It was also by far the deadliest eruption in recorded history. As soon as the volcano quieted, Raffles ordered the British residents to make a survey of their districts to ascertain the extent of the damage. The reports that reached him detailed a horrific picture.
Before the eruption, more than twelve thousand natives lived in the immediate vicinity of Tambora. They never had a chance to escape. Nearly all of them died within the first twenty-four hours, mostly from ash falls and pyroclastic flows—rapidly moving streams of partially liquefied rock and superheated gas at temperatures up to 1,000 degrees, hot enough to melt glass. Carbonized remains of villagers caught unaware were buried beneath the lava; fewer than one hundred people survived. “The trees and herbage of every description, along the whole of the north and west sides of the peninsula,” reported one British official, “have been completely destroyed.” Another found that in the area surrounding Mount Tambora, “the cattle and inhabitants were nearly all of them destroyed … and those who survived were in such a state of deplorable starvation, that they would unavoidably share the same fate.” One village had sunk entirely, its former site now covered by more than three fathoms (eighteen feet) of water. And the Raja of Sanggar confirmed that “the whole of his country was entirely desolate, and the crops destroyed.” The survivors of his village were living on coconuts, but even the supply of that food was nearly exhausted.
On April 19, the Benares reached Bima. The coastline was barely recognizable; what had been one of the most beautiful and regular harbors in Asia now was an obstacle course, littered with masses of black pumice stone, tree trunks burnt and splintered as if by lightning, and the prows of previously sunken ships which the ocean had thrown onto land. The village had only a small supply of rice to stave off starvation. When the Benares departed several days later, it sailed past Mount Tambora, which had been one of the highest peaks in the archipelago, often used by sailors as a landmark. Clouds of smoke and ash still obscured the volcano’s peak. Even at a distance of six miles, sailors could see patches of lava steaming along the mountainside.
A heavy rainstorm on April 17 had left the air cleaner and cooler, and probably saved a substantial number of lives on the more distant islands as the rain washed the ash off crops and provided fresh drinking water to help stem an incipient epidemic of fever. But nothing could save those closer to Tambora. Over the following month, thousands more perished—some from severe respiratory infections from the ash that remained in the atmosphere in the aftermath of the eruption, others from violent diarrhoeal disease, the result of drinking water contaminated with acidic ash. The same deadly ash poisoned crops, especially the vital rice fields, raising the death toll higher. Horses and cattle perished by the hundreds, mainly from a lack of forage. Lieutenant Owen Phillips, dispatched by Raffles to investigate conditions and provide an emergency supply of rice to the inhabitants, arrived in Bima several weeks after the eruption and reported that “the extreme misery to which the inhabitants have been reduced is shocking to behold. There were still on the road side the remains of several corpses, and the marks of where many others had been interred: the villages almost entirely deserted and the houses fallen down, the surviving inhabitants having dispersed in search of food.” In the nearby village of Dompo, residents were reduced to eating stalks of papaya and plantain, and the heads of palm. Even the Raja of Sanggar lost a daughter to hunger.
In the end, perhaps another seventy to eighty thousand people died from starvation or disease caused by the eruption, bringing the death toll to nearly ninety thousand in Indonesia alone. No other volcanic explosion in history has come close to wreaking disaster of that magnitude.