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Tambora: The Eruption That Changed the World, by Gillen D’Arcy Wood

Alison Stokes on a 19th-century volcanic eruption that caused a global climate disaster

The year 1815 should have been a celebratory one, as Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo finally brought an end to the wars that had raged worldwide since the end of the French Revolution. However, that same year an extraordinary natural event marked the beginning of a three-year climate catastrophe that was to cause human tragedy on a global scale. On 10 April 1815, on the Indonesian island of Sumbawa, Mount Tambora erupted in one of the most explosive volcanic events ever recorded. The story of that remarkable event and its effects on human civilisation is told in Gillen D’Arcy Wood’s book Tambora: The Eruption That Changed the World.

Integrating for the first time the science and the folklore around Tambora’s eruption, Wood presents an engagingly written and meticulously researched narrative that weaves together two interconnected themes: the trauma and suffering felt by the human race in response to a global climate-change event, and the subsequent emergence of new fields of scientific inquiry. It is a tale of cause and effect, of “teleconnection”, of how changes in atmospheric conditions can affect weather patterns across large distances, and the consequent impacts on human communities. From the global onset of famine and disease to economic collapse in the US, the opening and closing of Arctic seas, the emergence of glaciology and meteorology as modern-day sciences and Mary Shelley’s inspiration for Frankenstein’s monster, Wood presents a compelling case for connecting these seemingly isolated events to that single explosive episode.

The impact of the eruption on the local Sumbawan population was devastating, and the legacy can be seen two centuries later in the island’s poverty, malnutrition and inadequate infrastructure. Burning rivers of molten rock and fiery ash inundated local villages, burying all in its path under thick layers of pumice. Those not killed faced the prospect of starvation as their crops were smothered and drinking wells poisoned by volcanic dust, or selling themselves and their children into slavery for the sake of being fed. A horrific situation, but these local impacts were only the beginning. The gigantic plume of ash and gases thrown miles into the atmosphere by the eruption formed a dense cloud that slowly encircled the globe, plunging vast regions into darkness and bringing about the onset of devastating changes in climate and weather patterns that would wreak havoc on populations across the world.

Within days of the eruption the dust cloud had reached Bengal. Changes in evaporation rates over the Indian Ocean caused the timing of the annual monsoon to shift, bringing episodes of both drought and flooding that triggered the outbreak of a cholera epidemic among the Bengali population – the first example of a “climate change” disease. In the Yunnan province of China, entire villages were driven to eating clay as biting north winds suppressed the rice harvest and brought widespread starvation. The extent of the human tragedies suffered by the Yunnan population is recalled by the poet Li Yuyang, who tells, in heartbreaking yet exquisite verse, of houses washed away by torrential floods, of parents selling their children at market for a bag of grain, and of watching his own wife and children slowly die of hunger. Translated into English here for the first time, Li Yuyang’s poetry is arguably Tambora’s pièce de résistance.

Across Europe, meanwhile, widespread crop failure brought on by the extreme weather conditions resulted in famine, disease and societal breakdown as the working-class populations began to starve and descend into vagrancy. The poverty-stricken masses of the lower social orders were the main victims of this catastrophe, yet their plight went largely unacknowledged and unreported by the popular press and government. It was only through literature that their suffering found voice: William Carleton’s The Black Prophet: A Tale of Irish Famine recounts the misery of Irish peasants during the 1816-18 “forgotten” famine, while Shelley’s Frankenstein echoes the spread of starvation and disease across Europe, and the reactions of privileged society to the homeless poor.

Different, but no less devastating, were the effects of the chaotic climatic conditions felt across North America, where the arrival of cold weather in June 1816 brought a deadly combination of frost and drought to eastern states, destroying grain supplies and plunging farmers into financial ruin. Although famine was averted, fluctuating grain prices drove the US into its first economic depression, while large-scale westward migration contributed to the gradual decline of rural life. The “year without a summer” made climate change a political issue, driving advances in meteorological record-keeping and seeding the first attempts at moderating temperature through agriculture. In our present era of global warming, “climate pessimism” continues to dominate American politics, and geo-engineering is increasingly looked to for potential solutions to long-term climate change.

Temperatures didn’t drop everywhere, though. In the Arctic, environmental change brought a brief period of relative warmth that saw the breaking up of ice caps, and a temporary opening of the polar seas. Seen by British explorers as an opportunity to pursue wealth and glory, this led to a flurry of hastily convened – and largely unsuccessful – expeditions to open a Northwest Passage to the Pacific. With failure came progress, however, as the wealth of new observations and scientific data gathered en route advanced knowledge of the circulation of ocean currents and, consequently, our understanding of the global climate system. In fact, as Wood reveals, despite all the tragedies brought about by the eruption, its aftermath influenced progress across a range of human and scientific fields: the emergence of “Ice Age” theory and the foundations for glaciology, renewed exploration of the Arctic regions, innovations in agriculture and meteorology and a “first attempt” at humanitarian welfare initiatives – not to mention some fine (albeit gloomy) literature and artworks.

