se; instead the idea was that they kept British farms in production. The corn laws prevented importation of grain unless British grain prices fell below a certain level. Essentially acting as a subsidy for farms that wouldn’t be able to stay afloat without them. The knock on effect was that the poor paid a higher price from grain, and as grain was a huge portion of their entire spending, the high prices were regressive and punitive. Still rural farms were major employers, and the main food source. The British government had to keep them in business. The problem was that the effect was far beyond keeping them in business and far more about lining the pockets of already rich landowners.
Riots broke out in Bridport, Dorset and then in Bury St Edmunds. Demobilised soldiers in East Anglia were hit by the collapse of the old cottage based spinning industry as a result of the industrial revolution, and also a massive collapse in wages, as well as sky rocketing food prices. In Norfolk nearly 1,500 people armed with improvised weapons raised flags saying “Bread or Blood” before looting shops and farms for food, as well as attacking local gentry who had to call out the militia. The town of Ely was also rioting for food. Eventually the local magistrates had to call out not the local militia but the Yeoman Cavalry supported by profession troops from the Royal Dragoons. Ominously for the authorities, the riots barricaded themselves into the tavern and it appeared shades of the French revolution were in danger of sweeping across the country. The troops had to storm the tavern, killing one rioter. 80 were arrested, and 5 were hanged.
Onto this dangerous situation of desperate hunger, unemployment and wage collapse, the government response days before the Bridport riot was to vote to spending tens of thousands of pounds on wedding gifts to the Prince Regents daughter Charlotte. One land owner spoke for many of the ruling class when he grumbled
[QUOTE] The main root of evil is in the taxes. [END QUOTE]
There was no thought really from the establishment of any form of poor relief. Some of the population were getting utterly desperate, roaming the country for support, or hoping the Prince Regent would take up their cause. The Prince Regent was told by Parliament that the government had already done everything it could, and the only real remedy was to give things time to improve. His reply spoke volumes, as he lamented
[QUOTE] the distresses of some classes of the people and trusted that they would bear them with fortitude and energy. [END QUOTE]
That’s a hard message to hear from a man of incredible wealth, immense debts, and who was so fat he had to wheeled in a special chair up a ramp to mount a horse.
It was onto this fragile country with a dysfunctional government and despised monarchy that the climate devastation was about to really bite. As wet, cold spring turned into a wet cold summer, even by English standards, some of the press began to worry about the next harvest. They couldn’t know it, but wild swings were occurring with the jet stream, causing mass climate destabilisation across Europe and Northern America. It rained almost daily, and even in mid July storms brought more rain and hail, and even total darkness in parts of Scotland.
Some of the smarter economists like Thomas Maltheus or David Riccardo knew that the situation was teetering on the brink of disaster throughout the United Kingdom, but couldn’t think of real alternatives to the hands off approach of the government. By the end of July the Anglican Church was officially praying to God for relief from the weather. Rain, hail, landslides and flooding continued to ruin crops across the entire UK and Europe. Shockingly to many English tourists, they found the situation in Europe was even worse than in the UK. France remained under occupation, straining food supplies to breaking point, and it was in post Napoleonic political crisis. Food riots broke outing France and Belgium. This crisis of 1816-1817 has been called the last great substance crisis of the Western World. It was the last real time in Europe when there was an absolute lack of food on a massive scale.
The knock on effect on British trade was catastrophic. 2/3 of jobs were lost on the London docks. 10,000 servants were reported as out of work. If the official response was poor, at least some Dukes, senior churchmen and reform campaigners began meeting to arrange private charity relief. The need was desperate. In one parish alone 800 men queued for meagre relief supplies of bread and cheese.
Remember this kind of suffering can’t be waved away. A person whose farm had been devastated, and whose tenant farmer employer had left him unemployed had no where to turn. The situation for the causal labourers was even worse. There were thousands in this situation. Eventually hunger and starvation will override any kind of obedience to law. Imagine you were a magistrate and you tell a man who is watching his family starving to death in front of him that it is fine because it would be immoral for the government to interfere with the economy or for him to steal money from the rich aristocratic who is spending it on wine and lace. That’s not how humans work. Eventually there comes a snapping point. It had happened in France, and Britain teetered on the brink. Let’s step back and ask why the ruling class responded this way to the crisis. Leave aside the moral consideration of what kind of person would let people starve to death if they could help stop it, especially with little real impact on themselves. Look instead at the incredible shortsightedness of it. What is it that made the ruling class in Britain so secure in the idea they could continue as things were? I think a lot of it comes down to importance society of the time placed on hierarchy. The rigid world view that had been internalised at all social levels. The British establishment world view couldn’t flex to view poverty as anything but a moral failure rather than a result of massive structural inequalities and devastating climate change.
At the end of August more snow was added to the misery of the almost constant rains sweeping mainland Britain. Even the normally chirpy establishment newspaper the Times begin to allow hints that all was not well, but still maintained the line that the wheat harvest had been bountiful. This was either deluded or dishonest. Fake news of the highest order. The government duly attempted a coverup, by suppressing reports into crop yields and conditions as they were so alarming. Crop after crop was lost, and any hope of a good late harvest evaporated. Canterbury alone suffered economic losses of around £70,000.
