On board the Benares, still moored at Makassar, sailors heard the explosions—far louder than those of the previous eruption—throughout the night. “Towards morning the reports were in quick succession,” noted the ship’s commander, “and sometimes like three or four guns fired together, and so heavy, that they shook the ship, as they did the houses in the fort.” As soon as a semblance of dawn broke, the cruiser again set sail southward, to determine the cause of the blasts.
But the sky troubled the Benares’s captain. “By this time,” he noted, “which was about eight A.M., it was very apparent that some extraordinary occurrence had taken place. The face of the heavens to the southward and westward had assumed the most dismal and lowering aspect, and it was much darker than when the sun rose.” What appeared to be a heavy squall on the horizon quickly took on a dark red glow, spreading across the sky. “By ten it was so dark that I could scarcely discern the ship from the shore, though not a mile distant.” Ash began to fall on the decks of the Benares. An hour later, nearly the entire sky was blotted out.
By this time, Tambora’s umbrella ash cloud extended for more than three hundred miles at its widest point. As the cloud spread, the heavier clumps of ash within it drifted to the ground, but the rest remained aloft. “The ashes now began to fall in showers,” the ship’s captain wrote, “and the appearance altogether was truly awful and alarming.” By noon, the darkness was complete, and the rain of ash—which one sailor described as a tasteless “perfect impalpable powder or dust” that gave off a vaguely burnt odor—covered every surface on the ship. “The darkness was so profound throughout the remainder of the day,” continued the commander, “that I never saw any thing equal to it in the darkest night; it was impossible to see your hand when held up close to the eye.” Ash continued to fall throughout the evening; despite the captain’s efforts to cover the deck with awnings, the particles piled as much as a foot high on many surfaces. At six o’clock the following morning, there was still no sign of the sun, but the accumulated weight of the ash—which one officer estimated at several tons—forced the crew to begin tossing the powder overboard. Finally by noon on April 12, a faint light broke through, and the captain was struck by the thought that the Benares resembled nothing more than a giant calcified pumice stone. For the next three days, however, he noted that “the atmosphere still continued very thick and dusky from the ashes that remained suspended, the rays of the sun scarce able to penetrate through it, with little or no wind the whole time.”
A Malaysian ship from Timor sailing through the region also found itself in “utter darkness” on April 11. As it passed by Tambora, the commander saw that the lower part of the mountain was still in flames. Landing farther down the coast to search for fresh water, he found the ground “covered with ashes to the depth of three feet,” and many of the inhabitants dead. When the ship departed on a strong westward current, it had to zigzag through a mass of cinders floating on the sea, more than a foot thick and several miles across.
On the island of Sumatra, over a thousand miles west of Tambora, local chieftains heard the explosions on the morning of April 11. Fearing a conflict had broken out between rival villages, they hurried down to Fort Marlborough, the British encampment in Bengkulu. Other tribal chieftains on Sumatra and the neighboring islands also assumed the sounds presaged some sort of invasion, but once they received reassurance on that score, they ascribed the explosions to supernatural causes. “Our chiefs here,” reported an official at Fort Marlborough, “decided that it was only a contest between Jin (the very devil), with some of his awkward squad, and the manes of their departed ancestors, who had passed their period of probation in the mountains, and were in progress towards paradise.”