Columbus & the Eclipse

We all know the name of Christopher Columbus, one of the most famous explorers in history who mistook America for India in 1492. Some people know that some earlier Viking settlements may have preceded the discovery as early as at the turn of the 10th century; an Irish priest, Brendan of Clonfert, is even said to have set foot on the American soil a few centuries before, between 530 and 550.

But do you know that Columbus proved ingenious enough to save himself and his crew from the hands of a Caribbean tribe, using nothing more than astronomy books?

(And no, he did not hit anybody with a particularly heavy one.)

Let’s travel centuries back. More than a decade had passed since Columbus has made the “discovery” of the American continent; but the explorer did not mean to stop there. Instead of getting some well-earned rest after his third voyage – he was already about 52 years old and had been recently released from jail – Columbus notably visited Central America, Cuba and Hispaniola.

Then, suffering a severe storm near the Jamaican coasts, his boats anchored on the shores of St. James’ Bay, in 1504, to avoid further damage and likely sinking.

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John Vanderlyn, Landing of Columbus, 1847 (Source: www.aoc.gov)

The explorers first received a warm welcome from the locals, and Columbus was able to trade with them so as to provide his crew with supplies for the time the fleet leaks were being patched. However, the natives’ hospitality did not last forever – regular abuses from Columbus men were also pointed out, which did not help…

In the privacy of his cabin, Columbus thought hard. How to sort that out? He was expected to sail away anytime soon, or else the locals could undermine the last tiny bit of fame he had firmly clung to. His eyes fell on one of his heavy astronomy books, which he often opened at sea to determine the precise location of the ship – and with great surprise, the Italian adventurer suddenly realized that a lunar eclipse was planned for the month of February 1504.

That was his chance. He waited carefully, and before the eclipse was said to occur, Columbus met with the chief of the natives. Then, he adopted much more of a confident, even threatening tone: he warned him that if he was not supplied with what he asked for and had been deprived of, he would make the Moon disappear on the next day. As planned, no one took him seriously.

But when, on the evening of the 29th of February, the Moon darkened and faded from the sky – for Earth actually cast its shadow upon its satellite – the locals soon begged Columbus for having it back among the stars, promising to provide his crew with the amount of food it desired.

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The Indians astonished at the Eclipse of the Moon foretold by Columbus. (c) National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London

It took a few much more – reasonably peaceful – months for the explorer to eventually be rescued by a Spanish ship, which closed the final act of his adventures across the New World. His repeated demands for a share of the benefits made on the territories he had discovered were ignored by the Spanish Crown; Christopher Columbus died less than two years later, barking at the Moon.


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