The philosopher James Mill wrote to the economist Riccardo
[QUOTE] the corn here is absolutely green, nothing whatsoever in the ear; and a perfect continuance of rain and cold. There must now be of necessity a very deficient crop, and very high prices – and these with an unexampled scarcity of work will produce a degree of misery, the thought of which makes the flesh creep on ones bones – one third of the people must die – it would be a blessing to take them into the streets and highways, and cut their throats as we do with pigs.” [END QUOTE]
The effects of Mt Tambora were beginning to be felt in Ireland as early as January 1816, when ferocious storms wrecked the Sea Horse transport ship in Tramore Bay killing 363 people.
Tragically agriculturally fragile Ireland was hit with devastating force. I do want to emphasise that when I’m talking about Ireland now, I’m giving you a really brief skim of the surface. C19th Irish society, geography and economics were very complicated, and are often indulge far too much the subject of historical stereotyping or romanticising about a huge subject.
80% of the rural population of Ireland were incredibly poor tenant farmers and labourers, who even in the best years hovered over the brink of ruin. Marginal farms had been brought in to production by the richer members of the tenant farmer class, and the Anglo Irish gentry during the boom of the Napoleonic Wars, which had now gone bust. Almost all of Ireland was dependent on land wealth in some form; whether rich or poor, everything came back to the land. The gentry owned it, and took out huge loans on it, whilst providing jobs and local spending. The middle class did the day to day tenant farming and the great mass of the population did the labour. A vast gulf existed as the Anglo Irish landowners often only spoke English whilst the main of the population spoke Irish. Each feared and hated the other to a degree.
I want to remind you though not to read back from the Great Famine of 1845, also known as the Irish Potato Famine or the Great Dying, and this event. They were two very different events with very different causes. The Irish potato famine hit an already fragile society on its main crop which had come to be over relied on by the very poorest of the population, whereas the the famine of 1816 hit the entire of Europe across every kind of plant and animal farming, hitting all classes. In normal times, Ireland was prosperous agriculturally and didn’t have an unusual history of famines compared to the rest of Europe. The effect of the Great Famine sometimes distorts the history of Ireland and makes it easy to assume that the whole history of Ireland was one of poverty and starvation. It wasn’t, and was regarded as agriculturally rich.
Still the reliance on the potato meant that populations in Ireland had increased rapidly by 1816, yet society rested on a fragile base. The land, even in good years, could only just support the growing population as land became increasingly subdivided between growing families. The potato allowed a family to live on a small area of land, focusing their diet on potatoes, cows, chickens and pigs. This increased reliance on the potato even more at the bottom of society, and stored up trouble for the future. It wasn’t the primary cause of the famine in 1816. The massive population kept wages low as well. As America became more prosperous, Ireland exported less to the USA, leaving it achingly dependent on trade with Britain. The recent act of Union hadn’t helped. When Ireland became part of the United Kingdom, the Irish Parliament was eventually abolished and Irish MP’s were granted seats in the Westminster Parliament. Whilst some in Ireland were initially excited about this, since it gave them access to the ruling Parliament of one of the most powerful nations in the world, it had some huge draw backs.
Firstly Irish MPs were hugely outnumbered, so although they could now raise Irish issues on a larger stage, they had less voting power to make changes. Secondly the Irish were seen as culturally and socially distinct so they couldn’t operate the power and patronage back channels to circumvent these problems like the English. Thirdly it meant that local understanding and connections were lost. Fourthly, Ireland was now part of the same domestic market as the rest of the UK. Its textile workers and farmers were in direct competition with their fellow workers on mainland England (Scotland and Wales had different economies so they weren’t in the same markets).
Parts of Ireland did have an industrialising urban base similar to England, but it couldn’t easily compete with the established large scale mills in the North of England. There were also substantial numbers of Irish cottage based weavers who were facing the same problems as their English cottage based weaver counter parts.
Also please put to one side the idea that Ireland was overpopulated. The idea of over population is a difficult one. It isn’t a case of having too many people or too many babies. It depends greatly on how much food can be produced, the energy needs of the people, and wider economy. The rural Irish population was considered backwards by many tourists, and standards of housing were dreadful in comparison to more prosperous towns, but it is interesting to note that the Irish population as a whole was regarded as well fed and healthy. Reliance on the potato earlier than in mainland Britain, meant that overall calorie intake was quite high and compared favourably to the rural poor in England. The Irish History podcast has looked at this in a lot of detail, and we will do a deeper dive in our future episodes.
What is striking though is just how fragile the Irish economy was, how dependent it was on a few key area’s, and how dysfunctional the political structures were especially with absentee landlords. This was made worse by poor and repressive government from Westminster. The overall impression of Ireland in 1816 is one of a socially unsettled country that didn’t have the economic and agricultural resilience to cope with major shocks.
