Thursday, July 25, 2013

April 10, 1815 - Mount Tambora Merely Burps


Over the course of the 1810s, a string of volcanic eruptions spewed layer upon layer of debris into the atmosphere. In 1812, volcanoes in the Caribbean and Indonesia began the darkening of the skies. They were joined by a volcano in Japan in 1813 and another in the Phillipines in 1814. After rumblings in Indonesia around Mount Tambora, locals were worried about another major eruption. Fortunately, the volcano merely spat out a small cloud and then settled back to dormancy.

The world took little notice as beautiful weather settled in that summer. Following years of poor crops, the harvest was good. The next summer, 1816, was even more glorious, and record crops prompted it to be dubbed "The Year of Summer." It was believed to be a gift from God following the end of untold human destruction that plagued Europe and North America in the Napoleonic Wars. The skies were noted as being delightfully blue, a color that later played great importance in the landscape paintings of J.M.W. Turner.

The Golden Summer was noted by the Romantic writers, particularly Lord Byron, John William Polidori, and the Shelleys, who vacationed in Switzerland that summer.  They spent weeks hiking in the mountains, swimming in streams, and exploring valleys.  The inspiration from nature caused them to promote English literature leaving behind the dark tales of the Gothic and focus on bright exploits. Lord Byron suggested they write the most adventurous stories they could.  While Byron and Percy Shelley produced a number of exciting poetry, Polidori and Mary Shelley became famous for their works. Influenced by Byron’s reference to a great explorer in fantastical lands like those out of Sinbad and the Thousand and One Nights, Polidori reinvigorated the fantasy hero as had been seen in Baron Munchausen and Cyrano de Bergerac. Later authors such as Bram Stoker would add their own swashbuckling agents of fortune in foreign lands to the popular genre. Mary Shelley, meanwhile, produced a vision of science reinvigorating the dead, making for a world populated by men and women hundreds of years old. Her science fiction inspired other authors, and later inventors, to follow suit in imagining and creating better worlds.

On a more widespread level, with plentiful oats and a sudden burst of the horse population, the cost of owning horses drastically fell. Families that had never before been able to own horses during the thin years of the wars could now afford several. Horse-riding and travel expanded throughout Europe and the rest of the world, prompting German inventor Karl Drais to perfect road designs created by Scot John Loudon Macadam by combining drainage with the French ideals of smaller surface stones and the Arabian use of oil tar to bind materials together. Within decades, the roads in Europe cut travel time to days rather than weeks.

The warm weather also contributed to the growth of northern populations, particularly the American Northeast. Following the Hartford Convention and the embarrassment of suggesting separate peace after the War of 1812 had ended, the Federalist Party struggled to recreate its identity. Rufus King narrowly lost his bid in New York against Democratic-Republican Daniel D. Tompkins in April of 1816, and Federalist leaders determined to create a platform that would win over New Yorkers as a battleground. When Tompkins began running for Vice-President of the United States that fall, the Federalists successfully spun the Democratic-Republicans as ignoring home in place of nationalistic fervor. Their calls for stronger home-rule moderated them, and the party reaffirmed itself in the North on national economic investment policies with libertarian local law. Home-rule on social issues such as slavery later broke the Democratic-Republican party into two, creating the three main political forces in the United States. Each was largely regional with the Democrats in the South, Republicans in the middle, and the Federalists in the Northeast.  National politics suddenly required a cross-party coalition to perform any political action.

Federalist leader and Governor of Vermont Joseph Smith helped maintain the unity of the party in the North and successfully expanded it with pro-Westward expansion politics.  He found allies among the Republicans who were eager for settlement of land without slavery.  The Democrats fought to expand slavery but ultimately were squelched by national ideals.  Some Democrats called for secession to defend self-rule, but the Civil War of 1856-58 brought them back into the fold.


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In reality, Mount Tambora's eruption was massive, ejecting more than one hundred thousand cubic kilometers of tephra (volcanic debris), four times the 2010 eruption of Eyjafjallajökull that grounded European air travel for several days. So much ash went into the atmosphere that it is estimated the average global land temperature dropped by nearly 1 degree C. Nearly three hundred thousand people died in the resulting famine due to August frosts, disease due to migrating population, and flooding. Combined with years of low solar activity known as the Dalton Minimum, Tambora enabled 1816 to be called the "Year Without Summer." The famine did have other effects, such as depopulating Joseph Smith’s home state of Vermont, Drais’s creation of a precursor to the bicycle, and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Polidori’s “The Vampyre.”

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