The Year Without Summer: 1816 and the Volcano That Darkened the World and Changed History

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Macmillan, Feb 26, 2013 - History - 338 pages

Like Winchester's Krakatoa, The Year Without Summer reveals a year of dramatic global change long forgotten by history

In the tradition of Krakatoa, The World Without Us, and Guns, Germs and Steel comes a sweeping history of the year that became known as 18-hundred-and-froze-to-death. 1816 was a remarkable year—mostly for the fact that there was no summer. As a result of a volcanic eruption in Indonesia, weather patterns were disrupted worldwide for months, allowing for excessive rain, frost, and snowfall through much of the Northeastern U.S. and Europe in the summer of 1816.

In the U.S., the extraordinary weather produced food shortages, religious revivals, and extensive migration from New England to the Midwest. In Europe, the cold and wet summer led to famine, food riots, the transformation of stable communities into wandering beggars, and one of the worst typhus epidemics in history. 1816 was the year Frankenstein was written. It was also the year Turner painted his fiery sunsets. All of these things are linked to global climate change—something we are quite aware of now, but that was utterly mysterious to people in the nineteenth century, who concocted all sorts of reasons for such an ungenial season.

Making use of a wealth of source material and employing a compelling narrative approach featuring peasants and royalty, politicians, writers, and scientists, The Year Without Summer by William K. Klingaman and Nicholas P. Klingaman examines not only the climate change engendered by this event, but also its effects on politics, the economy, the arts, and social structures.


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User Review  - setnahkt - LibraryThing

Disappointing, but that’s my fault; I’m used to books about volcanic disasters having lots and lots of geological details, while this one scarcely mentions Mt. Tambora, the protagonist (as it were ... Read full review

LibraryThing Review

User Review  - Schmerguls - LibraryThing

This 2013 book tells of the volcanic eruption on Sumbawa in Indonesia on Apr 5, 1815. It was such a momentous catastrophe that it affected the weather all over the world in 1816, causing terrible ... Read full review