Although Wood is a scholar of English literature, Tambora really showcases his skills as an environmental historian. He combines rigorously researched scientific information with a vivid and compelling narrative, assembling a complex jigsaw puzzle of anecdote and evidence into a coherent account that is further brought to life by a well-considered selection of historical artworks and scientific diagrams. By focusing on the human aspects of climate change, he demonstrates both the teleconnection of different climatic events linked to the eruption, and the (often overlooked) connectedness of seemingly disparate academic disciplines and fields of inquiry. This interdisciplinary approach is Tambora’s greatest strength and should assure it a wide readership.

We are on the cusp of the bicentenary of Tambora’s eruption; the writing of its full and integrated history has been a long time in coming. We should be thankful to Wood for his efforts since, in addition to being a thoroughly interesting and engaging read, Tambora offers us a cautionary tale for the potential threats faced by mankind from future long-term climate change. At the time of writing this review, the Sangeang Api volcano, situated less than 100 miles from Tambora, is merrily spewing volcanic ash and gases into the atmosphere – albeit on a much smaller scale than its neighbour. The real danger, however, rests with us, as human activity presents an ever-growing threat to the stable climate upon which the functioning of society relies. Tambora shows us that there are lessons to be learned; whether we pay them any heed remains to be seen.

The author

Author Gillen D’Arcy Wood

“I was raised,” says Gillen D’Arcy Wood, “in Adelaide, in southern Australia, in the 1970s. Truly a different era. Modern multicultural Australia was largely invisible. At school I learned Latin and played cricket with boys called Hamish and Lachlan – good Scottish colonials. We wore blazers and ties in the searing Australian heat. It was an Edwardian parody, only very dull.

“There’s a melancholy pop song from that era called Wild Horses Wouldn’t Drag Me Back to Adelaide. It speaks for a generation. My upbringing taught me a desperate desire to be somewhere else.”

Wood, now a professor of English at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, adds: “My grandfather was a missionary in Tonga, and I have uncles and aunts whose first language is Tongan. So I grew up with tales of the South Seas, even as I was quietly rotting in Australian 1970s suburbia.

“My grandfather was a totemic figure to us—a fearsome preacher and relentless evangelist. When I first read about the super-ego theory as a teenager, it seemed so obvious I wondered why Freud had bothered to write it down. Grandpa’s message was unequivocal: if you’re not working, you’re sinning. So I’ve worked myself to death all my life, although I’m not sure he would approve of the secular nature of my books.”

His undergraduate study was undertaken at the University of Melbourne. “I was lucky enough to go to university in the twilight of the golden age: when everything was free, and class attendance was optional. I went in plays, and had conversations with people not called Hamish, even occasionally with girls not called Hamish.

“Education, as such, was very patchy, but this was the “university of life” era. Perhaps it’s an elite notion, but I think much has been lost by abandoning it in favour of our severely utilitarian, user-pays model.”

Wood travelled to the US to take up doctoral study at Columbia University. He recalls: “Looking back, I wonder how I survived my first years in New York City as a graduate student. I had no money, and even less of a clue. I had expected Hannah and her Sisters, but the reality was more like Down and Out in Paris and London.

“I lived in a tiny, filthy studio overlooking Tom’s Diner. In the next room were six Afghanis sleeping on the floor between taxi shifts. They were sweet guys, sending money home to their families, and I often wonder where they are now. Down the hall was an old couple who spent their days picking through dumpsters.

He continues: “I’m exceptionally uptight by Australian standards, but even for me the pressure was intense. I was just flotsam in a sea of twentysomethings trying to make their way in New York. At night, you could hear these kids crying alone in their rooms. I’m not joking. The streets were a relief, a constantly changing urban geography of brownstones, storefronts, skyscraper canyons. Then there was Central Park, that Victorian pastoral masterpiece. People think of New York as ‘modern’ when in fact it’s the great 19th-century, pedestrian city. It invites, actually compels, endless walking. And ambulation is the greatest stimulant to thinking. Walking endless miles up and down Broadway transformed me from feckless youth into bankable scholar.”

