Disasters of the 19th Century
'Ill Starred' Events of 19th Century
This article looks at the worst disasters of the 19th Century, both natural and man-made and their effects on the mere mortals who suffered because of them.
In the 1800s, there were a number of disasters which affected thousands and sometimes millions of lives.
The word disaster is from the Italian, 'disastro' (dis -astro) meaning ill starred - in ancient times all disasters were considered 'acts of God'; the word is a conjunction of ancient Roman and Greek.
In general terms, you can gather information about disasters of the 19th century under 3 main headings - fire, famine and flood but of course there is always more to these disasters than that.
The Irish and Indian Famines stands out as two of the worst disasters of the 1800s with loss of life in the millions and it spite of being caused by potato blight and crop failure, they could never be considered an act of God; they were very much man made disasters and ones for which the British government of the time must take full responsibility.
Disasters of the 19th Century - Fire
Possibly the worse volcanic eruption of the 19th century, perhaps even in history, happened on the Indonesian island of Sumbawa.
Mount Tambora, for many centuries a dormant volcano erupted with terrifying force in April 1815.
The eruption was so loud that it was heard 1800 miles away.
On April 10th, the worse eruptions occurred and the island was soon engulfed in fire.
Pumice 'stones' began falling from the sky, they were about 8 centimetres in diameter.
An ash cloud quickly engulfed Sumwaba and its outlying islands.
There was no help at hand for anybody living on the islands from the mainland in these days before any means of rapid disaster response.
Sir Stamford Raffles, the 'father of Singapore' sent one of his senior staff to the island once the ash had cleared to see if help could be offered but when Liuetenant Phillips returned, he revealed just how terrible the scale of the fire had been with corpses littering the small islands of Bima and Dompo and the people falling quickly with disease and starvation.
The eruption of Mount Tambora is difficult to imagine in our day and age and the lack of disaster support for neighbouring islands is unimaginable but the 19th century world was a very different one to ours.
Loss of life after the eruption was extreme - about 10,000 killed as lava flow engulfed the island.
Another 38,000 died from starvation on neighbouring islands and a further 10,000 from disease.
There remains some conjecture over actual number of deaths because there was so little eye witness evidence. Most of the evidence comes from historians who worked on the islands after the eruptions.
The eruption in Mount Tambora remains the worse volcanic disaster in the common era.
1816 was called 'the year without a summer' after the eruption and lead to darkened skies covered in ash and further starvation as crops could not be grown - sunlight was completely blocked out in the surrounding areas. This was a new phenomena in the 19th century and one which must have astonished those who suffered during it.
There were other terrible volcanic eruptions at Krakatoa, west of Java with over 36,000 deaths and the Mino Owari eruption in Japan with over 7,000 deaths and 17,000 casualties.
The 19th century was certainly an active one for volcanoes.
Another excellent article by Livingsta about the eruption can be found here.
Irish Famine - Old Film 1905
Disasters of the 19th Century - Famine
No examination of the 19th century would be complete without looking at two of the worse of its disasters, the Irish famine and the Great Indian Famine
Lasting from 1845 to 1852, the Irish famine killed just over a million people and forced another million to emigrate from Ireland. This accounted for over a quarter of the population.
But the famine could have been avoided altogether had the landlords in Ireland taken responsibility for their tenants. Help came from the English government as early as early 1846 but it was too little and was a one-off attempt at support which was not sustained.
The years leading up to the famine had seen landlords really take a firm hold over land in Ireland and tenant farmers were allowed to stay but without any rights to grow anything to make a profit. The result was that tenants could only grow vegetables and the most numerous in crop terms to feed a family were potatoes.
In 1843, the English government, tired of so much unrest in Ireland (then part of the United Kingdom) decided to hold a Royal Commission to look at ways to break the cycle of violence and unrest. The Earl of Devon, who led the Commission mentions more than once that the Irish tenants are living hand to mouth with nothing more to their names than shabby, ill constructed cottages, with their only foodstuff coming from growing potatoes.
The famine led to a rise in nationalism which remains to this day. There were other famines in the nineteenth century and can certainly be considered disasters by their nations but don't really compare with the Irish or Indian famines.
