A Revolutionary volcano? How did the eruption of Mount Tambora create the conditions for the Cato street conspirac to take place?

The eruption of Mount Tambora in April 1815 was the deadliest Volcanic eruption that we know off. The volcano stood 14,000 feet high and its  eruption blew 4,000 feet from its original size with an estimated death toll of between 60,000 and 90,000. Tambora’s eruption created horrific weather conditions caused famine and devastation across the world for years afterwards. The eruption of Mount Tambora can be linked to the economic, social and political turbulence in Europe in the period 1815-1822 that includes the Cato Street Conspiracy.

Mount Tambora is located off the Java Sea and on the shore of the island Sumbawa, which is now known as Indonesia. When Mount Tambora erupted it left a crater 4 miles wide, and the explosion was so big it could be heard from 1,200 miles away. The eruption caused flames to shoot out of the mountain and carried up gas into the sky for miles. The eruption killed 10,000 instantly, but the death toll became much higher over the coming months. The lowlands of the island suffered the most as they received the bulk of the ash and smoke,  Those left became desperate and those who were the poorest turned to selling their children as slaves. The villagers suffered starvation and disease, which increased the death toll over the coming months. Tambora is classified as a ultraplinian, meaning the most violent category of Volcanic eruption. Government officers were sent to Sumbawa to gather a report about what had happened. When they  arrived they were met with devastation and suffering, and a widespread outbreak of disease. The devastating human impact of the eruption in Indonesia would, like the volcanic ash, spread to Europe.

Whilst those living close to Tambora  suffered these impact of the eruption began to spread further afield. Conditions were s Across the globe the effects of Tambora were starting to show. The effects of the eruption came at a moment of acute instability in for Europe. In June 1815, ,Napoleon’s French army met with Wellington’s coalition forces at in 1815  Waterloo. The torrential downpours that arrived immediately before the battle began played a key role in his eventual defeat. These unseasonal rains were a direct result of the weather conditions created by the Tambora eruption. The French artillery struggled to cope with the wintery conditions that occurred in mid summer at Waterloo and this played a part in Wellington’s victory. However, it was the widespread famine created by the eruption that would lead to social unrest and revolution.
Europe was not politically or socially able to cope with the conditions that Tambora created. The long Napoleonic war had led to widespread famine across the continent and the devastating climatic impact of the eruption only exacerbated existing problems. The weather conditions worsened in 1816. There were reports of snow that summer in July, which destroyed crops in the winter of 1816. One group to witness the strange weather conditions that summer have become immortalised in the history of English literature. This radical group of writers had self-exiled in Switzerland to escape the censure of Lord Liverpool’s government who sought to suppress dissenting voices. Lord Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley and Mary Godwin. Were confined indoors by the terrible weather of the summer of 1816, so passed the time stay writing ghost stories to entertain each other. Shelley and Godwin began documenting their experiences and the weather conditions of the trip. They wrote about the thunderstorms that, “terror the sky daily” and the none- stop rain. The weather conditions inspired Mary Godwin to create  Frankenstein’s monster as her contribution to those stormy evenings. Godwin ( who later married Shelley and took his name when publishing) . Never forgot the strange dark summer of 1816: “ the thunderstorms that visit us are grander than more terrific man I have ever seen before.” She did not realise that it was the eruption at Tambora that had forced her indoors and had induced her to create one of literature’s most famous monsters.

Shelley’s novel also reflected the political climate. It references Prometheus, a Greek God who had similar traits to Frankenstein and was also similar in outlook to the group’s own contemptuous view of authority. This group were in Switzerland because they wanted to write freely about the tyranny of Lord Liverpool’s government. Whilst still in exile, Percy Bysshe Shelley would later go on to write his famous poem: The Masque of Anarchy (1819) as a response to the Peterloo massacre. This poem contains the famous line, ‘We are many, they are few,’ reminding Lord Liverpool’s government of the threat that revolution would create to the small number of landowners who ruled Britain.

The English poor were certainly in an angry enough mood after the poor harvest the of 1816 led to and the price of bread doubling. Poor harvests in the succeeding years led to the government importing wheat to avoid starvation. In 1818  in 1818 ½ million barrels of flour were imported into Liverpool, but this was still not enough to tackle widespread hunger because of the impact of government duties on the wheat that was imported.

