How a volcanic eruption made 1816 the year without a summer

Out of utter devastation, came great enduring art including Frankenstein and Dracula
What They Did That Summer
Photo illustration by Taylor Shute

On April 5, 1815, just before sunset, the Mt. Tambora volcano on the Indonesian island of Sumbawa erupted. So loud was the blast that the captain of the East India Company cruiser Benares, anchored more than 1,300 km away, thought he heard cannon fire, and put to sea in search of the pirates he assumed responsible. Luckily for him, the Benares hadn’t yet reached Sumbawa when Tambora erupted again five days later, this time in the most powerful volcanic explosion in 2,000 years.

Within a month, the death toll in Indonesia had reached 90,000—the worst ever recorded for a volcanic event—from the eruption itself and the starvation that followed as falling ash destroyed crops. But that grim count, as scholars like historian William Klingaman and his son Nicholas, a meteorologist, authors of 1816: The Year Without Summer, have just begun to investigate, was only the beginning of what Tambora would wreak.

The massive load of sulphate gases and debris the mountain shot 43 km into the stratosphere blocked sunlight and distorted weather patterns for three years, dropping temperatures between two and three degrees Celsius, shortening growing seasons and devastating harvests worldwide, especially in 1816. In the northern hemisphere, farmers from frozen—and abolitionist—New England, where some survived the winter of 1816 to 1817 on hedgehogs and boiled nettles, poured into the Midwest. That migration, the Klingamans argue, set in motion demographic ripples that would not play out until America’s Civil War, almost a half-century later.

Throughout the Old World, from China to Ireland, starving peasants flooded towns, begging and even selling their children for food. Famine-friendly diseases came in their wake. The worst typhus epidemic on record raged, while the lethal modern strain of what would become the 19th century’s greatest killer—cholera—and the first stirrings of state-organized public health measures both came to life.

And so too did Frankenstein and Dracula.

In Switzerland, the European epicentre of the disaster, the English poet Lord Byron and his circle spent much of June huddled around the fire in a chateau on Lake Geneva. Bored and oppressed by the rainy gloom, the poet urged his companions to compose ghost stories in the Gothic mode. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, the foundational tale of modern angst over scientists monkeying about with forces beyond their ken, is the most famous to have emerged from the summer of darkness. But “The Vampyre,” by Byron’s physician John Polidori, has been even richer in progeny.

Polidori’s short story, remembered now (if at all) for the way in which his undead protagonist so closely resembled the “mad, bad and dangerous to know” Byron, was a hit at the time, spawning a vampire craze that worked itself into unlikely literary nooks—in Wuthering Heights, Heathcliff’s housekeeper suspects her master of being a vampire. Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897), and Bela Lugosi later, revived the genre by tying the vampire story to themes of sex, blood, death and aristocratic glamour. More recently, Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles, not to mention Buffy the Vampire Slayer, transformed the undead (or some of them, some of the time) from repulsive incarnations of evil into tragic, beautiful and conscience-stricken figures, setting the stage for Stephenie Meyer’s massively popular Twilight novels and their film versions.

The tale of the Byronic stories has itself become heavily mythologized: most versions stop with the climatic catastrophe functioning as a mere occasion—the writers could have as easily been housebound by a collapsed bridge. Not so, says Gillen D’Arcy Wood, an English professor and director of the Sustainability Studies Initiative at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, at least not in the case of Frankenstein, “the signature literary production of the year without a summer.”

Everything Shelley saw at the château and on her way there made its way into her novel about the electrical creation of life. One storm follows on another, she wrote her half-sister in England, including one in which Lake Geneva “was lit up, the pines on Jura made visible, and all the scene illuminated for an instant, when a pitchy blackness succeeded, and the thunder came in frightful bursts over our heads amid the blackness.” More subtly but unmistakably, she incorporated Switzerland’s starving peasantry in her tale. She imagines Frankenstein—who, it’s often forgotten, is the human creator in the novel—waking from a nightmare to find his hideous creation at his bedside, “looking on him with yellow, watery, but speculative eyes.” That echoes a refrain among English tourists of the era. One, on the road from Rome to Naples in 1817, after a second failed harvest tipped the rural poor into outright famine, recorded in his diary “the livid aspect of the miserable inhabitants.” (When the traveller asked how they lived, these “animated spectres” replied simply: “We die.”)

Shelley’s famous creature, says Wood, whose own book on Tambora will be published next year, “bears the mark of the famished and diseased” in more than his eye colour. Like the hungry refugees spreading typhus, he is a wanderer seen as a menace; the disgust everyone displays toward him mirrors the lack of sympathy most well-off Europeans showed the starving. As the creature himself put it, with considerably more irony than he is usually credited with, he suffered “from the inclemency of the season,” but “still more from the barbarity of man.”

Shelley wasn’t the only writer taking note of the weather, Wood points out, or of its human cost. Chinese poets in Yunan recorded devastated rice crops and the misery of the peasantry. And Byron’s poem “Darkness,” inspired by a July day in 1816 when the candles had to be lit at noon, carries themes of social breakdown after “all hearts / Were chill’d into a selfish prayer for light.”

Visual artists also responded. The innumerable shades of grey that dominated the sky for years were in fact preceded—after Tambora’s eruption but before the bad weather—by spectacular sunsets in the summer and fall of 1815. Since the ash cloud meant that less blue light and more red than normal reached the ground, sunsets were unusually rich in shades of red, purple and orange.

As the Klingamans describe in 1816, volcanologists have tried to date eruptions through the colours that artists—presumed to be trying to depict as accurately as possible—used to paint sunsets from the 16th to the 19th centuries. Looking at 550 samples by 181 painters, one group of scientists concluded that works from the years immediately following Tambora display the most red paint. And the two paintings with the highest amount, adds Wood, are a watercolour by William Turner—“the painter of light”—entitled Red Sky and Crescent Moon, and Caspar Friedrich’s Ships in the Harbour after Sunset. The flip side of the colourful sunsets of 1815 were the cloudy skies before and after; the teens were the cloudiest decade of the century, thanks in part to an eruption somewhere in the tropics in 1809. By 1818 landscape painter John Constable was a fixture on Hampstead Heath, painting study after study of clouds.

But the most influential literary voice of the Tambora era may have been only three years old when the volcano erupted. Charles Dickens, whose recreation of his childhood is at the core of his fiction, had a “body memory” like no other writer, argues Wood. “All his stories are shot through with snow, fog, rain and freezing cold, especially as suffered by children.” That’s true enough—consider the famous opening to Bleak House: “Implacable November weather. As much mud in the streets as if the waters had but newly retired from the face of the earth . . . Fog cruelly pinching the toes and fingers of a shivering little ’prentice boy.” Although critics maintain Dickensian atmospherics were a result of expanding industrialization, Wood’s point is that those sort of conditions didn’t actually dominate in London at the time Dickens compulsively wrote about them—particularly not the bone-chilling cold. “Our whole image of Victorian London,” he concludes, “may be based upon a Tambora childhood.” To Frankenstein and Dracula, then, add a long line of Dickensian waifs to the volcano’s fictive offspring.

Restoring historical context to Frankenstein and Bleak House also puts a spotlight on the real children of 1816 to 1818. As those studying Tambora have come to realize, almost everyone alive two centuries ago was hungry. For our own era of fast-building environmental crisis, the experiences, fictional and actual, of those three years offer the best-recorded account of how sudden and how devastating climate change can be.