Category Archives: The Animal Kingdom

Animals can make history too…

The Bagradas Dragon

Hey all I’m starting this tale with a personal anecdote … cause why not start a tale with a personal anecdote. Growing up I was crazy for anything historical in nature, but especially mad for Forteana. It should be no surprise that when New Zealand finally got Arthur C Clarke’s Mysterious World, it was immediately my favourite show. I have an odd memory of watching Mysterious World one Sunday morning – sprawled out on a large cushion in front of the TV. The week’s episode was all about strange beasts found in the wild – from De Loy’s ape to dinosaurs, and more.

A Belgian former fighter pilot named Remy Van Lierde was giving an interview. In 1959 Van Lierde was flying helicopters in the Katanga region of the Belgian Congo, when he sighted a massive snake convoluting itself through the jungle. Estimating it’s length at close to 50 feet, a shocked Van Lierde turned the whirlybird round. He buzzed the giant several times, a passenger snapping photos of the monster; before it reared up ten feet into the air, in an attempt to strike them. Van Lierde estimated it’s head was a good three feet long, two feet wide.

“I wonder if anyone went looking for this snake” I say to my father, also watching. “Teddy Roosevelt put a cash prize up for anyone who could bring in a 50 foot snake…”

My dad replied it would be a shame if anyone killed it. The snake must have lived a long life to have become so large. It wasn’t bothering anyone. Any animal like that needs to be protected. Given my dad grew up around a forest, and regularly hunted as a kid, this surprised me. It seems wise commentary, both then and now. 

 Now, on to the topic at hand. Today’s tale is set on the Bagradas river, modern day Tunisia – the year 256 BC. Our protagonists, a legion of Roman soldiers. 

At this time Rome was in the midst of a war with Carthage. Anyone who read Hannibal in Bithynia will know something of the Punic wars. It’s easy to get lost in the weeds on the Sicilian conflicts, but I need to fill in some background. In short – Ionian and Doric Greek colonizers arrived in Sicily in the 6th century BC. They were a destabilising influence on the island from the get go. Carthage (well the Phoenicians anyway) had bases on the island from the 9th century BC, and were the big kids on the block at the time. Over the decades the Doric Greeks built up a formidable city state at Syracuse, while Ionian city states remained small and disparate. Around 485 BC Syracuse made moves to take over the whole island, which led to the Ionian cities calling on Carthage for protection. Carthage obliged, and a series of wars raged till 306 BC, when the Syracusian tyrant Agathocles landed an army of 14,000 men in Africa; besieging Carthage itself. This was enough to make Carthage consider a peace treaty, though ultimately Agathocles lost the war.

One of the strategic cities in these wars was Messana, modern day Messina – a port city near the border with Italy. It passed back and forth a few times between Carthage and Syracuse. At one stage Agathocles hired a group of Italian mercenaries called the Mamertines to help him – but when Agathocles died, many of them stayed on as free agents – and decided to take Messana for themselves. They took the city, turning to piracy to pay the bills. 

Syracuse called on King Pyrrhus of Epirus, a North-western Greek kingdom, for help with the Mamertines. The Mamertines, in turn called on Rome to back them. By the end of the Pyrrhic wars – which saw Rome briefly allied with Carthage – Rome had annexed Messana. The Romans made overtures to their former foe Syracuse about joining together to expel Carthage from Sicily. This sparked the Punic wars we are now eight years into in our tale proper.

The momentum of the war in Rome’s favour, they sent 15,000 men to North Africa, under the command of the consul Marcus Atillus Regulus. They hoped to deal a knock out blow to Carthage itself, as Syracuse had attempted in 306BC. Their plans were crushed when the Carthaginian army, commanded by a Spartan mercenary named Xanthippus, dealt the Romans a rare thrashing. Only 2,000 Romans survived the Carthaginian onslaught. Now all that has been said, let’s talk about dragons. 

In 256 BC, Regulus army landed on a peninsula now called Cape Bon.  From there they would make their was through wild terrain, and a few unfriendly villages – to avoid a suicidal head on assault on the capital. They pushed on to the Bagradas river, and set up camp. Several men were sent to get water, one soon back in a mad panic… a monster had crushed or eaten the others. A party of armed men were sent to investigate. They found an unbelievably large ‘serpens’ – more on that phrase in a second – which made quick work of these men also – either seizing the men in it’s jaws or smashing them with a crack of its long tail. The classical sources all agree the beast had no legs, though one describes it as having a torso, and propelling itself on it’s many rows of ribs. The author, Valerius Maximus, claimed the beast also had a discernible spine. 

