Think back to 1815 – what global events marked the year with particular importance? Political turmoil afflicted the globe with the Battle of Waterloo, and global rule was questioned with the defeat and overturn of French leader Napoleon Bonaparte. Does anything else come to mind? Unfortunately for most, the answer is no. But it is impossible to ignore the global effects of the eruption of the volcano Tambora in present-day Indonesia. Although the world has faced other volcanic eruptions in its history, there are none comparable to Tambora. As an environmental and epochal event, it is crucial to recognize and study the effects of Tambora environmentally, politically, and culturally.
“Hunger is their only thought, their only preoccupation” wrote Mary Shelley about the population of Switzerland after the eruption of Tambora. With 100,000 of the world’s 1 billion population having been killed by the far-reaching effects of the smoke and dust clouds, what was previously a natural disaster became a global environmental narrative with human natural impact. Often described as the “year with no summer”, or the “coldest summer in global history,” 1816 was truly a visualization of this. The nearly 5o C temperature decline and unrelenting rain left the already poor growth region of Switzerland even more disadvantaged. Europe struggled with food and water shortages, raising crop prices and sparking outrage and riots in many communities with food processes completely devastated. Mary Shelley writes of bakeries being looted and burned down by locals from outrage due to the lack of bread and high prices. Morality was in question as the rate of infanticide skyrocketed when mothers were forced to decide between killing their children or having them starve to death. This was a cross-cultural phenomenon experienced by culture globally, finding a strange commonality in a time of such crisis. This large-scale famine was not limited to Europe, nor was it limited to a food shortage. Epidemics and revolt plagued countries globally, and for the first time, national government responsibilities extended to citizens’ welfare, particularly in times of crisis. Previously this idea had yet to exist, especially in countries of British rule, but these calamities were too great for governments to leave their populations helpless. These crises: political, environmental, and economic, left the world in complete disarray – however it also promoted diversity and geographic shift (for better, or worse?) Populations without any resources, decimated by the impact of Tambora, migrated elsewhere in search of suitable life. While a large portion of the global population was eliminated, the genetic diversity was incredibly promoted through the mixing of a wide range of populations. Tambora was a world-changing event whose effects are unimaginable in the 21st century.