On 5 April 1815, a truly seismic event sent shock waves around the world: not a returning emperor, but the eruption of Mount Tambora on island of Sumbawa, in modern-day Indonesia. One of the best English-language accounts comes from the memoirs of Sir Stamford Raffles (1781-1826) who was stationed in nearby Java. By the time Raffles sailed for home the following year – stopping off to meet Bonaparte in St Helena – over 100,000 people had lost their lives to Tambora’s eruption and the more deadly tsunami that followed. This was only the beginning: 1816 became known throughout the world as the “year without a summer” on account of the unprecedented volume of ash in the atmosphere, which wreaked havoc on crops from Ireland to China and to the fledgling United States; volatility in food markets led to financial panic before the decade was out; and floods in the Bay of Bengal fostered a deadly cholera epidemic that would overshadow much of the rest of the century.
Like military reports from the same period, Raffles’ account reveals a sense of foreboding power and unfathomable energy, marking a moment in which eruption and revolution were more than metaphorically linked. Indeed, the “explosions” of geological activity were initially mistaken for warfare: “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, in the expectation that a neighbouring post was attacked.” In this globalising era of human conflict, personified most forcefully by Napoleon’s exploits, it is hardly surprising that the sound of the earth’s movement could be mistaken for enemy combat.
Sir Stamford Raffles (1781-1826) was an East India Company employee and later Colonial entrepreneur, best remembered for his role in the founding of Singapore. In 1815 Raffles was reeling not only from the death of his wife the previous year, but also from the loss of his role as Lieutenant-General of Java, since the Anglo-Dutch Treaty of 1814 had removed the territory from British control. This was a clear example of power-struggles in the wake of Napoleon’s campaigns having a direct impact, half way round the globe, on the governance and exploitation of Southeast Asia.
Gillen D’Arcy Wood. Tambora: The Eruption That Changed the World (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2014)
Raffles, Sophia, and Raffles, Thomas Stamford. Memoir of the life and public services of Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles, F.R.S. &c.: particularly in the government of Java, 1811-1816, and of Bencoolen and its dependencies, 1817-1824: with details of the commerce and resources of the eastern archipelago, and selections from his correspondence (London, John Murray, 1830)