The giant animal stood it’s ground as more and more men arrived – continuing to lash out at them. The legionnaires were powerless, their spears bouncing off it’s scales. Regulus finally arrived, a ballista in tow. A ballista is a bolt thrower that looked something like a giant crossbow, predating more well known artillery like the trebuchet. A large stone was hurled at the beast, paralysing it. Once immobilised, the army moved in and stabbed the beast to death. 

The stench of the dead creature was soon so overpowering Regulus had to relocate their base. He did send some men back the following day however to skin the animal. The, allegedly 120 foot long hide, was sent back to Rome – where it was marvelled over till it disappeared a century later. In the 2nd century AD, the Roman poet Sirius Italicus wrote an epic poem on the Punic wars, which makes mention of the battle with the serpens – a word which can denote either a snake or a dragon – with the more specific ‘Drakon’ – and the legend of a Roman army who battled a dragon coalesced. 

While clearly not a bona fide dragon, there is every possibility the legion stumbled across a giant python. Though I wondered if they came across a gigantic crocodile – a couple of sources were adamant Roman soldiers of this era knew exactly what a croc looked like. Burmese pythons have been known to grow in excess of 25 feet, African rock pythons as long as 20 feet have been spotted in the wild by people considered reliable witnesses. Amazonian anacondas can get close to 30 feet in length. This is a long way from a monster – say 60 feet long – so as to leave 120 feet of skin behind. There are, however, a number of reports from other classical sources claiming encounters with giant snakes close to 40 feet in length. Fossils of the extinct Titanoboa from close to 60 million years ago bear witness to snakes which could grow close to the size of the Bagradas dragon. 

a model of a titanoboa

Add to this, if the dragon was a largely water borne snake, in theory some of the limits set on terra firma by gravity on a body go out of the window – and animal size is more largely constrained by the amount of food available in their catchment. 

I am extremely sceptical of the tale of the Bagradas Dragon, but a giant snake is plausible. It almost makes one shudder to think of the monsters potentially out there – unctuously coiling its powerful frame around some unfortunate prey…. and I guess I wish that monster well? 

Murder in Hartlepool…

Content warning, the following tale discusses xenophobic folk songs and pamphlets. 

Today’s tale is set in Hartlepool – a seaside town in County Durham in the North East of England.. The date? … please, dear reader have mercy on me this week – I lost two writing days to a bout of food poisoning, then my old tablet died on me – I’ve dumped my proposed Tale this week for something I know well enough to pull together quickly – and unfortunately details are a little sketchy.

The date, has never been stipulated other than to say ‘The Napoleonic Wars’ – so any time between 1803 and 1815, most likely (taking into account the carnage at Trafalgar)  1803 – 1805.

A lone French ship – never named in the sources – has been scattered the length of the beach. Tempest tossed the night before in the merciless North Sea, it has been smashed against the rocks till split in two. Locals gather to see who has run afoul of the weather, what is onboard, and if there are any survivors. One could picture a nightmarish scene. Amid the piles of flotsam and jetsam are dozens of corpses, all sailors ultimately under the command of ‘Little Boney’, the dreaded Napoleon Bonaparte. The assembled rescuers, onlookers and pillagers knew this didn’t bode well for them. Were they a target for the French? Some way down the beach, a survivor crouched low on all fours, observing the scene. Short and excessively hairy, he appeared clad in a child’s uniform. Babbling in a language unknown to the assembled, the small man yelped at the locals, flashed a mouth full of canine teeth, then attempted to scarper. With considerable effort, the short man was eventually pinned by a couple of strong men, then escorted away. 

The locals had no idea what to do next, and had a million questions for the strange man. Was the ship a vanguard for a larger, expeditionary force still on it’s way? Were they there to land a French spy? Why them? Hartlepool was yet to become the industrial centre it would soon become. 

With a growing population just down the road at West Hartlepool – and a spa industry which brought in many tourists every year, a stranger could easily blend in – something which no doubt made the locals very jittery now. 

