After the battle of Waterloo brought an end to the Napoleonic Wars and peace to Europe, everyone lived happily ever after (except Napoleon, obviously). The next thing to happen was the death of George III in 1820, after which the Prince Regent got a real job for ten or so years before passing the baton on to his brother William IV, ‘Sailor Bill’.
This is of course rubbish. In 1815, most of Europe was exhausted and bankrupt, and in political terms was facing the return of the autocratic regimes which Napoleon had temporarily swept away to be replaced by his own brand of autocracy. And things were about to get much worse. In 1816 the entire world was affected by an event that had happened on 10 April 1815 in Indonesia: the eruption of Mount Tambora, the largest volcanic event in recorded history.
Mount Tambora is much less well known than Krakatoa (which is in fact East of Java, not West, as the 1969 film had it), which blew its top in 1883.
The latter was less powerful on the scale by which such things are measured (though it is estimated that subsequent tsunamis killed over 36,000 people and destroyed or damaged nearly 300 villages); but faster communications worldwide meant that it became known to Western scientists much more quickly, and several scientific expeditions were sent to monitor the after-effects of the blast, and the rate at which life and growth returned to the fragmented island.
What the two eruptions have in common is their long-term effect on life in the northern hemisphere. The blasting of ash and dust fifty miles into the sky had an appalling effect on the weather: after 1883, average global temperatures dropped by as much as 1°C, and the climate was unstable for the next five years. Tambora is estimated to have produced c. 160 cubic kilometres of material (as against Krakatoa’s mere 20 km3), and 1816 was widely known as ‘the year without a summer’, because the sun was obscured by dust, and this had disastrous effects on agricultural production.
There is a fascinating account here of the disastrous summer of 1816 in the north-eastern United States. In Europe, harvest failures were widespread, and in the areas recently plundered by Napoleon there were no reserve stocks of any sort. Rain was acidic, from the huge amounts of sulphur dioxide released, and frosts and even snow were widespread in June. Gale-force winds restricted fishing and trading voyages, and the world was dark because the clouds of circulating debris obscured the sun.
In India and China the monsoon period was disrupted, leading to three successive years of ruined harvests, and large-scale flooding of the Yangtse river basin. It has been argued that famine in Bengal led to the rise of a new strain of cholera, and that the typhus epidemics in Europe between 1816 and 1819 were made more lethal by malnourishment. There were food riots all over Europe as wheat, oats and potato harvests failed, and dispossessed tenant farmers took to the road as beggars – an awful premonition of the potato famine of the 1840s in Ireland. And although calculations of mortality are extremely difficult, it has been estimated that the total of lives lost in the eruption itself and in the subsequent famines and floods was in the region of 71,000: though some put it as high as 100,000.
The debris in the atmosphere was also responsible for the lurid sunsets recorded by J.M.W. Turner, for Lord Byron’s poem, ‘Darkness’, and for Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein which had its genesis in a story competition among the occupants of the Villa Diodati on Lake Geneva, bored and frustrated by the continuous rain. On a larger scale, it has been speculated that the bad harvests in the north-eastern United States drove desperate farmers westward into new territory, and even that the lack of oats to feed horses inspired the German inventor Karl Drais to develop his velocipede, the ancestor of the bicycle.
Other events in 1816 – without any necessary connection to the eruption – include the first testing of Humphry Davy’s safety lamp underground on 9 January; the premiere of Rossini’s Barbiere di Siviglia in Rome on 20 February; the birth of Charlotte Brontë on 21 April; the marriage of Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coburg to Princess Charlotte of Wales on 2 May; the deaths of Dorothea Jordan (mistress of William IV) on 5 July, and of Richard Brinsley Sheridan on 7 July.
1816 is an especially significant year in Cambridge, because 4 February saw the death of Richard Fitzwilliam, 7th Viscount Fitzwilliam, who left his considerable art collection and his library to his alma mater, together with the money to build a museum to house them.
A new exhibition in the Octagon Room traces the history of the museum from 1816 to the present, and in the Charrington Print Room are examples of engraving published in 1816 by Turner, Goya and the German artist Peter Cornelius (1784-1867).
Bicentenary celebrations and exhibitions will continue throughout 2016 – which we can only hope will NOT be one without summer.