The enormous social tensions in Ireland meant that the British authorities were mostly focused on keeping order. Crime and disorder became a self fulfilling prophecy. There had been some recent violent uprisings, and the British viewed them as treasonous or at the very least criminal. It is worth baring in mind that during the Napoleonic Wars, some members of Irish society had formed alliances with the French to assist invasions, so the British viewed the loyalty of some of the Irish as highly suspect. The main establishment authorities, including men like Robert Peel, came expecting to find rampant crime, found it, assumed that this was the cause of the problems in Ireland and then focus on crime. This increased tensions, fuelling the cycle. Innate distrust and prejudice against Catholics only made things worse, whilst Irish gangs rioted for good reasons and bad, often robbing and intimidation the law abiding. British government reprisals could be extremely brutal and occasionally indiscriminate, worsening relations. The British monarchy was in an especially difficult position when it came to Catholic Ireland. The four King George’s and William IV were all from the House of Hanover. The claim of the Hanoverians to the English throne was based on the explicit claim to be protestant monarchs not Catholics. It was linked to the claim that the only other royal house that could have claimed the English throne, the House of Stuart, was illegitimate because it was Catholic. That might sound trivial to us, but it had huge implications. If the Hanoverians supported Catholic rights or emancipation in Ireland they were undermining their own claims to the right to the English and Scottish thrones. After all, if Catholics were entitled to equal treatment and freedoms, then surely there was no basis for the House of Stuart not to have retained the throne and that would make them the ruling house. This was a real bind for the conservative upper classes, including Sir Robert Peel.
In Ireland, men like Sir Robert Peel were too detached from the reality on the ground for the bulk of the rural Irish population. The rain was decimating crops, with over 143 days of rain in row totalling 31 inches. Daniel O’Connell, the nationalist was horrified at conditions, and even the gentry were facing ruin.
The climate disruption triggered one of the great demographic earth quakes in history. Irish people who could began the first major emigration to the United States, but also to Canada. To Peel’s annoyance it was the richer protestants who left. He would have preferred it to have been from the mass of souther rural poor to ease the pressure on food supplies and hopefully reduce death rates. He had no idea of the terrible situation in the USA and nor did the emigrants. Sadly for many of them, fleeing didn’t bring safety. Supplies would sometimes run out on the voyage to America, and many destitute people who did reach New Jersey or Philadelphia starved to death in the streets. The poorest of the population could often only afford the cheap tickets to Liverpool, and the mass emigration of the Irish to the British mainland caused immense tensions as they almost inevitably ended up as labourers, competing for already scarce jobs. (Dr Majorie Bloy )
By September and October, full reports of the utter humanitarian crisis in Ireland were beginning to hit home with Peel and the London Press. County Kerry, County Mayo, County Westmeath, CountyFermanagh, County Antrim and County Down all reported massive flooding, wiping out what was left of the crops and potatoes. Some fields near Drogheda, were so flooded, they were colonised by ducks swimming on them.
Ok, if that isn’t shocking enough, think about this. Most of the rural population in Ireland depended on cutting peat and turf for fuel, shelter and building materials. The rain made it sodden and useless. What meagre food there was couldn’t easily be cooked, and there was no fire for warmth. Peel now knew he had a massive disaster on his hands, but as he said
[QUOTE] I fear we have melancholy prospects before us and are threatened with calamities for which it is impossible to suggest a remedy. [END QUOTE]
It is easy to assume that Peel was blind to the problems in Ireland and came with the common hostile attitude held by most of the ruling class, but he actually commented that he regarded the Irish in a positive light, with immense potential for development. His correspondence and replies in Parliament were often extremely positive in around 1816. He said in a reply to Sir J Newport in the House,
[QUOTE] that it is impossible to see them without admiring many of their qualities. [END QUOTE]
he went on to list them as being faithful, honest and chaste in marriage. He always commented on other occasions about the problems of Ireland being what we would call structural; he was scathing about the absentee gentry and felt the lack of them living in Ireland, but collecting rents from estates they owned there, was holding back the economy, taking money out of the country, and weakening the talent pool that would normally be the back bone of the local administrations and court systems. He also attacked the free press in Ireland, which he viewed as the main cause of many of the problems in the country, since it corrupted what he viewed as an honest population in his opinion. His view was wholly paternalistic. He was a Tory after all, but it was based on the assumption that a local land owning gentry should actually be local, bound to the community and incentivised to help it prosper. He wanted greater protection for some key industries to allow them to develop, and he was highly reluctant to sanction military deployments. There’s an interesting quote from him in a debate in Parliament – the Army Estimates Feb 1816
[QUOTE] The house must not suppose that the government listens to every hasty application from magistrates for a military force. Such applications often spring from groundless fears; and the answer invariably returned to them is, that it is impossible to attend to every individual who makes them. [END QUOTE]
I’m telling this so you understand that Peel was a clever, complicated person. He wasn’t a repressive tyrant, nor did he want to commit some kind of genocide in Ireland. He did come to the view that only law and order maintained by the army would keep the country from collapse. This was a dangerous course though. The Protestant army in Ireland had engaged in some brutal repressions of the local population, and had also suffered some brutal reprisals or random attacks. The use of the military in Ireland was never going to help improve social tensions or help with necessary reform. Still put yourself in the shoes of the officials in many rural area’s. There’s no refrigeration, no trains or trucks to move food around. No mass reserves of food, no real canned goods or rations. The main bulk food stuff that was relatively non-perishable and transportable ws grain and perhaps rice. These weren’t going to be available at short notice, and even if they were the expense was huge and there was no real way to distribute the food around the countryside.
