Tag Archives: Napoleonic Wars

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.

Women’s History Month 2: Mary Anning, The Carpenter’s Daughter

Hi folks, happy Womens History Month! I had something completely different planned for this week, but the mass shooting in Christchurch a. necessitated a change of subject and b. took me completely out of the headspace to write anything other than angry, anti fascist invectives. I was planning to write on Tamar of Georgia (1166 _ 1213) a true girl power heroine who does not get discussed enough – but this is history, and history is problematic. Tamar, a christian ruler, fought off an invasion from, then in turn invaded the Seljuk Turks. How do you write that in the wake of the murder of 51 Muslim New Zealanders here? Do I really want some mouth-breathing fascist taking my post as a dog whistle? Absolutely not. Sorry Tamar, we’ll return to you later.

A quote from John Donne’s Meditations has been stuck in my head all day. I am shocked, and horrified, and heartbroken for the families of the deceased. I don’t often buy into nationalistic rhetoric, but make no mistake, we are a diverse nation of many colours, religions (or lack of) and back stories. You take on them you take on all of us.

“No man is an island,
Entire of itself,
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thy friend’s
Or of thine own were:
Any man’s death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in mankind,
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
It tolls for thee.” – John Donne.


Now, on another note, repeat after me….

“She sells seashells by the seashore,
The shells she sells are seashells, I’m sure
So if she sells seashells on the sea shore
Then I’m sure she sells seashells.” – Terry Sullivan.

Mary Anning (May 21 1799 – March 9 1847) was an English fossil collector, dealer, and paleontologist. Our understanding of the Jurassic era (approx 201 – 145 million years ago) owes a huge debt to Ms Anning and her work. She lived, and worked near the Blue Lias (layered limestone and shale) cliffs at Lyme Regis, Dorset.
Among her achievements Anning was the first to identify an Icthyosaur skeleton, found several early Plesiosaurus, the first Pterosaur found outside of Germany, and helped lead public understanding towards the concept that animals could go extinct- something thought heretical by many at the time, as it implied God was imperfect, if things could…. well…. go the way of the dinosaur.
Mary Anning should have been a superstar of the 19th Century scientific community, but she was shunned, largely, as – first it was a boys’ club and second, Anning was a dissenter – a protestant who believed church and state should be kept separate, and had nothing to do with organized Anglican religion. After her death she began to get some of the recognition she deserved- prompting Charles Dickens to write of her, in 1865

“The carpenter’s daughter has won a name for herself, and has deserved to win it”

In 1908 Terry Sullivan wrote the tongue twister above, in her honour. In 2010 the Royal society listed Anning as one of the 10 British women who most influenced the history of science.

So… expanding on Dickens’ Messianic appellation, Mary Anning was born in 1799 to cabinetmaker Richard Anning and his wife Mary aka Molly. They grew up in a house near the water, which regularly flooded in bad weather. The same rough, stormy weather which regularly flooded their home however also uncovered many ancient monsters in the cliffs nearby. Aged 15 months she was nearly killed at a travelling horse show when an oak tree her family were watching under was struck by lightning. She was one of 10 children born to Richard and Molly, but only one of two who made it to adulthood.

Anning grew up in wartime. The outbreak of the French Revolution and Napoleonic wars kept many British holidaymakers away from the continent. Europe’s loss was Lyme Regis’ win – it became a holiday hotspot. With many visitors over the summer months, opportunities for extra money abounded, including hunting through the fossil rich cliffs for specimens to sell to holidaymakers. In the dangerous winter months, when the cliffs were tempest tossed, and landslides a regular occurance – Richard, Mary and her brother Joseph would brave the weather in search of dinosaurs. On one trip an ailing Richard, already deathly ill with tuberculosis, tumbled over a cliff, sustaining critical injuries. Richard’s death led to 11 year old Mary leaving school to work full time as a fossil hunter to support the family.

By the 1820s, Mary Anning had firmly taken the helm of the family business. She established a shop, and had become a leading expert paleontologist; autodidactically no less. She closely recorded all of her findings, though she would only be published once by the boys club. Anning also maintained close ties with several leading male scientists, who often shared her ideas – without crediting her. Of note, she sold a full icthyosaur skeleton to King Frederick Augustus II of Saxony, when he visited her shop. However throughout the 1830s Anning fell upon hard times. Britain’s economy fell into a slump, and luxuries like dinosaur bones fell out of favour with the middle class. Marred also by poor financial decisions, Anning was at risk of being sent to the poor house. At the urging of Mary Anning’s friend William Buckland, the British government granted her a modest pension for the rest of her life – in recognition of her many significant scientific discoveries.

Mary Anning died, 9th March 1847, of breast cancer.

Originally posted March 17th 2019 on the Tales of History and Imagination Facebook page. Copyright 2019 Simone T. Whitlow. Edited 2020… except for the poetry.