Today is the 198th anniversary of the largest volcanic event in recorded history, the deadly and devastating eruption of Mount Tambora on the island of Sumbawa in Indonesia. The eruption was four times as powerful as that of its later and more famous sibling, Mount Krakatoa, in 1883, and was equivalent to an 800 megaton explosion. For comparison, the Fat Man and Little Boy nuclear weapons dropped on Japan during World War II were roughly 12.5 kilotons each, and the largest nuclear weapon ever built — the Soviet Union’s Tsar Bomba — was tested at a relatively paltry 50 megatons.
The eruption of Tambora is a troubling reminder of the powerful forces that lie sleeping within the Earth. When the mountain blew, it ejected an estimated 160 cubic kilometers of material, with an eruption column some 43 kilometers high. Before the eruption, the mountain was 14,100 feet tall, and one of the tallest in Indonesia; afterwards, only 9,354 ft of its height remained. Ash was distributed throughout the upper atmosphere worldwide, resulting in significant climate effects, as we will note below.
The death toll from the eruption was horrific: some 12,000 people were killed as a direct result of the eruption, with even more dying in the aftermath from famine and disease. The most modern estimate suggests 71,000 people died in total.
In that era, worldwide communication was still slow and unreliable. There are not many detailed reports of the eruption itself, and its aftermath. On this grim anniversary, I thought I would share some of the original first-hand accounts of the event and the devastation.
The best source of information on the Tambora eruption comes from Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles (1781-1826), who was at the time the Lieutenant Governor of Java, Indonesia. Though Java had long been a Dutch colony, the Netherlands was annexed by Napoleon into the French Empire in 1811. With Java now a French holding, it was seized by British forces (including Raffles) that same year. Raffles was appointed Lieutenant Governor and maintained that post until the end of 1815, when control of the colony returned to the Dutch. In the aftermath of the eruption, Raffles requested eyewitness accounts from residents of his districts, and these were combined into a “Narrative of the effects of the Eruption from the Tomboro Mountain in the Island of Sambawa on the 11th and 12th of April 1815,” which was finished in September of that same year.
The eruption formally began on April 5th, and the loud booms from the mountain were heard hundreds of miles away and first interpreted as cannon fire. Ships and military expeditions were actually sent from various settlements to respond to what was thought to be citizens under attack. Ash began to fall on the 6th, however, leaving no doubt as to the cause of the sounds. From here, we turn to extracts from different (relatively distant) parts of Java for accounts.
An extract of a letter from Grissie (presumably Gresik):
I woke in the morning of the 12th, after what seemed to be a very long night, and taking my watch to the lamp found it to be half past eight o’clock, I immediately went out and found a cloud of ashes descending; at 9 o’clock no day light-the layer of ashes on the terrace before my door at the Kradenan measures one line in thickness; ten A. M.-a faint glimmering of light can now be perceived overhead: half past 10- can distinguish objects 50 yards distant: 11 A. M .-Breakfasted by candle-light, the birds begin to chirrup as at the approach of day: half past 11-can discover the situation of the sun through a thick cloud of ashes; 1 P.M. found the layer of ashes one line and a half thick, and measured in several places with the same results; 3 P. M. the ashes have increased one eighth of a line more; 5 P. M it is now lighter, but still I can neither read nor write without Candles. In travelling through the district on the 13th, the appearances were described with very little variation from my account, and I am universally told that no one remembers, nor does their tradition record, so tremendous an Eruption — some look upon it as typical of a change, of the re-establishment of the former Government; others account for it in an easy way by reference to the superstitious notions of their legendary tales, and say that the celebrated Nyai Luroh Kidul has been marrying one of her children, on which occasion she has been firing salutes from her supernatural Artillery. They call the ashes the dregs of her Ammunition.
It is interesting to note that many locals considered the eruption a sign of impending change; in Simon Winchester’s book Krakatoa, he suggests that the later eruption led to the end of Dutch colonial rule, as the Indonesians took the event as a sign of displeasure from the gods.