An impromptu kangaroo court put question after question to the survivor – only to get answers back in an unintelligible gibberish. They were at war with France. The man was in a French uniform, seemingly having come from a French warship wrecked on the beach. When they asked him if he were a spy, he never denied it. This strange, hairy man seemed dangerous – incredibly agile, and considerably stronger than he looked. This was enough for the locals to condemn the man to death by hanging.  A gibbet was constructed in the town square. The Frenchman was hung by the neck till pronounced dead. 

Some time later it was discovered the hairy man was not a man after all, but a monkey – probably a ship’s mascot. The people of West Hartlepool, who considered the people of Old Hartlepool little smarter than the average chimp, mocked them mercilessly for the hanging. They might have regretted this as urban sprawl led to a conjoining of West Hartlepool and Old Hartlepool into one greater Hartlepool. They were all ‘monkey hangers’ now, by British estimation. What does one do with such an embarrassing appellation? Lean into it. 

In Hartlepool, where a statue to the poor, unfortunate monkey stands memorial to his unwarranted execution – many wear the name ‘Monkey Hanger’ with pride. Their soccer team, Hartlepool United are nicknamed the monkey hangers. Their mascot ‘H’Angus the Monkey’. In 2002, Stuart Drummond successfully one upped Screaming Lord Sutch and Count Binface by actually getting himself elected mayor. Campaigning in a H’Angus the monkey suit, Drummond ran on a simple promise of free bananas for all school children. 

Later writers suggested there was something more diabolical at play in this hanging – children were often ‘powder monkeys’ aboard ships. Their job, to ferry gunpowder from the ship’s hold to the cannons. Did these locals mete out summary justice to some poor prisoner of war, then concoct this monkey tale to avoid a hanging themselves? –  

Did this change the complexion of the legend for the locals? Well…. their soccer team are still the monkey hangers. Mayor Drummond presided over Hartlepool for three terms. 

But did any of this actually happen?

Almost certainly not. 

From 1803 to 1815 over 38,000 ships wrecked along the coast of the United Kingdom. Just fourteen of those were in, or around Hartlepool. It is a matter of public record that all 14 ships were English. No monkeys were hanged on any of them.So where did the Tale come from?

Enter Edward ‘Ned’ Corvan (1830 – 1865). Corvan, born in Liverpool, moved with his family to Newcastle upon Tyne aged four. At the age of only seven his father died, leaving Ned the man of the house. He was sent to work for sail makers, but having no aptitude for the work was let go. After this he took on any work he could find for Billy Purvis’ Victoria Theatre – a travelling music hall troupe, based in Newcastle – but regularly touring the North of England. Corvan soon went from gopher, to child star. The boy could not only sing, he could make up songs on the fly about whatever town they were playing in… In 1855 he wrote ‘The fisherman hung the monkey O!’, while in Hartlepool.

In former times, mid war and strife
The French invasion threatened life
And all was armed to the knife
The fisherman hung the monkey O!

The fisherman with courage high
Seized the monkey for a spy
Hang him says yen, says another he’ll die
The fisherman hung the monkey O!

Dooram a dooram a dooram a da
Dooram a dooram a da

They tried every means to make him speak
They tortured the monkey till loud he did squeak
Says one that’s French, says another that’s Greek
For the fishermen then got drunkey O!

He’s hair all over some chaps did cry
He’s up to something cute and sly
With a cod’s head then they closed an eye
Afore they hung the monkey O!

Corvan’s song had precursors, which may have been sources for The Fisherman hung the monkey O! In 1825, an anonymous pamphlet, The Monkey Barber, was doing the rounds. It told a tale of an unfortunate Irish farm labourer come to Glasgow, Scotland to harvest crops. Having stopped at a barber’s shop, he found a hairy little barber waiting for customers, so he asked for a shave. I think you can guess the rest of this xenophobic tale, but if not, things don’t end well for the poor Irishman. There was allegedly another song in 1825, The Baboon – toasting a baboon who recently visited the UK with a party of Cossack soldiers. I couldn’t find anything specific about the song, other than several secondary sources mention it’s existence. 

Then there was a tale, allegedly from Boddam, Aberdeenshire – Scotland. the date, some time in 1772. A ship washes up on the rocks, killing all on board. Local pillagers arrive to find a sole survivor – a pet monkey. Believing a shipwreck with no survivors fair pickings, the men murder the monkey – then continue to strip the wreck of anything of value. There is as much evidence for this case as there is for anyone in Hartlepool ever having executed a monkey. 

On the Trail of La Bete du Gevaudan

A slumber did my spirit seal;
I had no human fears:
She seemed a thing which could not feel
The touch of Earthly years.
No motion has she now, no force;
She neither hears nor sees;
Rolled round in Earth’s diurnal course,
With rocks, and stones, and trees.
William Wordsworth ‘A Slumber did my Spirit Seal’ – 1800
.

Today’s tale is set in the former province of Gevaudan in South-Central France. The years between 1764 and 1767, following the bloody, and costly Seven Years War – a Proto World War if ever there was one – which had left deep scars in the psyche of many a European nation – France included- and left many a monarch broke in its’ wake.

Gevaudan is an isolated, rugged, rural spot – the French Resistance made a stronghold there in World War 2 largely for this reason. The terrain is rough and mountainous – far too rocky to grow much by way of crops. The locals eked out a living in the hills, tending to livestock. From a young age, they worked alone, out in the elements – constantly on the lookout for wild predators on the lookout for a free meal. Gevaudan is also surrounded by a vast forest; a dangerous and lawless place full of packs of wolves, lurking outlaws, footpads and highwayman. It really is the kind of place you could imagine in the most vicious Grimm Brothers tales. It’s against this backdrop that La Bete du Gevaudan, the beast of Gevaudan, came roaring into the consciousness of the French.

Early in the summer of 1764 a young woman provides us with our first description of La Bete. While caring for her cattle, a huge beast came bolting out of the forest. It was the size of a calf; with an unusually broad chest, a huge mouth full of canine teeth, and fiery eyes. The beast had a shaggy, reddish mane, with a dark line running the length of it’s spine. Far more interested in the cowherd than the cattle, the beast rushed at her with remarkable speed and dexterity. Our witness would have been done for but for the fact several large bulls were between her and the beast. The gang of bulls repeatedly charged La Bete, till it turned tail, back into the forest.

The cowherd reported the incident, but was turned away, everyone else believing the animal to be a large wolf. Soon after 14 year old Jeanne Boulet would be eviscerated, her mutilated body found dumped outside the village of Saint Etienne – de – Lugdares.

A month later another victim was badly mauled, a 15 year old girl near Puylaurent. She barely lived long enough to give a description of the beast very like the animal in the first encounter. It was around this point people started to entertain the possibility a monster walked among them. In September 1764 a young shepherd boy disappeared near the village of Laval. Partially eaten remains were found in the hills. This was followed by a sustained spate of attacks on lone men and women tending to their animals. The horrible disfigurement of the victims suggested both an extremely powerful beast, and a propensity to play with it’s meal. Bodies were left heavily gouged The beast, when going in for the kill, went for the neck or head. Speculation at this sudden explosion of attacks led some to believe they were in fact looking for two beasts. No wolf could traverse the rocky hills with anything like the speed the beast moved at, in any case.

In January 1765 one Jacques Portefaix was attacked by the beast, while out with friends. He fought La Bete off with a pike, an act of bravery which won him royal accolades and a free education. He wasn’t the only person to get the better of the beast. In August 1765 Marie Jeanne Valet was walking with her sister when the beast leapt out. Armed with a spear, Marie squared up to the beast – and after an epic battle with the monster – sent it scarpering with a chest wound. She won no royal plaudits or free education – at least there is a fantastic looking statue of her and the beast doing battle, in Auvers, constructed in 1995 to honour ‘The maid of Gevaudan’.

By 1765, the spate of deaths in Gevaudan came to the attention of King Louis XV. Concerned that to do nothing would lead to mass panic, and perhaps seeing some chance at redemption for his military – who lost the Seven Year War – he sent in the army, professional hunters, even his own Lieutenant of the hunt, Francoise Antoine. As terrified as the locals were now of La Bete, they also gave the small army soldiers and hunters the cold shoulder on their arrival.

A large wolf the likely suspect for the killer beast, Antoine’s army called open season on any wolf spotted in the forest. Well over 100 wolves would be massacred. Some wolves were uncommonly large, but the killings continued unabated. Hunters noticed a big difference between a wolf and La Bete around this time too. Wolves generally drop when you shoot them, but the beast was hit several times – and shook off the shot. A rumour began to circulate some hybrid mastiff-wolf had been bred by these ungrateful locals, then sent out in pig’s hide armour. How else could one explain this creature? Keep in mind guns in the 1760s had a maximum effective range of around 100 yards, and expert musketeers could maybe get a shot off every 20 seconds. Hunters were hardly out there with modern hunting rifles.

At one point Dragoon captain Jean-Baptiste Duhamel mustered 20,000 locals on a mass hunt, to canvass the area. They had no luck, and generated a great deal of press attention to boot. In 1765 the King’s armourer, Francoise Antoine, claimed victory after bagging a 6 foot long lone wolf – and sent the  body back to the court. The attacks continued.

Finally local hunter, Jean Chastel, bagged a large mystery animal. The carcass was loaded on a wagon and taken to the king in Paris. With a long, arduous journey, and an unusually hot summer, the carcass went off, and was too decomposed to identify at the capital. Lore grew around the kill claiming Chastel shot the beast with a silver bullet – something afterwards associated with werewolves. The attacks ceased after Chastel’s kill. All in all 113 people were killed by the beast of Gevaudan, a further 49 injured. 98 bodies were partially eaten.

So, what was the beast?

There are a number of suggestions.

First I think we can dismiss the claim the killer was, in fact, a serial killer. There is no evidence of a human killer. The attack marks sound like something a large animal is capable of. The hunters sited, and on occasion did shoot a mystery cryptid. That stated without evidence can be dismissed as easily.

Though a little small, a stray hyena is possible. A striped hyena did escape a menagerie, in 1767, having to be put down. Does a hyena look like our beast? Well, check out the picture of the Nigerian hyena handler with one such beast below.

Other suggestions run the gamut from a mutant bear, a wolf/dog hybrid, a large, trained hound – probably owned by Jean Chastel. Fans of crypto-zoology have suggested long extinct beasts such as the Mesonychid, the Bear Dog or the Dire Wolf. All seem highly unlikely.

Experts generally agree the beast was a sub-adult lion. A young adult is the right size. It would move and behave like the beast. It could also shake off 18th century musket shot. A sub-adult has yet to grow a full mane. That people living in an isolated region, in a time before photographs mistook a lion without a mane for some other monster is completely understandable.

How a lion found itself in a forest in an isolated part of France is another question entirely. It’s a question which invites guesswork. Had one of the soldiers, stationed abroad in the Seven Years War picked up a fluffy little cub going through Africa, only to dump it when it became too big and dangerous to handle? Alternately, had a formerly wealthy aristocrat found they couldn’t afford to keep a private menagerie, anymore – and chosen to dump the animals in the most wild, desolate place they could find? It has been long speculated Britain had a similar moment in the 1970s, after legislation made it all but impossible to keep a private zoo. The Beast of Bodmin Moor, seen by many in the years since, believed by some to be a puma deposited there by its former owner.

The Gombe Chimpanzee War

From 1974 to 1978 a vicious, sometimes cannibalistic war raged between two tribes in Gombe National Park,Tanzania. On one side was the Kasakela, the other side, the much larger Kahana tribe from the south of the region. They once were one large tribe, but a falling out in 1971 set the stage for this guerrilla war (as in the Spanish word for war – guerra – not the ape) The war would only end when a larger, foreign power stepped in, the Kalande. Our primary source for this tale comes from the primatologist, Dame Jane Goodall, the combatants our chimpanzee cousins.

Shakespeare once said uneasy lies the head that wears the crown, I have no doubt Humphrey knew this first-hand...

In late 1970 the united Kasakela – Kahana tribe were struck by a tragedy. Their leader, Leakey; a chimp well loved and respected by all, died. The mantle of leadership fell on the Kasakela elder Humphrey; a chimp loved by many, but lacking the innate sense of power to be respected by up and coming alphas. Two Kahana brothers, Hugh and Charley, saw Humphrey as weak and began lobbying for the top job themselves. After a series of violent clashes, the tribe split into two factions: Humphrey’s Kasakelas, and Hugh & Charlie’s Kahana.