These conditions continued up to 1819 with a worried public in England turning to religion to find a solution to their plight. Many believed harvest failures were a punishment from God. Nobody  connected the eruption of Mount Tambora to the bad weather and crop failure. The Royal Society vainly sought a scientific explanation for the wayward weather but sadly could do no better than the average vicar!

England was not alone with its famine. The awful weather conditions spread across the world. The southwest of China especially suffered, their rice crops were wiped out for three years,  When the soil finally recovered in 1819, the Chinese found an alternative crop, turns the south west of China especially suffered, their rice crops were wiped out for three years,  When the soil finally recovered in 1819, the Chinese found an alternative crop. This quick fix would create widespread addiction and consequent deaths in succeeding years.

With the ability to import wheat severely constricted the British Government made a decision that would only exacerbate the problems facing its starving people. It imposed the Corn Laws, which imposed tariffs on imported food and grain, (“corn”), which artificially raised the price of wheat (and hence bread) from 1815 until 1846. The impact these laws had in the years immediately before and after the Cato Street Conspiracy cannot be underestimated. They helped to create a strong “them and us” feeling between the governing class and those who were governed. This was because of the naked self-interest behind their implementation. The land-owning class were the only segment of the population able to vote and hence dominated parliament. Land owning MPs were able to effectively vote to award themselves an increase in profits through the Corn Laws. The landless and consequently vote less majority could do nothing about it. The frustration this caused played its part in recruiting the men who would be involved in the Cato Street Conspiracy. The Corn Laws would also play a role in the Irish Famine of the 1840s that would blacken the name of the British government in Ireland for generations.

This frustration was evident. In 1817, when around 600 workers set off from Manchester to march to from London, to petition the government about their low wages and the high price of bread. This group became known as the “Blanketeers” because of the blankets they carried with them to sleep on during their journey. Sadly, the Blanketeers made little impression on Lord Liverpool’s Tory government. Only one of the Blanketeers reached London and the rest of the leaders were imprisoned. However, the frustration that motivated them did not dissipate. The demand for greater democracy, universal suffrage, only increased as the impact of the corn laws and Tambora induced famine bit.

People saw gaining the vote as the surest way to abolish the selfish form of government exemplified by the Corn Laws. This is what drew the crowds to St Peter’s Fields, Manchester on the 16th August 1819. Manchester was one of the largest cities in England, but was not represented in the House of Commons. Its people had no say in how their country was run.  They gathered to listen to the great advocate of universal suffrage, Henry “Orator” Hunt. Unfortunately, the Manchester magistrates got wind of the demonstration and ordered the arrest of its leaders. 11  killed and four hundred injured in what became known as the “Peterloo Massacre” as the mounted troops brutally broke up the peaceful meeting. Peterloo panicked the government into passing the Six Acts in 1819, which sought to prevent dissent by banning large meetings and imposing restriction on free speech. This stoked the fires of frustration that led directly to the Cato Street conspiracy.

The Cato Street conspiracy signified that many people had run out of patience by 1820 that radical change would ever arrive in England. Whereas, Henry Hunt and others such as Francis Place and William Cobbett campaigned for reform of the existing system, the conspirators were followers of proto-Communist Thomas Spence. They plotted the total overthrow of English society in a revolution. Their aim to kill Prime Minister Lord Liverpool and his cabinet would signify a complete rejection of the land owning classes. Anger at continued hardship and frequent famines pushed the group to contemplate seizing control of private land and sharing it amongst the people. This marked the end of a phase in English radicalism that looked merely at reform of the current system, although revolution had been in the air for some time. The French revolution in 1789 had pointed out an alternative.

The eruption of Mount Tambora caused devastating crop failures that combined with the Corn Laws induced widespread suffering and hunger across England. The eruption coincided with the conclusion of the Napoleonic wars, which had led to mass unemployment as thousands of servicemen returned home to look for work. This was a double whammy of catastrophe, magnified further by Lord Liverpool’s reactionary Tory government who protected landowners over starving workers and brutally cracked down on dissent. People felt frustrated by their inability to tackle these problems as only landowners had the vote and this frustration is clearly visible with both Peterloo. Events in Manchester combined with the Tambora induced famine to create the perfect cocktail of frustration. This almost led to an English revolution sparking off at Cato Street in 1820. This the eruption at Tambora in 1815 could be said to have created a further volcano in the streets of Marylebone, a ‘revolutionary volcano’ we call the Cato Street Conspiracy.

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