From Sumanap, which is now spelled Sumenep:
On the evening of the 10th the explosions became very loud, one in particular shook the Town, and they were excessively quick, resembling a heavy cannonade. Towards evening next day the atmosphere thickened so much, that by 4- o’clock it was necessary to light candles. At about 7 P. M. of the 11th, the tide being about ebb, a rush of water from the Bay occasioned the River to rise four feet. and it subsided again in about 4 minutes; the Bay was much agitated about this time, and was illuminated from a Northerly direction. On the Island of Sahotic, fire was seen distinctly at a short distance to the South-east. The uncommon darkness of this night did not break till 10 and 11 A M. of the 12th, and it could hardly be called day light all day. Volcanic ash fell in abundance, and covered the earth about two inches thick, the trees also were loaded with them.
The “rush of water” from the Bay was certainly one of several relatively small tsunamis that was created by the explosion of Tambora.
At 10 P.M. of the 1st April we heard a noise resembling a cannonade, which lasted at intervals till 9 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 3d 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 1 P. M. candles were necessary, by 4 P. M. it was pitch dark, and so it continued until 2 o’clock of the afternoon of the 12th, ashes continuing to fall abundantly: they were 8 inches in depth at this time. After 2 o’clock it began to clear up, but the sun was not visible till the 14th, and during this time it was extremely cold-the ashes continued to fall, but less violently, and the greatest depth, on the 15th of April, was 9 inches.
Comparing the reports as we get closer to the mountain, it can be clearly seen that the effects get appreciably worse. Nothing could compare to the experiences of the Rajah of Saugur and his neighbors, whose home village was right at the foot of the mountain itself (communicated to Raffles by Lieutenant Owen Phillips):
About 7 P.M. on the 10th of April, three distinct columns of flame burst forth near the top of Tomboro Mountain, all of them apparently within the verge of the crater, and after ascending separately to a very great height, their tops united in the air in a troubled confused manner. In a short time the whole Mountain next Saugur appeared like a body of liquid fire extending itself in every direction.
The fire and columns of flame continued to rage with unabated fury until the darkness, . caused by the quantity of falling matter, obscured it at about 8 P.M. Stones at this time fell very thick at Saugur-some of them as large as two fists, but generally not larger than walnuts; between 9 and 10 P. M. ashes began to fall, and soon after a violent whirlwind ensued, which blew down nearly every house in the village of Saugur, carrying the tops and light parts away with it; In the part of Saugur adjoining Tomboro, 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 12 feet higher than it had ever been known to be before, and completely spoiled the only small spots of rice lands in Saugur-sweeping away houses and every thing within its reach.
The whirlwind lasted about an hour, no explosions were heard till the whirlwind had ceased, at about 11 A. M. From midnight till the evening of the 11th, they continued without intermission, after that time their violence moderated, and they were only heard at intervals, but the explosions did not cease entirely until the 15th of July. The mountain still throws out immense volumes of smoke, and the Natives are apprehensive of another Eruption during the ensuing rainy season.
I cannot even imagine the terror of the people as this monstrous eruption began right on their doorstep. As I have said, some 12,000 people are estimated to have been killed by the eruption directly, through volcanic activity and the tsunamis that resulted.
Tambora’s eruption had even more far-reaching influences. 1816 became known as the “Year Without a Summer“, as ash and sulfuric acid from the blast spread worldwide through the upper atmosphere, blocking solar radiation from reaching the Earth. Snow and freezing temperatures still occurred on the East Coast of the U.S. in June, and people would hang clothes out to dry only to find them frozen to the line later in the day. The year was also known with grim humor as “Eighteen hundred and froze to death.”
Mount Tambora also likely had at least one major impact on culture. The cold rain ended up ruining a June 1816 outing in Switzerland for Mary Shelley, Percy Shelley, Lord Byron and John Polidori, and the group ended up staying indoors. The grim weather inspired grim talk of ghost stories and bringing the dead to life through electricity (via the newly-discovered galvanism). Lord Byron challenged each member of the group to write his or her own supernatural story. The outcome of this challenge led to two major literary figures in horror. John Polidori wrote The Vampyre, which would later inspire Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Mary Shelley, of course, would end up writing Frankenstein.