Administration remained primitive and used parchment and dipped ink pens. News travelled slowly in rural Ireland, even by the standards of the C19th. Even the best of administrations was slow, but Ireland in 1816 was a society with deep structural problems, rife with social and religious tension, deep issues in its government and suffering periodic repression from the Westminster Government and British army. It is easy to blame the authorities, but as the old saying goes, try walking a mile in their mochasins. When mass climate disruption hits, human societies can suffer seriously. Whilst the easy view is that the authorities are always at fault, the reality of system wide shocks is far more complicated, especially in a country with the difficulties faced by Ireland.
As if Ireland hadn’t suffered enough though, with grim inevitability, disease in the form of Typhus struck in September. It would kill tens of thousands of Irish. Combined with the famine over 100,000 Irish would die. This was tragedy on an enormous scale. The fear and helplessness goes beyond easy understanding. The Typhus epidemic would continue until 1819. It is ironic to note that when the great famine struck Ireland in 1845, Peel was Prime Minister. Again he was responsible for dealing with a colossal crisis in Ireland, and again he was initially unaware of the terrible scale of the humanitarian disaster unfolding, but he would eventually come to destroy his party and government to repel the Corn Laws in part to help the victims of the great famine.
In October northern England was again hit with ferocious floods. East Riding, Berwick, and numerous other towns, were flooded with bridges washed away and fields inundated. Labour was so cheap by now farmers could take their pick of workers, but with no crops to harvest there were no jobs. Cattle couldn’t be fed, so were sold off at rock bottom prices threatening the ability of farmers to keep enough livestock for the following year.
At the very top of society though, Lord Liverpool and his government were feeling fairly happy. They were pleased to see revenue from taxes rising, and in accordance with the classic economic theories of the times assumed this meant people were obviously buying more goods, so the economy was growing and therefore overall the economy was actually healthy and wealthy. Low interest rates, good gold reserves and plenty of credit and relatively low debt levels made him feel even more confident. Any problems with the lower class weren’t the problem of the government; it was for the invisible hand of the market to sort out. Private charity, not government aid was viewed as the only possible response; the job of government was to keep spending and taxes low. Government aid was viewed as encouraging idleness.
It strikes me as strange how these arguments get rehashed and go in endless cycles throughout history. Still, it seems an immense stretch to say in hindsight that the poor were at fault for the massive climate disturbance in 1816. Bread prices were soaring. People across the country were desperate in unimaginable ways. Food riots broke out again and again. In hard hit Wales, strikes and riots broke out. Magistrates called for troops. Eventually as local yeoman were not enough, veteran cavalry from Waterloo were deployed in Newport to crack what seemed to be a rebellion. Still the government did nothing, convinced that this was revolutionary agitation rather than sign of distress. When 8,000 people gathered at Spa fields to talk about petitioning the Prince Regent in November the temperature dropped below freezing. Snow returned. The protesters railed against high taxes and ominously the Tricolour flag of revolution was seen flying, liberty caps were mounted on pikes, and cries went up of marching on “the British Bastille” of Coldbath Fields Prison. American Ambassador John Quincy Adams was shocked to find people starving in the street. Lord Castlereagh, star of our episodes on the Congress of Vienna, had his home stoned. The Prince Regent refused to meet MP’s petitioning for reform and Lord Liverpool refused to assemble Parliament to debate. A mob formed and marched on the Tower of London, but was dispersed.
This was the perfect excuse for Lord Liverpool. He summoned Parliament in January and whipped up fears that there was a revolution, so strong repressive legislation was needed to preserve national security. Spy networks were set up, meetings of more than 50 people were required to obtain prior permission, a gagging act was brought in and ancient rights of Habeas Corpus were effectively suspended. Meetings were broken up. Cavalry were deployed enthusiastically. Quick trials and hangings of suspected rebels became common. Transportation to Australia was increased. With great reluctance though Parliament was forced to enact schemes to provide loans to employers to create jobs usually though public works like road building, canals or land improvements. The response was electric and take up immense. It wasn’t enough to force Lord Liverpool to take the situation in Ireland seriously, despite Peel’s efforts to provide food to the poor and also keep a lid on serious riots. Peels attempts to import grain failed miserably, so he finally tired of waiting on Lord Liverpool. He set up his own distribution system run by 5 protestants, 2 quakers and a Catholic. This was shockingly radical for the time especially from a Tory. He created a small scale financial fund based on the same model as the British schemes. It remained a drop in the ocean, especially against the background of mutual hostility and establishment prejudice.
Gradually the year of 1816 ended and in 1817 the climate, although harsh, began to stabilise enough for a more normal harvest. Times would remain bitterly hard for the bulk of the working population of the United Kingdom and reform would be strongly resisted by the ruling classes. The next 15 years of British history was defined by the war for social reform and democratic reform. This is the backdrop Victoria herself would grow up in, and attitudes to the monarchy were deeply shaped by this disastrous period, especially the immense unpopularity of the Prince Regent (later King George IV). Without Victoria, and more especially without the brilliance of Prince Albert, it is likely the damage to the monarchy done in this period would never have been repaired and perhaps Britain would have joined the continent in the year of revolutions in 1848.
