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James Little: a rector writes on volcanoes, 1820 5 December 2007

Posted by admin in history of volcanology, Tambora, volcanological works, volcanology.

In 1820 the Rev James Little, rector of the Irish parish of Lackan, published Conjectures on the Physical Causes of Earthquakes and Volcanoes, in which it is proposed to explain these Phœnomena on a New Hypothesis, of the Structure of the Earth, and of the Existence of an Internal Atmosphere communicating with ours (references to the pages of this work are given in brackets below). As is so often the case with works of this period, the subtitle gives away the main argument: Little was an advocate of theory of the hollow Earth, and believed that fire constantly rushed through vast empty spaces beneath the Earth’s surface, undermining it (leading to earthquakes) and occasionally breaking through to the atmosphere above (producing volcanoes).

Little was convinced that his era was characterized by an ‘unusual frequency of Earthquakes and Volcanic Eruptions’ (4), an unusual perception at a time when most geologists held that these phenomena had been more marked in the past than in the present. He refers to ‘the more rainy and inclement seasons, especially of the present (1817) subsequent to them’ (4), suggesting that he may have been thinking in particular of the recent cataclysmic eruption of Tambora in 1815 and its marked effects upon global climate; and indeed he describes the eruption of ‘Tamboro’ in some detail (23-5).

Little’s theory of the interior structure of the Earth does not depend upon the entire globe being hollow, but envisages a highly complex system of interconnected cavities. He writes that ‘a considerable part, if not almost the whole of the surface of this globe, both land and water, is undermined with cavities, set on fire, scattered irregularly underneath its surface’ (53). His conception of this network of cavities is almost architectural, and echoes contemporary notions of the sublime:

… this surface resting on the solid parts variously posited; like a tract of Bridges ramified in every direction, and formed of irregular arches, varying in span, in breadth, and in order of position; resting on their abutments; and some of them of the fearful dimensions of a thousand miles square, sometimes violently shaken throughout their whole extent, and (as we might from any thing except our confidence in the Architect, justly apprehend,) in danger from this construction, of one day falling down, far beneath the ocean, into a warmer bed than appertains to it. (53)

As the mention of the beneficent ‘Architect’ above underlines, Little was a clergyman, and his discussion of volcanic activity is naturally informed by his Christian standpoint. He is concerned, as were many of his contemporaries, to find an interpretation of such destructive phenomena consistent with the idea of a loving God, arguing that the earth tremors that always accompany volcanic eruptions serve as a warning mechanism:

I recite chiefly the accounts of the eruptions of volcanoes, because these are always attended by the shocks of Earthquakes, more or less violent … both arise from the same cause, and that the former are the preservative appointed by the author of nature, against the destructive effects of the latter. (5)

His attempts to argue through this conviction lead him to a recognition that the apparently unstable structure of the Earth’s surface hardly seems to possess the harmonious and enduring character of divine creation: ‘I confess I deem more reverendly of the beauty and solidity of the architecture of the Deity, than to suppose that such a structure came from his Hands’ (53). Yet his conviction that God has built warning mechanisms into His creation, and that it is the duty of humanity to understand and heed those warnings, reconciles the apparent contradiction and enables Little to point a moral with wider application: ‘However, He may contrive to warn us mortals, that we rest only on His unknown foundations, which will fail partially or totally when He pleases, but not from their own instability’ (53).

As for the ‘fires’ of volcanism, Little rejects the theory that they are ‘produced by combustible minerals existing in veins and caverns in the bowels of the earth and spontaneously igniting and exploding’ (39), but does not really make any attempt to put forward a theory of his own, taking refuge in a theological explanation of the presence of fire beneath the earth’s surface:

… we must suppose the existence of subterraneous fire, which so often and in so many places makes its terrific appearance; and it must either be casually kindled in separate vaults … or permanently undispersed and lining the concave surface of the shell of the globe. I confess the latter to be my opinion, and that the more just and philosophical description of it is that given by the sublime prophet Isaiah; ‘that Tophet is ordained of old, yea for the King is it prepared; he hath made it deep and large; the pile thereof is fire and much wood; the breath of the Lord, like a stream of brimstone doth kindle it.’ Isaiah 33.33. (61)

Little’s work is a mixture of scientific observation and religious explanation. He had an interest in scientific matters, having published A Description of a Reflecting Level or an Artificial Horizon for taking Altitudes of the Celestial Bodies, &c. in 1800, and was well-read in accounts of earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, noting that earth tremors always precede the latter (5), and that the eruptions of volcanoes such as Vesuvius tend to follow settled sequences of events (18). He also notes ‘the elevation of the surface of that region where the shock is to be’ in the case of many earthquakes (93). In interpreting the ‘fires’ of volcanism as a form of combustion he was representative of the scientific orthodoxy of his era. When he comes to explain these phenomena, however, he writes as a Christian minister, seeking messages of divine benevolence even in the destruction of earthquakes and volcanoes, and finding hellfire rushing through the caverns of the underworld.

The Rev. James Little, Conjectures on the Physical Causes of Earthquakes and Volcanoes, in which it is proposed to explain these Phœnomena on a New Hypothesis, of the Structure of the Earth, and of the Existence of an Internal Atmosphere communicating with ours (Dublin: James Byrn, 1820).

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