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VPR's coverage of arts and culture in the region.

Gilbert: Mount Tambora

On April 5, 1815, two hundred years ago this Sunday, Mount Tambora, a volcano in Indonesia, erupted; the roar was mistaken for cannon fire eight hundred miles away. The eruption continued for four months. It was the largest in human history, ten times more powerful than the better-known Krakatau.

It killed about 90,000 people in the region, some immediately by pyroclastic flows or ash, others by starvation and disease. And it spewed perhaps twenty-five cubic miles of material into the atmosphere, including, William and Nicholas Klingaman tell us in their book The Year Without Summer, 55 million tons of sulfur-dioxide gas. It combined with hydroxide gas to form over a hundred million tons of sulfuric acid. The ash and dust circled the globe, blocking sunlight, dramatically dropping average global temperatures, but affecting the weather in different regions of the globe differently - drought in one place and floods in another. It resulted in crop failure, famine, and with famine, epidemics, death, and migration. No one knows how many people died worldwide as a result. The year that followed, 1816, was known as the “year without summer.” Some in the US referred to the year as “eighteen hundred and froze to death.”

The climate changes may have been worst in western Europe and eastern North America, destroying potato, wheat, corn, and other crops. Typhus killed thousands in Britain. Northern New England saw freezing temperatures and three to six inches of snow in early June, and killing frosts on July 9, August 21, and August 30. Historian L.D. Stillwell estimates that in 1816 and ‘17 twice the usual number of Vermonters out-migrated west to Ohio and Indiana – about ten-to-fifteen thousand people. Among those who moved were the family of Joseph Smith, who left Sharon, Vermont for Palmyra, New York; the publication of the Book of Mormon would follow.

It also affected the literature and art of the period, for the better. Vacationing near Geneva, Switzerland that summer, Lord Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and his soon to be wife, grew tired of rainy and dreary weather, and challenged each other for fun to write dark and scary stories. Byron wrote a narrative poem entitled “Darkness,” which reads in part, “The bright sun was extinguish’d... Morn came and went – and came, and brought no day...” The future Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein.

Peter Gilbert is executive director of the Vermont Humanities Council.
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