Join me next time as where we turn our attention across the Atlantic and discover that in America there was no escape from the icy grip of the Year without Summer.
Setting the scene
Imagine a tranquil pacific heaven. Sandy beaches, warm ocean and gentle breezes. This is in many ways as close to paradise as humans have come. Plenty of fish in the seas. It is a world away from the horrors of Europe in 1815. A Europe where the Napoleonic Wars were entering their final, lethal stages. The battle for the Enlightenment seemed on a knife edge in Europe, and the seeds of it were clinging on in the fledgling United States. Everything seemed to revolve around people in Europe if you take the narrow view, one that is heavily centred on Western civilisation.
Jane Austin published Emma, the War of 1812 officially ended, the British conquered Ceylon, countries in Europe were being created and breakthroughs in technology were being made. All in all, it would seem like the old school of history, the view of the age of man shaping the world was particularly applicable.
In Java in April 1815, one particular man Thomas Stamford Raffles, the Lt Governor was going to have a very, very bad day even in paradise. In fact he was going to have a series of them. They would sharply crush the notion that something as insignificant as mankind was the cause of the greatest events in 1815. Napoleon might have restarted the wars, and appeared to shape the course of history, but in fact nature was going to do something spectacular and heartbreaking.
Raffles was a really interesting guy. He was an aristocratic and had been a key player in the conquest of Java from the French. He was appointed Lt Governor during the 45 day campaign to take Java from the French. He was clever and able to negotiate local politics but at the same time he led military actions against native Javanese who resisted. He crushed the Javanese Princes and looted a royal archive. He also seized nearby territories for the British in case Java was to be returned to the Dutch after the Napoleonic Wars ended. In this respect he appeared much like the typical image of a heartless European conqueror. He had another side though; he was interested in history, arranging the cataloguing of numerous historical sites of importance in Java. He instituted farming reforms, and made modest attempts at curtailing the slave trade although he owned slaves himself. In his future governorships he would go further to abolish slavery entirely as well as writing a history of Java and going on to found Singapore. He would write a book on Zoology and be instrumental in the founding of London Zoo.
You can see in him a prototype for many of the Victorian empire builders who often curiously blended extreme military hawkishness with immense intellectual drive and curiosity.
On the 05 April 1815 Mount Tambora, located in the north of Sawumba Island near Java would begin the first in a series of mega eruptions. These would have devastating impacts not just on the local area, but eventually around the world.
Whatever our modern views on colonial military conquest, it is important to recognise the sheer talent of men like Raffles. Yet during the eruption of Mt Tambora, it is painfully clear how little power or influence even a man of the energy and intellect like Raffles could actually have.
Between 05 April 1815 and 10 April 1815, Mt Tambora would erupt three main times. These eruptions would be some of the largest in recorded human history. They were on a scale that can only be realistically be described using language like biblical, or cataclysmic. There’s a great article in Wired magazine that gave a fantastic scientific summary of the sheer energy involved. I’m going to quote it now, but you can find it online on Wired magazines website.
[QUOTE] An explosive eruption like Tambora releases huge amount of energy. A rough estimate for the 1815 event is ~1.4 x 1020joules of energy were released across the few days of eruption. One ton of TNT releases ~4.2 x 109 joules, so this eruption was 33 billion tons of TNT. That’s 2.2 million Little Boys (the first atomic bomb). The US uses about 1.17 x 1020 joules of power each year (at least in 2007), so Tambora, in the span of a few days, released about the same amount of energy as the consumption of the entire United States in one year (or ~ 1/4 of the entire world’s annual energy consumption!) If you want to compare it to other geologic events, the 2004 Indonesian earthquake that generated the Boxing Day tsunami releases ~110 petajoules of energy (1015joules). That still leaves Tambora ~1200 times more powerful than that M9.3 earthquake. [END QUOTE]
What do those numbers mean? Honestly I don’t know. The human mind can’t really cope with that kind of scale. We can’t grasp it. Put it this way, the explosions of Mt Tambora could even be heard as far away as 1,615 miles in Sumatra. That’s like an explosion going off in New York City that could be heard in Denver Colorado. Scientists can use the Volcanic Explosivity Index to record how explosive an eruption is. This scale is logarithmic, running from 0-8. That means each step up the scale is ten times more powerful than the last.
So let’s put Mt Tambora on the scale and relate it to a few eruptions you might have heard of. The basic on all the time eruptions in Hawaii that you might have seen beautiful pictures of, they clock in at 0-1 on the scale. The Soufriere Hills Volcanoes in Monsarrat are on the 3, whilst stepping up to 4 includes major eruptions like Eyjafjallajökull (2010) in Iceland which was a huge media event, it ground all the planes and was on the news and I’m sure we all remember it. These are big, pretty disruptive events, but that only got up to a number 4 on the scale. Stepping up to 5 now includes terrifying events like Mt Vesuvius and Mt Saint Helens. If you remember the Mt Saint Helen’s eruption it was staggering. I can still remember the impression it made on me as a young child watching news reports.