He pronounces Melbourne and New York, two cities he has inhabited for long periods, “wonderful and enraging cities”, adding that his first three books reflect this: “they are about metropolitan life and culture. Not contemporary, but early 19th century. This is owing to a strange personal habit: wherever I live, or travel, the first question I ask myself is ‘What was this place like two hundred years ago?’ To answer that question usually requires a book.”

Accepting a post at the University of Illinois altered his outlook significantly, he adds. “For the past decade or so I have lived in an anti-metropolis – central Illinois – surrounded by flat prairie filled with corn and soy beans. During the last Ice Age, Illinois sat beneath a mile-high glacier, hence the flatness. Two hundred years no longer seems an adequate timeframe to understand where I am, so my imaginative time-travel is now more geological in scale: thousands, even millions of years.

“The shift in geography from New York to the Midwest completely changed the focus of my research. Now instead of writing about art and theatre, I write about climate and agriculture, and have long conversations with crop scientists. The young city flaâneur I once was would have found it utterly tedious, but actually the physical world is the greatest subject of all. So complex, mysterious, and beautiful, even in its ugliness! People and their pleasures are too predictable, and the city now looks to me just a place to spend a fortune and grow dissipated, like in Hogarth.”

Asked if he has any hobbies, Wood responds: “I don’t believe we live one continuous life, but rather lead several disjointed ones. When I was young, I devoted thousand of hours to mastering the leg glance and the intricate jazz harmonies of Bill Evans. Through sheer labour and bloody-mindedness I became passably good at both. Now I play neither cricket nor the piano. A different person cared about those things.

“The person I am now cares only about a liveable planet. How will we transition to a zero-carbon society? Will our food and water systems bear the strain of climate change? Will our grandchildren curse our very names?”

Despite the wide-reaching impact of the eruption of Tambora that Wood’s new book details, it is an event little known today. Should we be embarrassed not to have heard of it?

“Your embarrassment has a simple cure: read my book,” Wood responds. “In all seriousness, the book itself is a product of that very feeling of shame. I was sitting in on an atmospheric science class at the university where I teach. The professor kept mentioning Tambora, and I wondered if it were in Sicily. I soon learned it was the greatest eruption on Earth in thousands of years. Not only that, but it erupted in the very heart of my scholarly period, 1815. I knew immediately the only proper punishment for my ignorance could be five years writing a book on Tambora.”

He continues: “It’s turned out to be the greatest intellectual journey of my life. When people think of 19th-century volcanoes, they think Krakatoa, an eruption half the size of Tambora. It’s time to change that. Next year is Tambora’s bicentenary. It’s time we all recognized Tambora, not only as an epochal geological event but a climate change disaster that shaped human history in mind-boggling ways and has object lessons for us today.”

Asked for his impression of the tenor of the “debate over climate change” in his adopted country, Wood says: “If a malevolent genie looking down on us wished to design a planetary emergency for which advanced capitalist, energy-intense, liberal-democratic societies were ill-equipped to deal, it would be climate change. Such is our fate.

“Even in the US, a solid majority have long accepted the reality of climate change, but public opinion and even political will, in their ordinary senses, cannot transform us into a zero-carbon society. The first indispensable step is a price on carbon pollution, and massive investment, public and private, in alternative energy. The closest analogy, I think, is the 1930s, when the Allies harnessed all their resources, and overhauled their economies, to defeat fascism. It was incredibly disruptive at the time, but humanity benefited enormously.”

To ask the question posed by one of Wood’s own courses at the University of Illinois: can poetry save the earth?

“Wordsworth understood that ‘getting and spending’ wasn’t everything,” Wood observes. “In the end, we become captives of consumerism. He rambled the countryside, trying to ‘see into the life of things’ instead. Now, not all of us have the opportunity to ramble the countryside, nor do we need to. ‘The life of things’ is not a mystical concept, but intensely practical. It starts with our educational institutions. Can we start to teach, beginning in preschool, how everything connects? How what we eat, how we live, our cars, jobs, streets and cities, all belong to a global system under great stress, one we need to learn to manage far better?

“The 19th-century literacy revolution was an extraordinary success story: it gave ‘education’ the enormous prestige it still enjoys. We need a second education revolution now, a sustainability revolution, in which we don’t teach kids just ‘stuff’, but the systems behind the stuff. My great hope is that, by the end of my career, what we teach and how we teach it will be totally transformed.

Offered the choice of any skill or talent he does not now possess, what would Wood choose?

“The power to sequester carbon,” he replies.

Karen Shook

Tambora: The Eruption That Changed the World

By Gillen D’Arcy Wood
Princeton University Press, 312pp, £19.95
ISBN 9780691150543 and 1400851409 (e-book)
Published 28 May 2014

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