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JUST BEFORE SUNSET on April 5, 1815, a massive explosion shook the volcanic island of Sumbawa in the Indonesian archipelago. For two hours, a stream of lava erupted from Mount Tambora, the highest peak in the region, sending a plume of ash eighteen miles into the sky.
More than eight hundred miles away, Thomas Stamford Raffles, the lieutenant-governor of Java, heard the blast at his residence and assumed it came from cannon firing in the distance. Other British authorities on the island made the same mistake. Fearing a neighboring village was under attack, the commander of the city of Djogjokarta, in central Java, dispatched troops to repel the invaders. Officials along the coast interpreted the sounds as signals from a ship in distress, and launched rescue boats to look for survivors.
At Makassar on the southwestern tip of Sulawesi, 240 miles northeast of Tambora, the commander of the Benares, a cruiser of the British East India Company, reported “a firing of cannon” on April 5. The explosions appeared to come from the south; as they continued, “the reports seemed to approach much nearer, and sounded like heavy guns occasionally, with slighter reports between.” Assuming that pirates were in the area, the Benares put to sea and spent the next three days scouring nearby islands for any signs of trouble, but found nothing. Nearly five hundred miles farther to the east, the British resident on the island of Ternate heard “several very distinct reports like heavy cannon,” and sent another cruiser, the Teignmouth, to investigate. It, too, returned empty-handed.
British authorities might have been excused for assuming that the threatening sounds came from potential enemies rather than the earth itself. They were not yet accustomed to the frequent volcanic eruptions that plagued the Indonesian islands. Britain had gained control of Java and the surrounding islands less than four years earlier, when British troops overwhelmed a vastly outnumbered band of French defenders who themselves had held Java for only a short time, having taken it from the Dutch when France conquered the Netherlands in 1794. By the spring of 1815, neither the government in London nor the British East India Company was entirely certain that they wanted to keep the island, since the expense of administering and defending it had outweighed the commercial benefits thus far.
Responsibility for British policy on the scene lay squarely with Raffles himself. The son of a ship’s captain, Raffles—who actually was born at sea, off the coast of Jamaica—dreamt of a British maritime empire throughout South Asia, an “Eastern insular Empire” that would provide new markets for English cotton and woolen textiles, and a profitable supply of coffee and sugar for Europe. It was Raffles who had persuaded the governor general of India, Lord Minto, to seize Java in the first place. Raffles also hoped to use Java as an avenue to improve relations with Japan, which he viewed as a rising Asiatic power. Meanwhile, heeding Minto’s advice to “do as much good as we can” while governing Java, Raffles reformed the colonial administration of the island, limiting the powers of the great landowners over their tenants and ameliorating the worst abuses of slavery while banning the importation of slaves under fourteen years of age.
But Raffles’ interests in the region extended beyond politics and commerce. After years of study, he was sufficiently fluent in the Malay language to conduct discussions directly with local chieftains. He regularly employed botanists and zoologists to obtain—at his own expense—specimens of local flora and wildlife, some of which he had preserved in spirit and shipped back to Britain. In his capacity as president of the Batavian Society, dedicated to the study of Java’s natural history, Raffles frequently toured the island and recorded his observations of geological phenomena. Several weeks before Mount Tambora erupted, Raffles became the first European to ascend a nearby mountain known as Gunong Gede; by using thermometers to measure the difference in temperature between the base and the peak, Raffles and his companions determined that they had climbed at least seven thousand feet. “We had a most extensive prospect from the summit,” he subsequently wrote to a friend. “The islands all round were quite distinct and we traced the sea beyond the southernmost point of Sumatra; the surf on the south coast was visible to the naked eye.”
So Raffles’ scientific curiosity was piqued when the cannonlike explosions from the southeast continued throughout the night of April 5 and into the morning hours. Shortly after dawn, a light rain of ash provided evidence that a volcano somewhere in the region had erupted. Few suspected Mount Tambora. It was generally believed that Tambora was extinct, although natives living in the nearest village had reported rumblings from deep inside the mountain during the past year. Besides, few on Java believed that such powerful sounds could have come from a volcano several hundred miles away. As Raffles subsequently noted, “the sound appeared to be so close, that in each district it seemed near at hand, and was generally attributed to an eruption either from the mountains Merapi, Klut, or Bromo.”
As a fog of ash drifted across Java, the sun faded; the warm, humid air grew stifling, and everything seemed unnaturally still. The oppressive pressure, Raffles noted, “seemed to forbode an earthquake.” Over the next several days, however, the explosions gradually subsided. Volcanic ash continued to fall, but in diminishing quantities. Relieved, Raffles returned to his routine administrative duties.
* * *
FAR from Tambora and the island of Java, a different sort of shock greeted the rulers and citizens of Europe in April 1815: Napoléon had returned to Paris.
The Emperor had spent the past year ruling the island of Elba, a rocky, desolate piece of real estate of no discernible strategic importance off the coast of Italy. Sixteen miles long and only seven miles across at its widest point, Elba in the early nineteenth century was home mainly to goats, deserted ruins, a variety of vines and scraggly shrubs on arid hillsides, and approximately twelve thousand impoverished peasants with a well-deserved reputation for being “extremely irritable” and “almost universally ignorant.” Its primary natural resource was rocks. One French observer who visited Elba shortly before Napoléon’s arrival warned that the island’s unremittingly inhospitable topography was likely to “fatigue the senses and impart sensations of sorrow to the soul.”
Napoléon had been consigned to Elba by the victorious allied coalition of Britain, Prussia, Austria, and Russia shortly after abdicating the French throne on April 6, 1814. (Perhaps as an ironic jest, they allowed him to retain the title of “Emperor.”) But the Allied statesmen who gathered at Vienna to sort out the consequences of nearly two decades of war neglected to provide a jailer, or even an effective network of informants to keep them apprised of Napoléon’s movements. Encouraged by press reports of widespread popular disaffection with the restored Bourbon monarchy in Paris, Napoléon decided that his former subjects would welcome him back. And so on February 25, 1815, accompanied by slightly more than a thousand troops, forty horses, and four cannon, Napoléon sailed away from Elba unopposed.
Six days later he landed at Golfe Juan, about a mile west of Cannes. “Frenchmen! In my exile I have heard your complaints and your wishes,” he exclaimed. “I have arrived in spite of every obstacle, and every danger.” Napoléon marched north rapidly, opposition crumbling as his entourage expanded at every town. “Taking towns at his liking and crowns at his leisure / From Elba to Lyons and Paris he goes,” crowed Lord Byron, who admired Napoléon and fancied himself an English counterpart of the Eagle. Although many of Napoléon’s former subjects—particularly his troops—greeted him enthusiastically, others responded more warily. Their caution reflected the heavy costs of Napoléon’s previous quest for glory: more than 900,000 French soldiers dead, and a depleted national treasury now saddled with millions of francs of reparations due the Allies. Napoléon attempted to allay their anxieties by publicly disavowing any new imperial ambitions. “I want less to be sovereign of France,” he told the people of Grenoble, “than the first of her citizens.”
News of Napoléon’s flight reached Vienna on March 7. Stunned, the Allied representatives decided within hours to send troops to oppose Napoléon, but they also embargoed the news from France for several days until they were prepared to make a public statement. Several days later, they jointly declared that by reappearing in France, Napoléon had proved himself “an enemy and disturber of the peace of the world,” and that together, “the sovereigns of Europe would be ready to give the King of France and the French nation the assistance necessary to restore peace.”
King Louis XVIII would need all the help he could get. Twenty-two years after the execution of his brother, Louis XVI, few Frenchmen outside of a die-hard circle of royalists desired to return to the days of a pre-Revolutionary monarchy. Too much land belonging to the king, the aristocracy, and the church had been dispensed to too many members of the Third Estate to turn back the cl

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