Moving up another step to 6 gets to Pinatubo, which cooled global temperatures by about 1 degrees and also includes Mt Krakatoa. Ok, I think you are beginning to get an idea now because now we are stepping up to 7, which includes monsters like Mt Tambora. You have not experienced anything like this in your life time and you should be profoundly grateful. Tambora is the only confirmed VEI 7 eruption during human recorded history.
There’s a Minoan eruption of Thera in the middle of the second millennium BC may have been, and it is suspected, although not proved, that the eruption of Samalas volcano in 1257 was also a VEI scale 7 eruption and it might have helped trigger the mini ice age. The reality is then that no human being on Earth today has experienced anything as powerful as a VEI 7 volcano, and Mt Tambora is the only confirmed VEI7 incident in recorded human history.
A VEI 7 eruption is capable of changing the climate on a global scale. It can end civilisations. Raffles and men like him would be in the middle of observing and trying to pick up the pieces. Then the changes would spread around the world. We will look at the wider impact next episode. These would include the spread of Cholera, changes in art and literature to reflect mass famine, increased migration in the United States, deaths world wide, flooding and devastating changes to weather, including reduced sunlight for months. For now, we are going to look at the eruption and its immediate impact in more detail.
The amount of material blasted out into the air caused a zone of darkness covering a radius of (373miles) 600km. If you are struggling with that distance, imagine the distance from New York City to Pittsberg Ohio or from London to north of Glasgow in Scotland. Then turn it from day time to night time and leave it like that for two whole days. Now try to imagine that you have no idea how volcanoes work, or any kind of modern science. No electric lights or backup generators. No satellites or radios or reserve communications. Imagine instead that you live on an island in the pacific and there is a massive noise then darkness falls. If you are educated like Raffles you might look for natural causes but you would be wholly ignorant of almost the entire scientific knowledge you need to have an understanding of what is happening. Even though the great Benjamin Franklin had recently proposed that volcanoes might affect the weather in some, fully understanding of what a volcano does and how it works was over a century away. For the uneducated and for the bulk of the native populations in the local, this would be framed in more religious terms.
Remember that beautiful scene I told you to picture at the beginning. Well it was gone; blasted out of existence by the titanic forces of Mt Tambora. Erased. Volcanoes have a number of destructive characteristics. There is the initial explosion, which contains immense energy. This not only forces magma to the surface, but also rips rock from the volcanic chambers and surface free. There is also the massive devastating pyroclastic flows: waves of superheated gas containing gas, ash and rock that can travel hundreds of kilometres an hour. Often people nearby have only a few moments before they get hit and killed. Humans are simply too fragile to survive close to a VEI7 explosion. Even those further away are in terrible danger. The immense heat and energy can cause hurricanes of ash and debris. Toxic gases can kill thousands, and the thick clouds of ash can become so heavy that breathing is impossible, or people & buildings can be crushed under the weight. If near water, devastating Tsunami’s can be created. In the case of Tambora, one travelled 500km, finally hitting the East coast of Java with a 2 metre high wave.
There is also a following wave of rock, ash and pumice that can rain down for days. This choking ash can mean that plant and animal life is swiftly killed, with rivers being turned into ash filled soup. Within 24 hours the ash cloud thrown up by Mt Tambora covered an area the size of Australia. By the end of the year, the ash would have risen and spread out into the stratosphere to form an invisible but powerful veil of ash around the entire planet. This would reflect sunlight, and drastic cool global temperatures.
We were lucky, if that’s the right word, to have witnesses like Raffles to record the event. Perhaps at another time in human history we wouldn’t know about it except from the geological record. Even lacking the most basic equipment, these observation accounts are invaluable and also chilling. For example Raffles says he was informed by an employee that
At ten, P. M. of the 1st of April, we heard a noise resembling a cannonade, which lasted, at intervals, till nine o’clock next day; it continued at times loud, at others resembling distant thunder; but on the night of the 10th, the explosions became truly tremendous, frequently shaking the earth and sea violently. Towards morning they again slackened, and continued to lessen gradually till the 14th, when they ceased altogether. On the morning of the 3rd of April, ashes began to fall like fine snow; and in the course of the day they were half-an-inch deep on the ground. From that time till the 11th the air was constantly impregnated with them to such a degree, that it was unpleasant to stir out of doors. On the morning of the 11th, the opposite shore of Bali was completely obscured in a dense cloud, which gradually approached the Java shore, and was dreary and terrific. By one, P. M., candles were necessary; by four, P.M., it was pitch-dark; and so it continued until two o’clock of the afternoon of the 12th, ashes continuing to fall abundantly: they were eight inches in depth at this time.’
Perhaps you think of ash as a bit of dust. A minor inconvenience. Well when it comes to Volcanoes, it isn’t. A volcanic ash cloud can contain
– Carbon dioxide
– Sulfates (sulfur dioxide)
– Hydrochloric acid
– Hydroflouric acid
As well as various minerals and fibres. All of these can cause horrific lung damage.
