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Turner, Tambora and the Temeraire

The sun shone blood red and the skies above LWC (and many other parts of the UK) took on the sepia tones of orange, thanks to the violent October storms of hurricane Ophelia dragging in tonnes of Saharan dust and forest-fire debris from Southern Europe. The nation (for a brief moment) was transfixed: it felt apocalyptic. Hundreds of years ago, angry gods would have been the explanation but these days the science is relatively simple – dust, high in the atmosphere scatters light from the sun into longer wavelengths (the red part of the spectrum) which is visible.

Just over 200 years before in a quiet part of the Indonesian archipelago of Sumbara, Tambora, a mountain similar in size to Mont Blanc exploded with such ferocity (potentially the most powerful in documented history) that it blew off 1200m of its height: the blast was heard 1200km away. With an estimated 120,000 deaths resulting from the explosion and subsequent environmental catastrophes, the purpose of this piece is not to pay homage to a classic geographical case study (although it is), rather highlight what curiosity and a good deal of research over the past few weeks have uncovered. What follows is the unravelling of a fascinating trail of impacts, potentially making Tambora the most impactful eruption in history.

With so much volcanic debris in the upper atmosphere the sun’s rays were partially blocked. Temperatures fell, rainfall and snowfall increased and crops in Europe, the US, the UK, and South East Asia began to fail, leading to one of the first recorded global economic depressions. The well-known agricultural region of Yunnan, China, was particularly badly affected and as global grain prices rapidly fluxed and with famine at home and abroad, the farmers of the region turned to planting opium poppies as cash crops. This successful insurance against further harvest disasters thus brought to life the global heroin / opium trade.

Across the Pacific, the collapse of crops led waves of Ohio farmers across the Appalachian mountains from the suffering NY state, leaving cheap agricultural land for sale in their wake. It was in Palmyra that a man named John Smith (a classic name for an immigrant choosing to start afresh…) bought parcels of land, land which his son, years later, subsequently had religious experiences within and these visions led to the founding of the Mormon religion.

Before 1816, cholera was a local disease in India and Bangladesh, but due to changes in the chemistry of the water as a result of the eruption, mutations occurred and cholera now began its global spread, encouraged further by the deaths in the region at the time. The WHO’s most recent data suggests that 150,000 cholera-related deaths occur each year.

Having headed to Switzerland for a summer of walking with friends amongst the crystal-clear lakes, jagged mountains and high-alpine meadows in the months after Tambora erupted,  Mary Anne Shelley was having to endure an unseasonably cold and wet holiday experience; it was known as the ‘Year without a Summer’. In Britain these days we call it the ‘summer holidays’…  In order to pass the time as she and her friends including Byron, the poet, hunkered down in the warmth of their cottage with swirling storms outside, they let their imaginations run riot and told dark and fanciful stories. The creative minds on that trip enabled ‘Frankenstein’ as a concept to be born and subsequently written in the years after. Not only that, it is thought that the appalling weather negatively impacted Napoleon’s efforts at the Battle of Waterloo.

Perhaps a little more tenuous, but more locally, Jane Austen, once of Hampshire’s finest writers ‘caught a chill’ in the damp, cold chill of the post-Tamboran summer on her way in a carriage to Winchester and although there were other underlying medical issues, this was seen as an exacerbating factor in her untimely demise; once more, volcanic side-effects had struck.

And so, Tambora offers us death, disease, famine, civil unrest and a general picture of times not being as welcoming as they could be, although these effects are nothing compared to the supervolcano of Yellowstone, which according to the rhythm of eruption cycles is due any day now… A sobering thought, not least for the millions of visitors who enjoy the geysers and boiling pools each year whilst deciding on the fillings for their 12-inch subway baguettes and super-sized soft drinks in the local towns…

But there is an upside to the eruption, and one which has inspired generations beyond. As JMW Turner, the not-quite-yet-world-famous artist sat enjoying a coffee in his coastal town of Margate, he was inspired by the incandescent glow of the light, again thanks to our sulphate friends floating around in the upper atmosphere refracting the light, and this led him to work even more creatively with light, landscapes, seascapes and the atmosphere in his paintings. One suspects his depiction of the eruption ‘Vesuvius’ (AD 79) in 1817 reflected the talk of the day and further stunning works  Chichester Canal (1828), Sunrise (1825), Slavers (1840) and what became Britain’s favourite painting (voted for in 2005) The Fighting Temeraire (1839), highlighted his progression in becoming one of the great masters of British watercolour, landscape and marine paintings, becoming known as the ‘painter of light.‘

Others followed in his impressionist footsteps: Monet, Renoir, Pizzaro and Manet to name but a few.  JMW Turner died in 1851 and was buried in St Paul’s cathedral, 36 years after the Tamboran eruption. It is somewhat ironic that he was struck down with cholera, a disease, which had mutated from a regional to a global threat, but had also provided the inspiration for an artistic movement as a result of the explosion.

Art has always been inspired by nature and the environment and thanks to the inner workings of the our planet, culture and history continue to develop apace inspiring curiosity and creativity, but also comedy, as I leave you with one of my favourite jokes from Tom Parry at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2015 which has a passing relevance to the conditions at the time. "Red sky at night, shepherd's delight. Blue sky at night, day."