Duke university anthropologist Joseph Feldblum later fed Jane Goodall’s notes into a computer, which showed a series of relationships – apparent politicing and escalations which looked all too human. Political tensions simmered between the factions, finally escalating to all out war in 1974.

On 7th January 1974, Gobi; a young Kahana male, was sitting in a tree in Kahana territory. While enjoying a feed, six male Kasakela surrounded him, beating Gobi to death in a vicious assault. Expert observers have read the Gobi assassination as an act of instrumental violence – a deliberate declaration of war on the Kahana. The six never ventured to this part of the park. Gobi often did. The assassins, it is believed, sought Gobi out that day with the express intent of sending a message to the Kahana.

What followed was four years of escalating attacks and counter attacks between Kahana and Kasakela. Male chimps were ambushed and beaten to death, females kidnapped and subsumed into the rival group. The series of attacks and ambushes had an eerily strategic nature to them – both sides gathered intelligence in observing enemy movements. Both sides coordinated their attacks. There appeared to be no happenstance. After four long, bloody years King Humphrey’s Kasakela won. The cost? a genocide. All the male Kahana were killed in the war. The Kasakela occupied Kahana territory, until the neighbouring superpower, the Kalande, stepped in. The Kalande forced King Humphrey out and re-established Kahana rule in the south of the park. The women and children of the Kahana would eventually re-populate the territory.

Of the war, Jane Goodall wrote…

“Often when I woke in the night, horrific pictures sprang unbidden to my mind – Satan [one of the apes], cupping his hand below Sniff’s chin to drink the blood that welled from a great wound on his face… Jomeo tearing a strip of skin from Dé’s thigh; Figan, charging and hitting, again and again, the stricken, quivering body of Goliath, one of his childhood heroes,” – (Through a Window: My Thirty Years with the Chimpanzees of Gombe.)

In spite of the occasional madness from the likes of Pliny the Elder, who believed cranes headed south in winter to fight an eternal war with the pygmy of Africa (surely a Tale for another day?); war had seemed a very human occupation for a long time. There were no written observations of such behaviour. Animals hunting in packs? sure. Animals conspiring to systematically eliminate an enemy tribe? This seemed a uniquely human trait. Subsequent observance of animal groups in the wild has since recast their lives as far more complex, far more ‘human’.

Originally published February 13th 2019 on the Tales of History and Imagination Facebook page. Edited 2020. Copyright 2019 Simone T. Whitlow

Andrew Jackson’s parrot

Hi all just a quick update across all the socials. The final episode of the Batavia saga has been waylaid by needing to move home. The house I’ve been living at for close to 12 years has recently been sold, although I do have a new house to move to in the coming weeks.

I’ve got a couple of tales set up in reserve, for next week Tuesday, and the week following. I’ll let those drop as planned, so there is a possibility Batavia part 7 may release the same day as one, or even later.

In the meantime, a short tale for this week. As many of you may know the man in the main picture today (sorry email subscribers, I know main photos get lost) was Andrew Jackson. To anyone unsure of who he was, Jackson was the seventh president of the USA. He fought in the revolutionary war, and it’s sequel – the war of 1812 with great distinction. He was a lawyer and land speculator. As president he brought a dozen spittoons to the White House, and a giant wheel of cheese. He fought duels. He was also a monster, responsible for the deaths of a great many native Americans, but that is a tale for another day.

Today’s tale is about an African Grey just like this beautiful creature, below.

On winning the presidency in 1828 Andrew Jackson bought a companion for his wife Rachel; an African Grey parrot called Poll. He would be especially busy. Being relative political outsiders, Andrew worried his wife would be a fish out of water and need some company. Poor Rachel, heavily stressed from the brutal presidential race, would pass from a massive heart attack before her husband took office. President Jackson took on the rearing of Poll the parrot himself. Thinking it hilarious, he taught the young parrot to swear like a trooper.

Old Hickory would stay in office till 1837. He would pass on June 8th 1845 of dropsy and heart failure.


His funeral looked to be a dignified affair, that was until a lone voice reverberated from the back of the church. Someone was volubly swearing up a storm.
Poll the parrot, visibly distressed at the gathering, was escorted from the church, all the while swearing up a blue streak.

