The tremendous eruption of Mount Tambora in April 1815 was the most powerful volcanic eruption of the 19th century.
The eruption and the tsunamis it triggered killed tens of thousands of people. And the magnitude of the explosion is difficult to fathom.
It has been estimated that Mount Tambora stood approximately 12,000 feet tall before the 1815 eruption, before the top one-third of the mountain was completely obliterated.
Adding to the disaster's massive scale, the huge amount of dust blasted into the upper atmosphere by the Tambora eruption contributed to a bizarre and highly destructive weather event the following year. And 1816 became known as The Year Without a Summer.
The disaster on the remote island of Sumbawa in the Indian Ocean has been overshadowed by the eruption of the volcano at Krakatoa decades later, partly because the news of Krakatoa traveled quickly via telegraph.
Accounts of the Tambora eruption were considerably more rare, yet some vivid ones do exist. An administrator of the East India Company, Sir Thomas Stamford Bingley Raffles, who was serving as governor of Java at the time, published a striking account of the disaster based on written reports he had collected from English traders and military personnel.
Beginnings of the Mount Tambora Disaster
The island of Sumbawa, home to Mount Tambora, is located in present day Indonesia. When the island was first discovered by Europeans the mountain was thought to be an extinct volcano.
However, about three years before the 1815 eruption the mountain seemed to come to life. Rumblings were felt. And a dark smoky cloud appeared atop the summit.
On April 5, 1815, the volcano began to erupt. British traders and explorers in that part of the world heard the sound and at first thought it to be the firing of cannon. There was a fear that a battle of at sea was being fought nearby.
The Massive Eruption of Mount Tambora
On the evening of April 10, 1815, the eruptions intensified. And a massive major eruption began to blow the volcano apart. Viewed from a settlement about 15 miles to the east, it seemed that three columns of flames shot into the sky.
According to a witness on an island about 10 miles to the south, the entire mountain appeared to turn into "liquid fire." Stones of pumice more than six inches in diameter began to rain down on neighboring islands.
Violent winds propelled by the eruptions struck settlements like hurricanes, and some reports claimed that the wind and sound triggered small earthquakes. And tsunamis emanating from the island of Tambora destroyed settlements on other islands, killing tens of thousands of people.
Investigations by modern day archaeologists have determined that an island culture on the island of Sumbawa was completely wiped out by the Mount Tambora eruption.
Written Reports of Mount Tambora's Eruption
As the eruption of Mount Tambora occurred before communication by telegraph, accounts of the cataclysm were slow to reach Europe and North America.
The British governor of Java, Sir Thomas Stamford Bingley Raffles, who was learning an enormous amount about the native inhabitants of the local islands while writing his 1817 book History of Java, collected accounts of the eruption.
Raffles began his account of the Mount Tambora eruption by noting the confusion about the source of the initial sounds:
The first explosions were heard on this Island in the evening of the 5th of April, they were noticed in every quarter, and continued at intervals until the following day. The noise was in the first instance almost universally attributed to distant cannon; so much so, that a detachment of troops were marched from Djocjocarta [a nearby province] in the expectation that a neighboring post was attacked. And along the coast boats were in two instances dispatched in quest of a supposed ship in distress.
After the initial explosion was heard, Raffles said it was supposed that the eruption was no greater than other volcanic eruptions in that region. But he noted that on the evening of April 10th extremely loud explosions were heard and large amounts of dust began to fall from the sky.
Other employees of the East India Company in the region were directed by Raffles to submit reports about the aftermath of the eruption. The accounts are chilling. One letter submitted to Raffles describes how, on the morning of April 12, 1815, no sunlight was visible at 9 a.m. on a nearby island. The sun had been entirely obscured by volcanic dust in the atmosphere.
A letter from an Englishman on the island of Sumanap described how, on the afternoon of April 11, 1815, "by four o'clock it was necessary to light candles." It remained dark until the next afternoon.
About two weeks after the eruption, a British officer sent to deliver rice to the island of Sumbawa made an inspection of the island. He reported seeing numerous corpses, and widespread destruction. Local inhabitants were becoming ill and many had already died of hunger.
A local ruler, the Rajah of Saugar, gave his account of the cataclysm to the British officer, Lieutenant Owen Phillips. He described three columns of flames arising from the mountain when it erupted on April 10, 1815.
Apparently describing the lava flow, the Rajah said the mountain started to appear "like a body of liquid fire, extending itself in every direction."
The Rajah also described the effect of the wind unleashed by the eruption:
Between nine and ten p.m. ashes began to fall, and soon after a violent whirlwind ensued, which blew down nearly every house in the village of Saugar, carrying the tops and light parts along with it.
In the part of Saugar adjoining [Mount Tambora] its effects were much more violent, tearing up by the roots the largest trees and carrying them into the air together with men, houses, cattle, and whatever else came within its influence. This will account for the immense number of floating trees seen at sea.
The sea rose nearly twelve feet higher than it had ever been known to be before, and completely spoiled the only small spots of rice lands in Saugar, sweeping away houses and every thing within its reach.
Worldwide Effects of the Mount Tambora Eruption
Though it would not be apparent for more than a century, the eruption of Mount Tambora contributed to one of the worst weather-related disasters of the 19th century. The following year, 1816, became known as The Year Without a Summer.
The dust particles blasted into the upper atmosphere from Mount Tambora were carried by air currents and spread across the world. By the fall of 1815 eerily colored sunsets were being observed in London, England. And the following year the weather patterns in Europe and North America changed drastically.
While the winter of 1815-1816 was fairly ordinary, the spring of 1816 turned odd. Temperatures did not rise as expected, and very cold temperatures persisted in some places well into the summer months.
Widespread crop failures caused hunger and even famine in some places. And thus the eruption of Mount Tambora may have caused widespread casualties on the opposite side of the world.