In India, the 'great' famine lasted from 1876 to 1877 and again, was overseen by its colonial power, the British colonial government. Politics was also central to the poor management of the famine with the conservative government in England insisting that authorities in India used a 'laissez faire' attitude to supporting the needy. This was to avoid excessive spending on famine relief at a time when the British were trying to cut colonial costs.
A drought had caused crop failure on a massive scale and under normal circumstances there would be enough wheat in the country in store to support hunger relief but the British colonial powers had shipped out the wheat to Britain to sell in Europe at huge profits. Consequently, there was no stocks which could be used to feed the hungry.
If you were appalled by the loss of life in the Irish famine, then you will have to take a sharp intake of breath at the mortality rates in the Indian famine - somewhere between 12 and 29 million people lost their lives over a huge geographical area. Relief, had it been possible, could still not have helped those in outlying areas but intervention by the colonial government many well have saved several million lives in the farms closer to the ports.
The worst of the other famines was the Finnish famine of 1867-68 which was caused by a nationwide crop failure. This lead to somewhere between 20,000 and 60,000 deaths and immigration by Fins to Russia, Sweden and other countries.
The causes of starvation were, like in the Irish famine, down to peasants having been stripped of their land and been rendered unable to grow their own food.
Disasters of the 19th Century - Floods and Earthquakes
The 19th century had a number of floods. Some were caused by natural disaster like rivers overflowing but some were caused by dam bursts - certainly what you would consider a man-made disaster.
Many of the worst floods though were caused by tsunamis following earthquakes.
Earthquakes with tsunamis affected Asia, South America, Sumatra and New Zealand.
One of the worst of these tsunamis occurred on the island of Haiti in 1842 after the Cap-Haitian earthquake.
The earthquake killed 5,000 and a further 300 died in floods caused by the tsunami which rose to a height of 5 metres when the ocean surged into Mole Saint Nicolas, essentially destroying the town as well.
The 1854 Ansei-Tokai earthquake the first of a series in Japan also had a following tsunami which claimed 122 lives. The following day in a second quake a further 3,000 people perished either in the earthquake or its tsunami. The casualties from the tsunami were lessened because people had moved away from the coast because of events the day before.
In 1861, the island of Sumatra suffered an earthquake and tsunami in which several thousand lost their lives. This was one of the 19th century's worse disasters in terms of damage to people and property. The tsunami surged from the ocean and travelled in a giant wave for 7 metres into the town of Nias.
In the USA, the worst flood occurred on 31st May 1889 when the South Fork Dam on the Little Conemaugh River burst flooding the town of Johnstown below it. 4.8 billion gallons of water surged at speed into Johnstown killing 2,209 people and causing millions of dollars worth of damage, effectively leading to the town being almost rebuilt.
The builders of the dam denied any liability and heavy rainfall had also played its part which gave the dam builders an excuse for the failure of the dam.
In the UK, the city of Sheffield had suffered a similar fate in 1864 with thousands rendered homeless and over a hundred people killed. However, the scale of the Sheffield flood pales in comparison to the Johnstown flood. However, both affected ordinary people; people with no means of repairing their losses. Thankfully, both Johnstown and Sheffield were supported by those unaffected and also by charitable leaders in their towns.
The 19th century from beginning to end seems to have had a disaster of some kind or another, be in landslide, earthquake, fire, flood or famine about once every two or three years and some of the worse disasters in history occurred in the 19th century. However, we only know that because more events were chronicled than in other centuries so earlier centuries may well have been just as bad but we have less evidence to prove their disasters were worse.
Disasters in any place must be horrendous experiences for those caught up in events. It is difficult to imagine in this day and age that both a Scandinavian and a European country endured terrible famines or that tsunamis seem to have been a commonplace after earthquakes, something people of our generation have only seen a few times, most recently in Japan.
Human beings are incredibly resilient. Those who survived these disasters rebuilt their lives at a time when they had to rely on one another for support without the intervention of governments or charities.
We should all be amazed at just how many disasters occurred in the 19th century but also be doubly amazed at just how well people coped with them.
Many thanks for reading.
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