On the island of Sumbawa, in what is now Indonesia but was previously called the East Indies, there is a collapsed, sunken shell of a volcano that was once a mighty peak taller than Mt. Fuji in Japan. On a warm spring night in 1815 this mountain, Tambora, exploded with a force so powerful that it can scarcely be measured in terms intelligible to humans. In addition to being an environmental disaster of staggering proportions that killed over 100,000 people and changed the world’s climate, the eruption of Mt. Tambora occurred at an unusual moment of transition for the people of the East Indies. The British, having brieftly wrested the spice-rich Indies from the control of French-allied Holland during the Napoleonic Wars, were struggling to leave a permanent political and strategic mark on the islands before returning them to Dutch rule. Lost in the geopolitical shuffle for colonial possessions were the people of the islands themselves, at once opaque to history but who also left behind haunting clues of their lives that were cut short by this incredible disaster.
Armed with numerous eyewitness accounts of the Tambora disaster and its aftermath, Sean Munger tries to put you on the ground at the epicenter of one of the most dramatic and powerful events in environmental history. Additionally, you’ll get a taste of old-school European colonialism in Southeast Asia, a profile of British Java’s quirky governor Thomas Stamford Raffles, and a look at the hidden history that was buried ten feet under volcanic rock and only rediscovered in the 21st century.
Subscribers to Sean’s Patreon campaign will get access to a members-only video, a companion piece to this episode, that explains why Tambora is much less well-known than the similar 1883 eruption of Krakatoa, and how the two disasters are linked.
(Background music for this episode licensed CC3.0 by Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston).