The Volcano That Ruined The Dream of Napoleon Bonaparte
A couple of weeks ago, someone told me, “you’ll start to realize the richness of your motherland when you live abroad.”
That struck me deeply; not in a way that I agreed with the statement or something, but instead, it led me to the realization that what I know of my own home is very little.
With that in mind, I re-opened and recalled all memories I had back at home by going through my digital gallery, dusty wrinkled journals, and notes hidden inside some books I carried to Europe; hoping to see what I actually have learned so far about an island I was born and raised in –Sumbawa, Indonesia. Shortly after that, I came across this picture.
Mount Tambora. Seven-hour distance from my home. Most locals consider it a beauty and a beast for its massive explosive impacts in the past. I looked into its explosion history and it took me by surprise when I know the place I am currently residing in was mostly affected. Therefore, I personally believe that this history deserves to be remembered.
Over 200 years ago, in 1815, Mount Tambora on the island of Sumbawa erupted and became one of the largest volcanic eruptions in human history in the 19th century. Not only did it trigger global climate change, but also practically changed the world. The long-term impacts on the whole world were enormous and surprising that some of which we can witness today.
In order to understand how huge the eruption was, the relative explosiveness of a volcanic eruption can be measured by the Volcanic Explosivity Index (VEI). According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, The most volcanic eruption in history that is known as supervolcanoes has had a VEI magnitude of 8. Meanwhile, Mount Tambora in 1815 had a VEI magnitude of 7. The amount of material ejected was giant nearly 10 cubic miles of stones and 10 billion tons was ejected as ash. In addition, the mountain lost approximately 5000 feet of elevation with as falling more than 800 miles away. The explosions remained for several months and the smoke still being emitted in August.
Karen Harpp from Colgate University asserts that “ash particles and sulfur-rich gases decrease the amount of sunlight and lower average global temperatures.” That is why the years following the eruption were known as the year without summer. Gillen Wood describes it as “three years of darkness and cold that spawned crime, poverty, and a literary masterpiece.”
Bad weather, lots of thunderstorms, and very little sunshine caused crop failures that led to famine. People died of starvation and suffered from malnutrition that made them susceptible to diseases including Cholera that started to be an epidemic where millions of people perished. Hence, afraid of it being spread wider, the elites took one measure that we all can find today, which is an interlinked and extensive sewage system.
Such sudden climate change and severe famine also spurred a large-scale migration. The expansion into the west accelerated that contributed to the growing populations that led to the creation of the states of Indiana and Illinois in the United States of America.
Meanwhile, in Southern Germany, famine and the price of oat and wheat skyrocketing led the people to invent potato bread which was considered the most important culinary invention in the 19th century and it can be found in Ulm Bread Culture Museum.
Another invention made was the bicycle by a German inventor, Karl Drace, in 1817 as the replacement of horses as the mode of personal transportation.
The consequences of the eruption are not only found in industrial aspects, but also in literature. The renowned novelist such as Mary Shelly got inspired by constant rain and darkness to produce new modern horror literature in 1818 that we all know as Frankenstein. Also, Lord Byron, with his poem “Darkness” that was written in 1816 and his 1819 unfinished novel entitled “Fragment”, suggests a vampire theme, that was influenced by the climate situation.
Despite this advanced invention made by the people at that time, the Tambora eruption also led to riots and disturbance. Many people stole and committed crimes as a result of the food shortage and its unaffordable prices. This chaotic and economic depression caused the Peterloo Massacre in British cities where a number of women and children were killed.
Even more surprising. As the title of this writing suggests, the change in climate also affected the Battle of Waterloo commanded by the French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte. Excessive rainfall became the problem for him in which the large and heavy cannons he had found it hard to move due to sodden ground that brought him to be defeated. In fact, Victor Hugo in the “The Romances” made a counterfactual that specifically says,
“If it had not rained on the night between the 17th and 18th June, 1815, the future of Europe would have been changed.”
As mind-blowing as it sounds, this is like a butterfly effect!
How could a volcano on the other side of the world have such an immense impact on the other continents?
I still find it hard to believe that Europeans and I do have something to relate to in the past; obviously besides colonial history. I also cannot stress enough on how nature can actually affect human civilization. Hence, it is noteworthy that we cannot neglect the rights of our natural environment to be protected and well-preserved.
Eventually, I am grateful for that person who told me that. Because of that, I become more aware of where I come from. Because of that, I view the relationship between history and natural disasters as a unique form. Because of that, I discover something to connect with in my second home.