Mount Tambora, a Butterfly Effect in Four Acts

Act One

It is early in April 1815 on the island of Java, modern day Indonesia. Like much of the world Java had been caught up in the worldwide conflict of the Napoleonic wars. The Island passed from Dutch rule to the French, then back to Dutch again after 1814, via the conquering Britons, in 1811. On 13th August 1814 the Convention of London handed the Dutch their lost Indonesian colonies back – and just shy of eight months later they were in the process of taking control re-establishing themselves in the East Indies. While it must have been some relief to the Dutch and English alike that they no longer had Bonaparte to worry about, they realized the Dutch had some way to go to rebuild their powerhouse trading empire in the Spice Islands. When cannon fire was heard in the distance, the Dutch and British must have wondered who was up to mischief, where, and to what end? Soldiers were sent out to deal to whatever militia, rogue 5th estaters, or interloper was out to cause trouble.
I don’t know how these soldiers, presumably British rather than Dutch, fared – I only really know Sir Stamford Raffles, the founder of Singapore mentions them in his memoirs – but there was no interloper. Mother earth was about to king hit the region with a type of ferocity not seen for thousands of years.

Sir Stamford Raffles


On April 10th 1815, the supposed cannon fire was revealed as the prelude to the eruption of Mount Tambora, in Indonesia’s lesser Sunda Islands. To say this was a huge eruption is an understatement. It was the biggest volcanic eruption in at least 10,000 years. People talk of the neighboring Krakatoa eruption of 1883 as a big deal… well, it was, but it was a baby compared to Mt Tambora. Krakatoa happened at a time when telegraphs carried news around the world in the blink of an eye, at a time when greater democracy ensured an easier spread of news. Tambora was the real news story – at a time when technology simply was not equipped to disseminate information fast enough.

Let’s quantify this event. Though it continued to fume and spit out debris from 10th April till mid July, most of it’s payload was released in the first three days. In terms of pure power, Mt Tambora went off with an equivalent of 33 Billion tons of TNT, 2.2 million times the ‘little boy’ atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima. To go full on ‘Tales of science and Imagination’ for a second; in three days the eruption blew with 1.17 x 10 to the power of 20 joules – or if like me you’re not a scientist – approximately equivalent to 3 months worth of the whole world’s power consumption in our time (2019), over a space of just 3 days.

Via three massive columns of fire, a plume of smoke which reached 40 kilometers into the atmosphere, and via pyroclastic flows moving at a speed of 160 kilometers per hour, the volcano would eject 175 cubic kilometers of debris. If you collected all the ash in an area the size of Rhode Island, the pile would be close to 56 metres high – almost half the height of Providence, Rhode Island’s highest building, its ‘Superman’ building. Convert that – New Zealand podcast and all- to Auckland, we would be looking at a pile 161 metres high, just under half the height of our Sky Tower -as wide as our super-city. It went off with a big bang heard 2,600 kilometers away, and left a once 14000 foot tall mountain with a caldera, a giant indent – over a kilometer deep and a little over 3 kilometers across.

Did this cause widespread death and destruction? Very much so. It’s estimated 10,000 people died instantly in the blast, near the island and on the neighboring island of Lombok. The blast caused a tsunami, which rolled through the Java sea at a height of around 2 metres. Ash fell on islands as far as 1,300 kilometers away in significant quantity. Enough so that it would collapse roofs 400 kilometers from the blast with it’s weight. Acid rain fell on the region. Water supplies left un-drinkable. Forests, grasslands, and crops would be decimated – and all up perhaps as many as 80,000 further locals would die of famine in the wake of the eruption.

Now I want to be a little careful, mindful of the fact act one is all statistics. To borrow from Stalin – one death is a tragedy, one million deaths a statistic. This was 80,000 tragedies. A loss of life on a huge, traumatic scale – a tragedy felt for generations in the region. All up this tragedy is believed to have caused hundreds of thousands of deaths in the region in the long run. But we have some ground to cover, and never enough column inches. One final stat I’ll share – while Mt Tambora threw a lot of ash into the atmosphere, it also released massive amounts of sulfur, chlorine and fluorine also. This lead to 1816 becoming ‘The Year without a Summer’ – and it drastically affected the whole planet. I leave the Indonesians with my love, to rebuild and move on – and turn our attention to other flow on effects of this tragedy.