Gillen D’Arcy Wood, “1816, The Year without a Summer”


The so-called “Year Without a Summer”—1816—belongs to a three-year period of severe climate deterioration of global scope caused by the eruption of Mt. Tambora in Indonesia in April, 1815. With plummeting temperatures, and disruption to major weather systems, human communities across the globe faced crop failures, epidemic disease, and civil unrest on a catastrophic scale. In cultural terms, the dreary summer of 1816 is best known as the setting for Mary Shelley’s writing of Frankenstein, a novel whose iconic Creature offers a figure for the millions of hungry and dispossessed of Europe during the protracted climate emergency that followed Tambora’s eruption.

To be alive in the years 1816-18, almost anywhere in the world, meant to be hungry. Across the globe during the so-called “Year Without a Summer”—which was, in fact, a three-year climate crisis—harvests perished in frost and drought or were washed away by flooding rains. Villagers in Vermont survived on hedgehogs and boiled nettles, while the peasants of Yunnan in China sucked on white clay. Summer tourists traveling in France mistook beggars crowding the roads for armies on the march. One such group of English tourists, at their lakeside villa near Geneva, passed the long, cold, crop-killing days by the fire writing ghost stories. Despite the fame of Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein—the signature literary production of the “Year Without a Summer”—the global scope of the climate emergency in the immediate post-map iconWaterloo period remains little known.

1816 was a time when the overwhelming majority of the world’s population depended on subsistence agriculture, living precariously from harvest to harvest. When the crops failed that year, and again the next, starving rural legions from China to Ireland swarmed out of the countryside to market towns to beg for alms or sell their children in exchange for food. Famine-friendly diseases cholera and typhus stalked the globe from India to Italy, while the price of bread and rice, the world’s staple foods, skyrocketed with no relief in sight. Across a European continent devastated by the Napoleonic wars, tens of thousands of unemployed veterans found themselves unable to feed their families. They gave vent to their desperation in town square riots and military-style campaigns of arson, while governments everywhere feared revolution. In New England, 1816 was nicknamed “Eighteen-Hundred-and-Froze-to-Death,” while Germans called 1817 “The Year of the Beggar.” In terms of its enduring presence in folklore, as well as its status in the scientific literature, 1816’s cold summer was the most significant meteorological event of the nineteenth century. The global climate emergency period of 1816-18, as a whole, offers us a clear window onto a world convulsed by weather anomalies, with human communities everywhere struggling to adapt to sudden, radical shifts in weather patterns, and to a consequent tsunami of famine, disease, dislocation and unrest.

Mount Tambora

The Summit Caldera of Mount Tambora

Why did the global climate deteriorate so abruptly in 1815-18 before returning, just as suddenly, to its prior relative equilibrium? The answer lies in a major geological event that occurred half-a-world away from Europe and North America. map iconThe massive eruption of Mt. Tambora on the island of Sumbawa in the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia) on 10 April 1815 is the most explosive volcanic event in the historical record, and among the largest eruptions of the last 10,000 years on Earth. Mt. Tambora’s explosion thrust plumes of gas and ash some 43km into the stratosphere—with fallout distributed as far as 1300km distant—and plunged the entire East Indian region into darkness. The massive load of sulfate gases Tambora injected into the stratosphere produced an aerial dust cloud consisting of up to 100 cubic kilometers of debris. This great sun-obscuring plume then circled the earth at the equator in a matter of weeks before drifting pole-ward, playing havoc with the world’s major weather systems for almost three years. The eruption itself had a devastating immediate impact on the East Indian region: its 90,000 deaths is the highest mortality of any known volcanic event. But Tambora’s three-year disruption of the global climate system—including a fall in average temperatures between 3°F and 6°F and severe disruptions in seasonal precipitation—spelled disaster on much larger scales for pre-industrial human communities worldwide, including the relatively advanced economies of the transatlantic region.

