Friday, 10 April 2015

How the press reported the news of the Tambora eruption

In the days before the invention and widespread use of the electric telegraph, international news travelled very slowly indeed - basically, as fast as the fastest ship.

The following are articles from various newspapers, reporting the news of the eruption at Mount Tambora over the following months:

From the Nottingham Review of Friday 24th November 1815:

Extract a Letter from an Officer of the 59th Regiment, at Weltervreden, Island of Java, 30th May, 1815.

"A few days since a dreadful volcanic eruption took place in the Island of Sambaroa, situated to the eastward, which has been attended with most destructive consequences. At Sourabaya the atmosphere was in entire darkness for two days, so as to give the appearance of midnight. At this place, which is at a considerable distance, the ashes discharged from the crater fell in heaps. The noise produced from this awful visitation is beyond description, and caused a sensation among the inhabitants peculiarly afflicting. The sea rose six feet above its ordinary level, almost instantaneously causing the destruction of many lives, and also vessels. In short, the damage sustained has been exceedingly great, and many who were in affluence before this dreadful catastrophe took place are reduced to the greatest distress."
From the Aberdeen Journal of 29th November 1815:    
Extract from a letter, dated Batavia, 28th May 1815.

"We have lately had one of the most tremendous eruptions of a Volcano in this quarter, that perhaps ever took place in any part of the Globe. It is situated in a mountain called Tomboro, on the island of Sumbawa, and is distant from Batavia not less than 650 miles. The explosions were heard here distinctly, like the discharge of heavy artillery, and Capt. ________, who was at the time nearly as far to the eastward of it, as we were west, noted in his Logbook their being heard exactly in the same way. The ashes were thrown as far as Java, and I myself saw them in Batavia: we could not keep the papers on our desks clear of them, for several hours one day. As Soorabaya, it was quite dark at 9 A.M. and at Macassar, (250 miles from Sumbawa) they lay on the ground 1 ½ inches deep. The Captains of the Benares, and Dispatch, both declare that the anchoring ground in one bay on Sumbawa, is materially altered, and the latter states that there are now three fathoms of water over a village which stood near the shore. They found the sea for many miles on the northern side of the island so covered with trunks of trees, and pumice stone, as sometimes considerably to impede the ship’s advance. Many men and other animals have perished. Numbers die daily: and as the Crops of Paddy are utterly ruined throughout the greatest part of the island, the distresses of the survivors must be great; already it is said the Cocoa nuts have been nearly exhausted."
From the Leeds Mercury of Saturday 13th January 1816:
[From the Madras Courier of August 29.]

The Nakhoda of the brig Catharina, which arrived in the course of last week from Java, brings us the first tidings of an extraordinary phenomena which occurred while he lay at Gressey, near Soorabaya, about two months ago, and which we conclude to have been caused by an eruption of one of the volcanoes, in the eastern end of that island, which we believe had been sometimes known to devastate the contiguous parts of that rich and populous region.

He states, the one morning in noise commenced to be heard, as if of a tremendous cannonade from the heaviest kind of ordnance, and very near, continuing for the space of three days; that in the the afternoon of the last of them, this stunning din abated somewhat, and the sky became completely overcast with a cloud of fine dust, or ashes, so thick, as to cause an obscurity equal to that of the darkest night, and to render respiration impracticable, without a cloth, or some sort of veil to cover the face; that this continued for that night, the whole of the succeeding day and night, and until about noon on the third day, when light began to dawn on the terrified multitude, and during the three following days, the atmosphere becoming less and less dense, they were at length entirely relieved from its unusual pressure, by a very heavy and most welcome fall of rain.

The Nakhoda's manner, looking back on this scene of tartarean obscurity, gave us a stronger impression of the horror and consternation which occupied every mind, than we can attempt to convey to our readers in words, and is indicative of a state of confusion and dismay, in some of its circumstances, not unlike our sublime Milton's description of the original chaos, from which the well ordered orb we now inhabit was formed: — "Nothing," he says, "could be seen at the distance of even an arms length, save the glimmering light of fires, or the torches with which people groped their way from house to house: nothing was heard but the roar of thunder, and the mangled shrieks of men, women, and children, who confidently concluding the end of all things to be at hand, and that the awful scene before them could portend nothing less than the final judgement, rent the air with cries for mercy to their Almighty Creator."

After remaining some days at Gressey, the Catharina sailed for Tagal, where the Nakhoda understood the same prodigies had been exhibited, and at the same time, but in a less degree. Here several sudden deaths happened during the days of terror, for which the superstitious inhabitants assigned various causes. At Gressey the visitation proved fatal only to birds, of which many were, on the return of light, seen dead in all directions—having been suffocated by the floating ashes; we are in possession of a specimen of this impalpable powder, evidently a volcanic production, several bags-full of which fell on the small space of the Catharina's deck.

