Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Goethe and the Year Without Summer

People eating grass in Switzerland in 1816
A few posts ago I mentioned Goethe's diary entries during the summer of 1816, when the climatic effects of the 1815 eruption of the Indonesian volcano Tambora began to make themselves felt in Europe. I now have Wolfgang Behringer's new book about the eruption, which fills in a few things. Behringer mentions a poem written at the death of Christiane that connects Goethe's mood with the current weather:

Den 6. Juni 1816
Du versuchst, o Sonne vergebens,
Durch die düstren Wolken zu scheinen!
Der ganze Gewinn meines Lebens
Ist, ihren Verlust zu beweinen.

As Behringer writes, the "Tambora crisis," especially the devastating atmospheric effects on agriculture for several years running, occurred in a "modern, media environment," thus differentiating our understanding of these effects from that of all previous climatic or subsistence crises. At the beginning of the 19th century, as European global expansion was at its height, there were already "worldwide" newspapers and journals. And everywhere we encounter educated, curious administrators, truly competent ones, communicating about what was going on around them.

The first example, and the most proximate one, was Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles, governor of British Java, who immediately began commissioning reports from the local population about the eruption itself. During the first phase of the eruption, on April 5, 1815, the explosions were so intense that they could be heard throughout the Indonesian archipelago. They sounded like mortor fire, perhaps signs of a French sea invasion. Troops were called up in Yogjakarta to prevent a foreign attack. Raffles, however, recognized that it was an eruption. But, as Behringer writes, where was this volcano? By May of 1815 a circular had gone to all British who were residence in Indonesia with three questions.

The first concerned the chronology and the physical conditions. What day and at what hour was the ash rain noticeable, its duration, and its chemical composition?

The second question concerned the medical and economic consequences, in particular the effects on the health of humans and livestock and harvest.

The third question remained: where was the volcano?
Aerial view of the caldera of Mt Tambora at the island of Sumbawa
 The worst phase of the eruption occurred on April 10. Besides the considerable amount of material that it released into the atmosphere, the eruption was so strong that it blew off the top part of the volcano, reducing its height from 4,200 to 2,850 meters and leaving a six-meter wide "caldera" with a lake in the middle. It wasn't until 1847 that the first European, the botanist Heinrich Zollinger, climbed the still smoking volcano and thus made the first report on the recovery of plant life.

As for Goethe, it was not until February 20, 1817, that he first read a report, in Cotta's Morgenblatt für die gebildeten Stände (note "gebildet" in the title of the Cotta publication, pointing to the media  culture noted by Behringer), about the eruption in Tambora. In his diary Goethe wrote: "Zeitungen. Morgenblatt gelesen. Geschichte eines neuentstandenen Vulcans auf Sumbawa." But, writes Behringer, like others among his contemporaries, he did not draw a connection between the cold temperatures, the constant rain, and the bad harvests of 1816.

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