A brief and incomplete summary of Tambora’s historical impacts would include the following: first, by weakening the European colonial administration and creating a years-long food crisis for the local population, the Tambora disaster altered the political balance of power in South-East Asia, strengthening the indigenous systems of piracy and slavery against westernizing influences. Beyond ground zero, Tambora’s sulfate dust veil disrupted the South Asian monsoons for three consecutive years, a sustained weather crisis that created conditions for the birth of modern, epidemic cholera in map iconBengal in 1817, which gradually spread across the globe in the nineteenth century, killing millions. Across the mountains in southwest China, imperial control weakened during the famines of the Tambora period, spawning ethnic rebellion against the Qing Dynasty, and allowing the opium trade to flourish in the narco-state of Yunnan, which later became the global center of poppy production.

Meanwhile, across the hemispheric divide in Western Europe, some hundreds of thousands perished from hunger and disease, while great waves of rural environmental refugees, driven from their homes by Tamboran weather, invaded the cities or headed east to Russia and west to America. Further north, volcanic winter warming between 1815 and 1818 melted the Arctic icepack, prompting the first race of nations to the North Pole. The exploits of Kotzebue, Parry, and Franklin launched arctic exploration as a defining cultural fantasy of the nineteenth century. Finally, in the United States, 1816 produced the only recorded instance of zero tree growth, deducible from the missing ring in the oak trees of the North-East. Farmers there suffered their shortest ever growing season, interrupted by brutal summer frosts, and left New England in droves for the promised lands of Ohio and Pennsylvania, while the infant, frontier Midwest seized the moment to secure a position as a major agricultural producer for the nation and the Atlantic world.

As the foregoing sketch suggests, a global history of the Tambora event is dizzying in scale and difficult to articulate in conventional historiographical terms. Indeed, the full ecological dimensions of Tambora have only become apparent since the 1980s, due to advances in the data-gathering techniques of paleoclimatologists. Since then, the claims for Tambora’s geo-historical importance have grown more compelling with the publication of every research paper detailing the uniquely loud climate signal of 1816, recorded everywhere from the ice shelves of the Antarctic to the forests of New England.

The global Tambora event offers a compelling backdrop to the well-known histories of Romantic literary production in the immediate post-Waterloo period, especially that of the Shelley circle. The bad weather of the summer months in 1816 is a touchstone of Mary Shelley’s correspondence. In a letter to her half-sister Fanny Imlay, written on her arrival in Geneva, Mary describes—in hair-raising language that would soon find its way into Frankenstein—their ascent of the map iconAlps “amidst a violent storm of wind and rain” (Letters 1:17). The cold was “excessive” and the villagers they met complained of the lateness of the spring. On their alpine descent days later, an unseasonal snowstorm ruined their view of Geneva and its famous lake. In her reply, Fanny expresses her sympathy for Mary’s bad luck, reporting that it was “dreadfully dreary and rainy” in England, too, and very cold. (Kingston Stocking 1:48) Mary’s famous second letter to Fanny is one of the most vivid documents we have of the crazed volcanic weather during the summer of 1816: “An almost perpetual rain confines us principally to the house,” Mary wrote on the first of June from the shores of Lake Geneva. “One night we enjoyed a finer storm than I had ever before beheld. The lake was lit up—the pines on Jura made visible, and all the scene illuminated for an instant, when a pitchy blackness succeeded, and the thunder came in frightful bursts over our heads amid the blackness” (Letters 1:20).

In 1816-17, the scale of human suffering in Switzerland was among the worst in Europe. 130 days of rain between April and September 1816 swelled the waters of Lake Geneva, flooding the city, while in the mountains the snow refused to melt (Post 21). When the crops failed, thousands died of starvation during continental Europe’s last ever famine, while the numbers of indigent homeless ran into the hundreds of thousands. Mortality in 1817 was over 50% higher than its already elevated rate in the war year 1815. Everywhere, desperate villagers resorted to a pitiful famine diet of “the most loathsome and unnatural foods—carcasses of dead animals, cattle fodder, leaves of nettles, swine food. . . .” (Post 128).