Although we shall, on receipt of our Java papers, probably find the story rather exaggerated, yet we fear there is too much cause to apprehend an afflictive detail of the effects of so dreadful an eruption as this must doubtless have been, in the more immediate vicinity of the volcano from which it issued;—if, indeed, we can suppose one to have emitted that vast cloud which, if our informant does not mislead us, rolled its dusky wreaths at once to Gressey and Tagal—points, we believe, not less than 200 miles asunder.

A portion of the ashes which fell in the neighbourhood of the volcano, was forwarded to Calcutta, which has been analyzed by the Assistant Assay Master of the Presidency, and we present the following result of his experiment, (for which we are indebted to The India Gazette) for the amusement of our scientific readers:—

"Volcanic ashes from the mountains on the island of Sumbawa, collected in the district of Samarang, after the eruption of the 11th of April, 1815.

 "The substance thus described was brought in the shape of a powder of a greyish brown colour—for void of smell, but possessing a harsh taste; the specific gravity was low, as the powder floated on the surface of the water; before the blow-pipe it melted into a dark brown enamel, and with the aid of borax into a transparent light blue glass.—Nitra-muriatic acid after a long digestion took up about one-fifth of the weight: and the solution yielded a dark blue precipitate with prussiate of potash, indicating the presence of oxid of iron.

"The portion of the powder insoluble in the acid was of a blueish grey colour, infusible per se before the blow-pipe, but convertible into a yellowish glass with the addition of borax—the specific gravity was increased as it now sunk in water; part of the residuum mixed with an equal weight of carbonate of potash and digested repeatedly with sulphuric acid and evaporated, was rendered soluble in boiling water—the watery solution concentrated gave a precipitate of silex and a metallic oxid, and when treated with carbonate of potash yielded a further precipitate apparently alumine—the metallic oxid appeared to be nichel.

"From the several operations of the analysis, the composition of 100 parts of this volcanic matter appears to be silex, about 40, including, perhaps, a very small quantity of oxid of nichel; allumine, 32; oxid of iron, 17; lost 2—100.

"The quantity submitted to examination was too small to furnish any very precise conclusion; but there is every reason to suppose that this substance is analagous to the common volcanic formation or pumice; with which it agrees in its component parts, and differs chiefly, it may be presumed, in the smaller proportion which the silex has to the mass."—(Madras Courier.)
From the Leeds Mercury of Saturday 18th May 1816:
Dreadful Eruption.—A volcano broke out at the mountain of Tomboro, in the Island of Sumbawa, near Java, in April, 1815, the eruption of which was by far the most violent that ever happened in the history of the world, far exceeding in the extent of its effects, any of the eruptions of Vesuvius, Ætna, or Hecla. There is undoubted testimony of its having, been heard at Forts Marlborough and Pedang, on the Island of Sumatra, near a thousand miles from the mountain. At Turnate, 700 miles distant, the explosion resembled a firing at sea, so that a vessel was ordered to chase in the direction of the sound, to discover its cause. At Batavia 600 miles off, the sashes of the windows were so shaken, that they required to be fastened. The quantity of ashes thrown out is almost incredible. At Bannioangie, a town in Java, 180 miles off, the whole country was covered to a depth of eight inches. At Macassar, 220 miles distant, to leeward, the Company's cruizer Benares had some part of her decks covered a foot thick with them. The quantities within a hundred miles of the volcano were most tremendous; covering up forests and towns, and filling up deep vallies; even the contour of the coast being altered by them. As they were lighter than water, they swam about the sea, resembling islands, so as to stop the progress of ships. The darkness produced by the vast quantity of dust in the air was terrific. At Macassar, 220 miles off, on the 12th, and part of 13th of April, it was pitch dark, so that persons could not even see their hands in the middle of the day. The destruction to the unfortunate inhabitants in the vicinity of the mountain has been dreadful. At Sangier, a ttown about 15 miles off, men, horses, cattle, houses, extensive forests, and whatever came in the way of a whirlwind occasioned by the eruption, were carried into the air, and never more heard of. Of all the inhabitants of the towns of Tomboro and Paccate, which amounted to 12,000 persons, only 26 remain, who fortunately had gone on a journey to the eastward at the time. A dreadful famine has been the consequence; all the corn, fruits, and animals near the spot, have been destroyed; the springs covered up; and where the water could be found, it had become of so noxious a quality, as to occasion immediate sickness to those who drank it. The cattle and horses, at a considerable distance, have died for want of food, in melancholy numbers. Even the Rajah of Sangier, one of the richest and most powerful natives in the district, lost a daughter from starvation, and the mortality would have been still greater, but from the humanity of the Lieutenant-Governor of Java, T.S. Raffles. Esq. who, on hearing the situation of the explosion, anticipated its dreadful consequences, and sent some vessels laden with rice to the wretched sufferers.

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