Most of history is attributed to the actions of man, which often overshadow the big picture of history. If someone asks you what happened in a particular year of historical significance, they will probably answer back confidently with the start or end of a war, or a political era dominated by a certain leader. We attach these pieces of history to their dates, but often lack a true understanding of the interconnected nature of how major events develop.
Gillen Wood came to Colby last week to tell us about his idea of how history should be studied and told. An English professor at heart, Wood has recently followed a different academic trajectory into writing about his own theories and ideas about the interconnectedness of history. More specifically, he has focused on a untold but major event in history, the eruption of Mount Tambora in 1815. While this year is often overshadowed by the end of Napoleonic Era, the eruption of Mount Tambora was the event of greater global impact.
Also called, “The Year Without a Summer,” 1815 was the beginning of health crises all around the globe. Since the Tambora eruption was possibly the most powerful eruption in the last 10,000 years, it was powerful enough to deter the normal weather patterns. Sulfur Dioxides thrown into the atmosphere blocked out sunlight that was vital to agricultural production and caused widespread famine. Accompanied by famine was an epidemic of cholera. In general, this year and the following few years was the time of one of the worst global public health crises in human history. So why do we care?
Times of crisis have historically been the incubators for social, political, and technological development. Gillen Wood believes the Tambora eruption was responsible for a large number of advancements made in this time period. One example is the very idea of “public health,” which was not considered a responsibility of governments of this time because they adopted a Laissez-Faire philosophy where it is every man for themself. For the first time, governments began to implement whatever system of welfare that they could to help the suffering population. Another example is the invention of the bicycle, which was invented as a solution for the lost population of horses that also suffered from famine and disease.
Wood says that these advancements come out of a type of social shock that occurs in times of crisis. This shock is class dependent. The lower class experiences “Flight into Hell.” This is the life or death scenario that involves heinous crimes such as infanticide, where people do just about anything to survive or protect their loved ones. The second level is proto-revolutionary violence, and the final, belonging to the upper-class, is creative sympathy. Creative sympathy comes from those who don’t need to fight to survive but see the suffering of the majority which inspires them to create, be it literature, art work, an invention, or a political idea. The atmosphere cannot be described in one location, but depends heavily on events in the atmosphere as a whole. Wood wants people to understand that history works in a similar way.