Widespread stress on food supplies sparked waves of violent social protest across the continent. Riots broke out in the East Anglian counties in England, home of the painter John Constable, as early as May 1816. Armed laborers bearing flags with the slogan “Bread or Blood” marched on the cathedral town of Ely, held its magistrates hostage, and fought a pitched battle against the militia. Constable, a Tory, was scandalized, and his idealized visions of both rural weather and rural labor in his 1816 paintings “The Wheatfield” and “Flatford Mill, ” when viewed through a Tamboran lens, appear as the pictorial manifesto of an embattled conservative. In March 1817, more than 10,000 demonstrated in map iconManchester, while in June, the so-called “Pentrich Revolution” involved plans to invade and occupy the city of map iconNottingham. The army was called in to quell similar disturbances in Scotland and Wales. In the face of this wave of crime and insurrection, provincial jails filled to overflowing across the kingdom. Scores of rioters were subsequently hanged or transported.

In France, the authorities concentrated on maintaining the affordability of bread in the capital map iconParis, the seat of revolution a mere few decades before. The unrest was correspondingly serious in the neglected provinces, with chronic rioting in the market towns and entire regions on the tipping point of anarchy. According to John Post, an economic historian of the Tambora period, the experience of sustained food shortages and subsequent social instability spurred governments to the authoritarian, rightward shift we associate with the political landscape of post-Napoleonic Europe (165). Fear of agricultural shortfall also motivated political leaders to adopt protectionist policies. It is in the Tambora period that tariffs and trade walls first emerged as standard features of the European and transatlantic economic system.

But the political transformations shaped by the Tambora emergency were not all reactionary in character. For example, the British rulers of Ireland, though parsimonious in terms of humanitarian relief, were moved to conceptualize and begin creating a modern public health bureaucracy, both to cope with emergencies on a national scale, and to develop policies that would answer the calls, in response to the major typhus epidemic of 1817-18, for a new, preventive system of public health management. In 1817, the British Parliament passed the landmark Poor Employment Act, while the Irish chief Secretary, Robert Peel, empaneled a national fever committee that evolved to become the first Board of Health in the British dominions.

The same generally positive trend was detectable across Western Europe. Vitally, for the subsequent long-term history of Europe, the sheer scale of the trauma of 1816-18 initiated the re-education of political elites in the post-Napoleonic period as to their humanitarian responsibilities to their citizens. In the process, it weakened the grip of the extreme laissez-faire ideology that had characterized the first phase of European industrial modernization. Out of the global tragedy of Tambora, it might be argued, emerged the rudiments of the modern liberal state. At the same time, however, it would be wrong to overestimate the pace of progress. In many cases, progressive laws and statutes that emerged from the 1816-18 crisis were not enforced, and the evolving humanitarian rhetoric of the early nineteenth century remained just that.

In a similar vein, it is important to remember that the misery of the Tambora period in Europe—years of famine, disease, and homelessness—was borne overwhelmingly by the poor, who left scant record of their sufferings. For most of those belonging to the middle and upper classes—including the Shelleys and their circle—the social and economic upheaval of those years presented only minor inconveniences. By contrast with the illiterate underclass, these affluent Europeans left voluminous accounts of their lives. To look at only their documentary record, therefore, can leave one with the misleading impression that the Tambora years were not exceptional in the history of the early nineteenth century. It is necessary to scrutinize what they wrote carefully for clues to the experience of the silent millions who suffered displacement, hunger, disease, and death at that time. From the bubble of privilege within which educated people such as the Shelleys and their friends composed their brilliant verse and letters, it is possible to catch gleams of this benighted other world through which they mostly passed oblivious.

In her account of the stormy night in Geneva when she first conceived her famous novel, Shelley imagines Frankenstein waking from a nightmare to find his hideous creation at his bedside, “looking on him with yellow, watery, but speculative eyes” (196). The description is reminiscent of numerous impressions of European beggars in this period. One English tourist, travelling from map iconRome to map iconNaples in 1817, remarked on “the livid aspect of the miserable inhabitants of this region.” When asked how they lived, these “animated spectres” replied simply: “We die” (Matthews 192-3). From the beginning, then, Shelley’s imaginative conjuring of her famous Creature bears the mark of the famished and diseased European population by which she was surrounded in 1816-18. Like the hordes of hungry refugees spreading typhus across the continent during Shelley’s writing of the novel, the Creature in Frankenstein is a wanderer and a perceived menace to civilized society. In the novel, this murderous capability is attributed to the monster’s preternatural strength. But the terrifying atmosphere of his rampage, and his ability to strike at will across thousands of miles, seems more like the spread of a famine or contagion. In short, once the supernatural element of the monster’s creation is set aside, the experience of Mary Shelley’s creature most closely embodies the degradation and suffering of the homeless European poor in the Tambora period, while the violent disgust of Frankenstein and everyone else toward him mirrors the utter want of sympathy shown by most affluent Europeans toward the millions of Tambora’s climate victims suffering hunger, disease, and the loss of their homes and livelihoods. As the Creature himself puts it, he suffered first “from the inclemency of the season,” but “still more from the barbarity of man” (84).

