The Volcano That Changed the Course of History
TAMBORA ERUPTION CAUSED NOT ONLY THE YEAR WITHOUT A SUMMER, BUT LED TO CHOLERA, OPIUM, FAMINE, AND ARCTIC EXPLORATION
The floods, droughts, starvation, and disease in the three years following the 1815 eruption stem from the volcano’s effects on weather systems, so Tambora stands today as a harrowing case study of what the human costs and global reach might be from runaway climate change.
Slate // APRIL 9 2014 (originally appeared in The Conversation)
By Gillen D’Arcy Wood
Most have heard of the Battle of Waterloo, but who has heard of the volcano called Tambora? No school textbook I’ve seen mentions that only two months before Napoleon’s final defeat in 1815, the faraway Indonesian island of Sumbawa was the site of the most devastating volcanic eruption on Earth in thousands of years.
The death toll was around 100,000 people from the thick pyroclastic flows of lava; the tsunami that struck nearby coasts; and the thick ash that blanketed Southeast Asia’s farmlands, destroyed crops, and plunged it into darkness for a week.
Both events—Napoleon’s defeat and the eruption—had monumental impacts on human history. But while a library of scholarship has been devoted to Napoleon’s undoing at Waterloo, the scattered writings on Tambora would scarcely fill your in-tray.
It is time to recognize Tambora as the Napoleon of eruptions. The implications—for historians—of a revised, volcanic 19th century are immense. As with the global cholera epidemic, and the growth of a Chinese opium empire, Victorian-era polar exploration might not have happened at all, or would have evolved in an entirely different direction, had it not been for Tambora’s climate-wrecking detonation in 1815.
For two long centuries, the connections between this major volcanic disaster and human history have been obscured by two factors: the limitations of scientific knowledge, and by our narrow, anthropocentric vision that seeks out only human causes for human events, neglecting the influence of environmental change. Now, in the 21st century, as we begin to appreciate more profoundly the interdependence of human and natural systems, the lesson of a 200-year-old climate emergency may finally be learned: A changing climate changes everything.
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Gillen D’Arcy Wood is Director of Sustainability Studies Initiative in the Humanities and Professor of English at the University of Illinois-Urbana-Champaign. He is the author of Tambora: the Eruption that Changed the World, Princeton University Press (April 27, 2014; although Amazon claims April 13 shipping).
For more on Tambora, check out this post …