TRANSCRIPT: EP015 MT TAMBORA PT3 EIGHTEEN HUNDRED AND FROZE TO DEATH

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

  7. 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.

  8. 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.

  9. 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.

  10. 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.

  11. 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]

  12. 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.

  13. 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.

  14. 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.

  15. 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.

  16. 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.

  17. 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.

  18. 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.

  19. 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.

  20. 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.

  21. 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.

  22. 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

  23. [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]

  24. 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.

  25. 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.

  26. 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.

  27. 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.

  28. 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.

  29. 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]

  30. 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.

  31. 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.

  32. 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.

  33. 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.

  34. 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

  35. 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.

  36. 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.

  37. 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.

  38. 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.

  39. 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.

  40. 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.

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