Like Mary Shelley, her alpine companion in 1816, Lord Byron, found symbolic ways of meditating upon the humanitarian crisis spawned by the “Year Without a Summer” and its pestilential aftermath. In a letter written in the last days of July, 1816, he complained of the direful summer consisting of “stupid mists—fogs—rains—and perpetual density” (Letters 5:86). In that litany of poor weather, however, one depressing day stood out: “a celebrated dark day, on which the fowls went to roost at noon, and the candles lighted as at midnight” (Lovell 299). Byron’s apocalyptic poem “Darkness” emerged from this experience (Works 5:40-43). Though written from the shell of aristocratic entitlement, Byron’s rich, humanistic imagination allowed him to conceive a poem that combined the literal atmosphere of doom of that July day in 1816 with speculation on a social landscape transformed by climate deterioration. His poem accordingly stands as a classic meditation on climate change. It begins portentously:

I had a dream, which was not all a dream.
The bright sun was extinguish’d, and the stars
Did wander darkling in the eternal space,
Rayless, and pathless, and the icy earth
Swung blind and blackening in the moonless air;
Morn came, and went—and came, and brought no day,
And men forgot their passions in the dread
Of this their desolation; and all hearts
Were chill’d into a selfish prayer for light. (1-9)

Here in Byron’s poem we see a thematic trajectory that parallels Frankenstein: in the midst of meteorological tumult, human sympathy fails. The “selfish prayer[s]” of the people lead to social breakdown, violence, and chaos. In the volcanic cooling of 1816, human hearts are “chill’d” along with the atmosphere. The fragile edifice of civilization has crumbled—no cities, no agriculture—leaving a traumatized human remnant to wander across a scene of biblical desolation:

The brows of men by the despairing light
Wore an unearthly aspect, as by fits
The flashes fell upon them; some lay down
And hid their eyes and wept; and some did rest
Their chins upon their clenched hands, and smiled;
And others hurried to and fro, and fed
Their funeral piles with fuel, and looked up
With mad disquietude on the dull sky,
The pall of a past world; and then again
With curses cast them down upon the dust,
And gnash’d their teeth and howl’d. (22-32)

With a remarkable, prescient sympathy, Byron’s “Darkness” anticipates the full narrative of the climate disaster as it was to unfold in Switzerland, Europe, and the globe over the following two years.

Byron’s apocalyptic fantasy and Shelley’s legendary horror story are notable examples of the European literate class’s symbolic response to the colossal social trauma unfolding around them in the Tambora years of 1816-18. In their works of literary imagination, Byron and Shelley found means to represent the experience of the starving and diseased millions who had no voice in the press and parliaments of Europe, but mostly sank into oblivion. Both Shelley’s Frankenstein and Byron’s “Darkness” have been interpreted in a multitude of ways since they were written two hundred years ago, mostly in ways far removed from the historical circumstances of their composition. In our own era of mounting ecological crisis, however, it has become far clearer how much these works owe to a specific volcanic ecology, namely Tambora’s eruption and the subsequent worldwide climate emergency of 1816-18.

Gillen D’Arcy Wood is Nicholson Professor of English, and the Director of the Sustainability Studies Initiative in the Humanities at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. He is the author of two books on British Romanticism: The Shock of the Real: Romanticism and Visual Culture, 1760-1860 (Palgrave, 2001) and Romanticism and Music Culture in Britain, 1760-1840 (Cambridge, 2010). Now working in the field of sustainability studies and climate change, he is completing a book-length study of the Tambora eruption and its global, social and environmental impacts, to be published by Princeton University Press ahead of the Tambora bicentenary in 2015.


published December 2011

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