Almost every grade-schooler know that Christopher Columbus and his men had landed on an island known that he called, “San Salvador,” which is where Haiti and the Dominican Republic are today. What isn’t really taught in school was that the total lunar eclipse may have saved Columbus and his crew from starvation. Thanks to huge volumes of navigational charts and books that contained astronomical tables that helped navigators and sailors travel into uncharted waters, Columbus used that knowledge in an unconventional way.
Columbus carried two books that no sailor should travel without. One was the “perpetual almanac” that was written and compiled by Abraham Zacuto, who was a Jewish astronomer and mathematician. It contained over 300 pages of astronomical tables that had helped numerous sailors to travel around the known world, such as the voyage of Vasco de Gama, who sailed from Portugal to India by going around Africa. The second book, called the Ephemerides, provided positions of the stars and other natural heavenly objects at a certain time. It also allows sailors to make rather accurate predictions on where certain events will take place, such as a lunar eclipse.
After returning to Spain from his famous voyage in 1492, Columbus made three more trips to the New World between 1493 and 1502. However, on June 25, 1503, during his fourth and final trip, an infestation of shipworms forced Columbus and his crew to abandon two of his ships and beached his last two ships on the northern coast of Jamaica. While they were stranded there, Jamaican natives welcomed the foreigners and provided them with food, water, and shelter. As the weeks dragged on to months, half of Columbus’s crew mutinied — perhaps from boredom or fear — and pillaged, murdered, and raped some of the natives, who were already tired of supplying them with valuable food in exchange of tiny trinkets and baubles that served no use for the natives. It went on for almost two years. The natives became hostile and stopped supplying food. With a high possibility of famine, Columbus looked into his books and conceived a plan.
He skimmed over the Ephemerides and noticed the mentioning of a total lunar eclipse that will happen on Feb. 29, 1504. Columbus had previously seen a lunar eclipse during one of his voyages, and he understood the problem with such predictions and observations based on the Ephemerides. The book was based on the local time of Nuremberg, Germany, and Columbus had no idea if the book or his calculations of the lunar eclipse would work and save him and his crew in the New World. Regardless, he took a chance.
Columbus requested a meeting with the native’s chief and told him that his Christian god was very angry with his people because they weren’t bringing any more food. To prove his god’s anger, Columbus predicted that in three nights, his god will obliterate the light of the rising full moon, which will be “inflamed with wrath. The natives were not impressed and some even ridiculed Columbus. As that night approached, the natives noticed something was wrong with the moon. As the full moon rose, the Earth’s shadow already obliterated part of its surface. As the moon climbed up in the night sky, the shadow grew and expanded until it completely covered the moon. What was left was a coppery, blood-red disc hanging above the island.
Hysteria spread among the natives like fire on oil. Columbus’s son, Ferdinand, recorded in his eye-witness account that there were “great howling and lamentation” careening from every direction. The natives promised to Columbus that they will cooperate if only he asked his god to restore the moon back to its natural state. They promised that they would gladly cooperate with Columbus and his men if only he would restore the moon back to its normal self. Columbus replied that he would need some privacy in his ship’s cabin to consult with his god. He spent a little less than an hour “consulting” with “his god,” which was enough time for the Earth’s shadow to recede from the moon.
Before that exact time when the total lunar eclipse was over, Columbus emerged from his cabin and announced to the natives that his god forgave them and allowed the moon to return. Obviously, the moon’s brightness increased, which jolted the natives into action of bringing more food to the Europeans. Columbus’s gamble kept him and his crew well-fed and supplied until a ship from Hispaniola picked them up on June 29, 1504. Later, they all returned to Spain on Nov. 7. Had Christopher Columbus miscalculated or misinterpreted the almanac or had he not guts to take that chance, the lunar eclipse — which would have happened anyway — would not have saved him and his men.
By Nick Ng