In April 1815, the largest eruption of modern times occurred. Most think this was Krakatoa. But no, Krakatoa erupted in 1883.
Many have not heard of Mount Tambora, on Sumbawa Island, and part of the Indonesian ‘ring of fire’. The Mount Tambora eruption measured 7 on the velocity explosive index (VEI) and devastated the island. Tens of thousands were killed by the eruption and by famine and disease that resulted from it. The eruption lead to sudden climate cooling. The northern hemisphere is thought to have cooled by approximately 3C. Weather patterns were disrupted and crops failed. The year that followed is known as the Year Without Summer, and in North America as Eighteen Hundred and Froze to Death. In fact, as Gillen d’Arcy Wood makes clear in his study, Tambora: the eruption that changed the world, severe effects were felt for three years following the eruption, and he credits knock-on effects throughout the nineteenth century to the eruption, particularly the pressure for social and political reform.
Oddly, it was these later events that brought the Tambora eruption to my attention. I had been reading about the Peterloo Massacre of 1819, and subject of an up-coming film by Mike Leigh (Peterloo, 2018). I was interested in writing about the women involved and then wondered if the events in Manchester had had a knock-on effect here in the Fens. I discovered not that, but reference to the Bread or Blood riots of 1816 in Littleport instead, which is just up the road from where I live. As the price of bread soared in 1816, riots broke out across the East of England. In post-Napoleonic war Britain, there was little for the common man to return to: a ruling class occupied with protecting their own interests: in tax cuts for the wealthy land-owning class, and protectionist measures to keep the price of grain high. Lord Liverpool’s government was woefully ill-equipped to deal with the unrest and largely unsympathetic. In their mind, the French Revolution stood as a terrible warning and was still frighteningly close. Any unrest was seen as a threat and was brutally suppressed. In Littleport, five were hanged for their part in the riots and many more were transported or jailed.
Apart from an academic study, published in 1965, and a handful of local self-published pamphlets, very little has been written about the Littleport riots. It seemed extraordinary to me. Jill Dawson’s novel The Tell-Tale Heart includes the riot as a chapter in a story about a heart transplant patient that explores what survives of us over time.
What interested me as I thought about 1816 was how the eruption shaped lives, but I was wary of writing a work of environmental determinism: this happened therefore this happened. It was important to tell a wider story and in doing so to consider how people live through extraordinary times, through an event they largely were unaware of and did not understand the significance of. The science linking a volcanic eruption to climate cooling did not exist until the mid-20th century.
Would the riots have happened without Tambora? We cannot know. What the eruption shows is that sudden climate cooling over a relatively short period of time had profound and far-reaching effects, the consequences of which are with us today.
Here is the outline for my second novel, Year Without Summer, based on the events of 1815 and 1816. It will be published by Two Roads Books in early 2020.
Year Without Summer
1815 – and on Sumbawa Island, Mount Tambora erupts. A cataclysmic eruption, it will go down in history as larger than Krakatoa. Sent to investigate, Henry Hogg, ship’s surgeon on board The Benares, can scarce believe what he finds. The island, once a green gem, is now ash – the sea around it turned to stone. Thousands have died. But as the dust cloud tracks north, shrouding the sun, the seasons on which so much depends, will fail.
1816 – Britain is wracked with riots and revolutionary protest. Snow falls in August. Weeks of incessant rain seem to foretell the end of times. Sarah Hobbes, a farm labourer, not knowing day to day if she has work and always hungry, has had enough of farmers and their fancy fa-lals. Hope Peter, back from the Wars, finds his family home demolished and a fence gone up in its place. On the run after a poaching offence, he befriends little Willie Hutchen and they flee to London. In Vermont, Wesleyan preacher, Charles Whitlock, exhorts his followers to keep faith as drought dries their wells and their livestock starve. In Switzerland, Mary Shelley, confined indoors by weeks of rain, chafes against boredom. Famine refugees trudge by her door. This was not the summer she had hoped for. Caught between the past he loves and a future he desperately wants, John Constable, is jolted out of his complacency. If all art is feeling, should he paint the misery he sees?
Year Without Summer tells the story of a fateful year when temperatures fell and the summer failed to arrive. It is a story of the books written, the art made; of the journeys taken, of the love longed for and the lives lost. Six separate lives, connected only by an event many thousands of miles away. Few had heard of Tambora – but none could escape its effects.
A new novel from Guinevere Glasfurd that deals with the urgent issue of our climate, to remind us how relatively small shifts in temperature can have profoundly devastating and wide-reaching effects. By turning our attention on six very different characters, she examines the purpose of art and literature, of religious belief and protest at a time of undeniable crisis – a crisis that was not borne equally by all.