Perhaps you could visualise it more like this. Imagine you go and light five giant BBQ’s in your back garden. Now wait until the heat has died down enough that the coals are grey and just about approachable. Now get inside a small shed say. Then have two friends tip the whole lot onto your head, and they then shut you inside. Picture the heat, the fact that you can’t go anywhere, the ash fills your eyes and burns your lungs. Every breath you take is congested and a fiery agony. Imagine the pain and twisted horror as you realise there’s no escape and no help. This is the world of the survivor in their last moments. If you are far enough away, then it is a rain of cold ash. That brings darkness like Raffles described.
12,000 human beings died in the initial eruptions in ash falls, pyroclastic flows and clouds of superheated gas up to 1,000oC. Some of their carbonised remains were buried under the lava.
In C19th Java and the Pacific, there were no international rescue services that could help. No cars or planes to evacuate. No aid workers being flown in. No dried food supplies and water tankers. No emergency generators. Nothing. One of the most devasting natural disasters in human history was striking at a time when humans hadn’t even fully mastered primitive steam engines in any but the most basic ways.
On the back of this were the Tsunamis and flooding triggered by the eruptions, and reaching up higher into the atmosphere was a layer of ash that would bring darkness to the region.
Now I really, really need to remind you that the whole world in the C19th was basically either agrarian, pastoral or hunter-gather with little in the way of food or water storage as we would understand it today. So that meant most food production was highly localised. Disruption to local food production, even for a single season could result in real hardship, even if the wider country the area was located in was unaffected; local famines could and did erupt savagely. The area’s covered by ash were absolutely out of production. Death by starvation was absolutely guaranteed for a large number of the survivors. There was nothing they could do. They were doomed. That’s hard to get your head round today. There are no accounts from them. I can only picture some of the ash covered survivors walking around in a daze, blinded and slowly starving. Unable to find water or relief, the ash blighting their lungs.
Raffles dispatched Lt Philips to try to see what was going on and give aid. He discovered emptied villages, and desperate people reduced to eating plant stems and palm leaves.
The Rajah of Saugar told Lt Philips during the initial investigations
[QUOTE] Between nine and ten p.m. ashes began to fall, and soon after a violent whirlwind ensued, which blew down nearly every house in the village of Saugar, carrying the tops and light parts along with it.
“In the part of Saugar adjoining [Mount Tambora] its effects were much more violent, tearing up by the roots the largest trees and carrying them into the air together with men, houses, cattle, and whatever else came within its influence. This will account for the immense number of floating trees seen at sea.
“The sea rose nearly twelve feet higher than it had ever been known to be before, and completely spoiled the only small spots of rice lands in Saugar, sweeping away houses and every thing within its reach. [END QUOTE]
An entry from the British Naval Chronicle 1815 July to December vol 34 shows how dreadful the local situation was. This is a bit of a long quote, so bare with me
[QUOTE] Eruption of Mount Tomboro. Extract of a Letter, dated the 29th of May, 1815, from Batavia, from a Merchant of that Place.
“We have had one of the most tremendous eruptions of the Mountain Tomboro, that ever perhaps took place in any part of the world; this mountain is situation on the island of Subawa, and is distant from Batavia not less than 350 miles. We heard the explosions here distinctly, and had some of the ashes. It was totally dark at Macassar long after the sun was up; and at noon, at Sourabaya, the sun succeeded in enlightening the good folks so as to allow them to see some yards around; the ashes lay at Macassar, which is 250 miles from Sambawa, 1 1/2 inches deep. Captain Feen, of the Dispatch,and Captain Eatwell, of the Benares, who have visited the island since the eruptions, both declare, that the anchorage is much changed, and that they found the sea, for many miles around the island, so completely covered with trunks of trees, pumice stone &c. as he was told, that a village was inundated, and had three fathoms of water over it. Great numbers of the miserable inhabitants have perished, and others die daily. The crops of paddy (rice) have been utterly destroyed over a great part of the island; so that the situation of the unfortunate survivors will be really pitiable.” [END QUOTE]
Lt Philip would state
[QUOTE] the extreme misery to which the inhabitants have been reduced is shocking to behold. There were still on the road side the remains of several corpses, and the marks of many others where they had been interred: the villages almost entirely deserted and the houses fallen down, the surviving inhabitants having dispersed in search of food.” [END QUOTE]
As the locals reeled, and the Europeans struggle to think of a meaningful response, the cloud of ash rose inexorably up into the atmosphere. For some of the immediate local tribes, the even could only be understood in religious terms. The further away from the eruption, the less knowledge there was of it.
The local impacts would be devastating, causing immediate deaths of around 70,000 people from starvation or lack of water on top of the 12,000 that had been immediately killed in the eruption. Some villages literally sank. Cattle and horses died in droves, and rich rice fields were destroyed. Temperatures plummeted and many people were plunged into darkness. Officials reported having to light candles during the day to work. Tsunamis wrecked costal regions. Worse though, the immense disruption to the South Asian Monsoon would cause famines and create the conditions in India for the rise of the great scourge of the Victorian age, and its most famous disease – Cholera. A disease that will continue to wreck havoc, even today.
The massive famines in China weakened government control and led to massive rebellions against the Qing dynasty. The knock on effect of this, it has been suggested, was to allow Yunna to become a Chinese narco state. It would play a central role in global poppy production, in turn influencing Victorian Britain’s Opium Wars.
