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.