One Thing After Another noticed a great article on Slate.com discussing a volcanic eruption that occurred 199 years ago this week–just a few days before the battle of Waterloo was fought and Napoleon went down to decisive defeat at the hands of the Duke of Wellington.
In 1815, the Tombora eruption in Indonesia killed 100,000 people directly through lava flows, tsunami, and a blanket of ash that turned the sky black for a week. But its indirect effects were even greater. According to two recent books, the eruption led to a new deadly strain of cholera that killed tens of millions of people, the rise of opium cultivation in China, and the acceleration of British arctic exploration (the volcanic ash melted the polar ice caps leading to visions of a Northwest Passage). In American history, the results can be seen in the Year Without a Summer of 1816. That year, seven inches of snow fell in Boston in JUNE and the temperature often hovered near forty degrees deep into July. The shortest growing season on record led to record outmigration from New England to the midwest and record crop prices for those who could harvest a crop. The price drop three years later (when weather returned to normal) led to the Panic of 1819 and major bank failures.
The number of outcomes rippling out from this one event in a fairly remote place tends to surprise people. I suspect this is because we (even historians) sometimes forget two crucial aspects of the past. First, the world was global long before the internet. Diseases spread rapidly even when travel occurred by ship. The nineteenth century already had a well-developed world market for some raw materials and commodities, and a famine in one place meant an economic incentive to plant more in another. But perhaps most startling to those reading and studying history is the fact that the greatest historical actors are not always human beings. The climate, the landscape, and natural disasters are major historical players.
Recently the Saint Anselm College History Department began offering a class in U.S. Environmental History and it has been eye-opening. Looking at wind patterns, rainfall, soil fertility, and storm frequency as agents in history helps move the focus from the Anthropocene (the period of human influence on the earth) back into a geological history shaped primarily by wind, water, and animals. We are used to thinking about how humans shaped the environment, but less accustomed to asking how the environmental conditions shaped humans and their history. The Tombora eruption gives us a chance to rethink the influence of nature as an agent in history, setting conditions, precluding options, or provoking change.