On this day in history, 1504, Christopher Columbus convinced a group of Native Jamaicans that his god was angry with them for ceasing to provide his group with supplies and that god would show his anger with a sign from the heavens. The sign was a lunar eclipse that Columbus knew was imminent.
This event occurred on Columbus’ fourth and final voyage to the Americas, which began in Cadiz in 1502. Columbus landed near the north coast of Jamaica on June 20, 1503 with only two of his original four caravel ships still afloat, but barely sea worthy due to a shipworm infestation. At first, the natives welcomed Columbus and his crew, providing them with food and other supplies in exchange for various trinkets, generally welcoming the sailors into their community with open arms.
This arrangement didn’t last very long. Over the next several months, the natives became discontented with the guests of their island. Columbus’ crew repaid the generosity of the natives by frequently stealing and cheating them, as well as raiding villages for supplies, among many other indiscretions committed by the crew (murder, rape, etc.). As a result of this, by January of 1504, the indigenous peoples decided to stop supplying the stranded Europeans, regardless of what they might offer in trade.
Without a significant source of food or means to leave, Columbus’ expedition was in serious trouble. Luckily for his crew, Columbus had certain astronomical tables with him including the ephemeris compiled by the German astronomer Johannes Müller von Königsberg, better known today by his Latin name, Regiomontanus. In this almanac, Regiomontanus predicted there would be a total lunar eclipse on the evening of February 29, 1504. He also gave an estimation of what time it would occur, though this start time was based on Nuremberg, Germany time, so Columbus had to do a bit of estimating. Regiomontanus even included fairly accurate information as to how long the eclipse would last.
Armed with this knowledge, which Columbus was choosing to gamble would be extremely accurate, he called a meeting with the chiefs of the nearby tribes shortly before the eclipse was to take place. In this meeting, he told them his god was angry with them for ceasing to give him supplies. As a result, his god would take away the moon as a sign of his anger and subsequently punish them for their actions.
Luckily for Columbus, the predicted lunar eclipse took place more or less on schedule and according to Columbus’ son, Ferdinand, who was 13 and had made the voyage with his father:
The Indians observed this [the eclipse] and were so astonished and frightened that with great howling and lamentation they came running from every direction to the ships, laden with provisions, praying the Admiral to intercede by all means with God on their behalf; that he might not visit his wrath upon them… and promising they would diligently supply all their needs in the future.
Columbus agreed to take their case before his god and went into his cabin to “pray”. What he actually did in there was watch an hour glass. Columbus knew the moon would stay completely in the Earth’s shadow for around 48 minutes, so he waited for the appropriate time for the moon to begin to emerge. Shortly before this took place, he came back out and told the natives that he had asked his god to forgive them and god had acquiesced. The moon began to reappear and Columbus no longer had trouble getting the provisions he needed. He and his crew were picked up a few months later when a ship from Hispaniola arrived in Jamaica on June 29, 1504. They arrived back in Spain on November 7, 1504.
- Mark Twain was likely inspired by this event in his 1889 work, a Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. In this story Hank Morgan is going to be burned at the stake, but pretends to use his “powers” to black out the sun, when in fact he simply knew a solar eclipse was about to take place. It should be noted that the date Mark Twain used in this book for the solar eclipse to happen, June 21, 528 A.D. in reality had no eclipse.
- A shipworm is not actually a worm; it is actually a type of saltwater clam. Shipworms bore into wooden structures, such as wooden ships, eating the wood as they go. They are able to process the wood thanks to a special type of bacteria in their gland of Deshayes, which help them process the cellulose.
- Regiomontanus’ almanac provided astronomical tables covering 1475-1506, including dates and times of eclipses, among many other things.
- Regiomontanus was not called such in his lifetime, rather going by his real name: Johannes Müller von Königsberg or, in his writings, by the toponym Joannes de Monte Regio. The Latin name Regiomontanus was given to him around fifty years after he died by the famed theologian Phillip Melanchthon.
- Contrary to popular belief, most of the educated and the vast majority of sailors knew the Earth wasn’t flat when Columbus set out for India in 1492. The major debate was not whether the ship would fall off the edge of the Earth, but rather how far to India it was from Europe, traveling west. Most thought, based on various estimations on the Earth’s circumference (some of which were amazingly accurate), that the journey would be too far to be able to do without stopping for supplies. Columbus disagreed as his estimation of the Earth’s circumference was much smaller than what it is in reality. If not for the Americas and neighboring islands, Columbus would have learned, to his doom, that he was wrong about the size of Earth. Sometimes it’s better to be bold than right.
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