When the Covid-19 Pandemic hit the US in March of 2020, I was surprised. Pandemics were the stuff of science fiction—wild imaginings to strike fear in the hearts of movie-goers. Unfortunately, half of the citizens of my country held the same belief, and never let go of it, leading to widespread infection and death in our major cities.
It didn’t take long for me to find out about the 1918 Spanish Flu, which became a pandemic thanks largely to the close of the first World War, with the virus hitching rides home with returning soldiers from all over the globe. Interestingly enough, the same devil-may-care attitudes plagued enough people during that pandemic as to cause the same rampant spread and the same inexcusably high death toll as now.
It didn’t escape me that these two pandemics were roughly 100 years apart, so, out of curiosity, I searched in the Regency era to see if there was another such disaster—and there was. It was not labelled as a pandemic per se, so some might argue that it doesn’t count, but it checked all the pandemic-worthy boxes (such as causing world-wide suffering and death), so I’m counting it.
In April of 1815, the volcano Tambora in Indonesia erupted, spewing 12 cubic miles of ash, rock, and sulfuric gas into the atmosphere. The resulting lava flow, falling debris, and suffocating ash killed 10,000 people on the surrounding islands instantly, and an estimated 60–90,000 died in the following months from starvation due to smothered crops.
But that was not all. Remember those 12 cubic miles of ash and noxious gas? They floated in the atmosphere for approximately three years, migrating across the globe and causing all kinds of disruptions in weather patterns, which in turn caused even more devastation.
Across the Northern Hemisphere, the main effect was unseasonable cold and rain. Sounds tame, doesn’t it? Well, it wasn’t. We’re talking a winter that never ended, freezing crops before they had even begun to mature. Floods of rain washed out fields, carrying seeds and topsoil away and ruining farms. Constant smudgy cloud cover blocked sunlight and starved plants. Hailstorms in August destroyed anything that had managed to survive, and damaged the property of already desperate farmers. Fierce storms wrecked ships, and seamen and cargo disappeared into the bottomless ocean.
Widespread crop failure and disrupted shipping led to famine, and all that malnourishment led to disease. In Europe, typhus broke out in Ireland, and in 1816 spread all through the British Isles, leaving thousands dead in its wake. Similar plagues were recorded in other areas of the world.
We still can see the effects, both emotional and physical, of this 19th century pandemic as recorded in such literary works as Lord Byron’s poem “Darkness,” John Polidori’s story “The Vampyre,” and Mary Wollstonecraft (Shelly)’s “Frankenstein,” as well as in the high sulfuric content of core samples taken recently in Greenland and Antarctica.
This plague was not transmitted through human contact, but it certainly took its toll of human life, taking responsibility for the loss of tens of thousands over three years. It also took its toll on the human spirit, just as the 1918 Spanish Flu and the 2020 Covid-19 pandemics have.
Something amazing about the human spirit, though, is its ability to rebound from devastation. Time and again, humanity has been beaten down by war, pestilence, disease, or disaster. We’re still here, and we’re still fighting. The key, I think, is to learn from history, and remember.