Sadly most of the sources from this period are from the more insulated aristocracy. As you can see from the quote of the Raja, even the rich suffered of course, but we don’t have the same local accounts from famine stricken peasants or workers in South East Asia as we do of the Irish population during the terrible Irish famines.
People around the world would be struck by freak weather in ways they couldn’t understand or deal with. Ireland, Switzerland and America were extremely hard hit as we will see next episode and the one after. During these episodes on Mt Tambora the climate disruption we will see the massive changes it wrecks on human civilisation and how it changes the very direction of history itself. Join me next time as we see what happens to the world as Summer itself fails, and the weather seems to dive into insanity. Kings, emperors, peasants or soldiers. No one, and no where would be untouched, and the impact would have far reaching consequences for the shape of history.
This minisode gives a recap of the key themes in the show since launch as we get ready for a major Victorian event. (and no this isn’t like the Simpsons playing clips of old episodes in a ropey season 18 TV special). This show is a great chance to remind yourself of the real building block events that unleashed the Victorian age.
Also included is a community segment with reviews and listener emails.
Finally we wrap up with the plan for the future structure of the show for the early Victorian era in the year ahead.
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The fledgling United States is hit by freezing storms as the fall out from Mt Tambora continues to wreck havoc around the world. Then we turn to Switzerland and see how the darkness gives rise to the great gothic work of Frankenstein.
In this episode we cover
- Climate science in the USA
- The early colonial economy
- The oncoming storms
- Impact and drivers of migration
- Situation on mainland Europe
- The fateful party: Lord Byron, Mary Shelly and company.
- The Romantic and the Gothic.
If you enjoy the show, you can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Facebook or on Twitter @ageofvictoria
Or visit the website www.ageofvictoriapodcast.com
The show has used various sources for the period just after the Napoleonic Wars, up to the birth of Queen Victoria. This list provides the general materials for the Congress of Vienna, the eruption of Mt Tambora, and general social conditions of the period. I will add to this list as the show goes on. The sources for the Peterloo Massacre will appear separately as it is a unique and significant event.
Inevitably we will occasionally refer to these years as background to future episodes, so this is a living document. As the episodes for these years share themes, most sources listed have been used for multiple episodes.
The Year without Summer and the Volcano that changed darkened the world and changed history was especially useful and formed a large chunk of the background sourcing for the Tambora episodes. It is highly readable and I recommend it.
- The Congress of Vienna by Harold Nicolson
- The Congress of Vienna Rites of Peace Adam Zamoyski
- Russia as a great power, 1815–2007 by Iver B. Neumann pub Journal of International Relations and Development, 2008, 11, (128–151)
- The Year without Summer and the Volcano that changed darkened the world and changed history by William and Nicolas Klingaman.
- The Master Manipulator: A Historical Analysis of Metternich’s Statecraft by Christopher D’Urso http://www.sirjournal.org/research/2015/11/25/the-master-manipulator-a-historical-analysis-of-metternichs-statecraft
- Eruptions that shook the world by Clive Oppenheimer.
- The Year without a Summer: The history and legacy of the 1815 eruption of Mount Tambora. Charles Rivers Editors.
- Ships’ Log-Books, Sea Ice and the Cold Summer of 1816 in Hudson Bay and Its Approaches by A.J.W. CATCHPOLE’ and MARCIA-ANNE FAURER’
- The rise and fall of the British Empire by Lawrence James.
- America Empire of Liberty by David Reynolds
- Progress: its laws and causes by H Spencer.
- A History of the cost of living by John Burnett
- Old World New Word by Kathleen Burk
- Childe Harolds Pilgrimage by Lord Byron.
- Frankenstein by Mary Shelly.
- The Vampyre by John Polidori
- The geography of poor relief expenditure in late eighteenth and early nineteenth century rural Oxfordshire
- The making of the English Working Class by E.P. Thompson
- Manchester in the Victorian Age: The Half Known City by Gary Messinger
- Newport Mon South Wales UK from 1800 to 1829 (www.newportpast.com)
- Disease and the Modern World. (Harrison)
- Age of Revolution 1789-1848 by Hobsbawm
Mt Tambora has devastated huge area’s in the Pacific. Now its global impact begins to be felt. In this latest monthly narrative show your host, Chris Fernandez-Packham, explores the enormous impact on the British mainland and Ireland in 1816 as the Year Without Summer Begins to bite.
Volcanoes and climate science.
C19th Weather and climate science.
The labour market and politics in Britain in 1815
The edge of revolution.
The year without summer hits the economy
1816 begins in Ireland
The Irish political and economic situation
A companions of the famines: 1816 vs 1845
Typhus and poor relief
An unhappy ending in Britain and Ireland.
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No one in 1815 thought the world was about to change, but a cataclysmic volcanic eruption was about to change the course of history. The affairs of men seemed so important, yet in the tranquil Pacific, nature was about to shake the world and civilisations to their foundations. Join me for part 1 of the series on 1816 The Year without Summer as we learn about one of the greatest volcanoes in history. The world would never be the same again.
Love to hear from you either at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @ageofvictoria, or on the Age of Victoria Facebook group. Don’t forget to leave a review on iTunes and tell your friends to listen.
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