Christopher Columbus And The Lunar Eclipse Of 1504

Columbus struck trouble in the Caribbean in 1503 when, having already needed to abandon two ships, his last pair of caravels also became riddled with marine worms. He was forced to lie up on the northern shore ofJamaica, at a small cove named Santa Gloria (now Saint Ann's Bay).

The Jamaican indigenes were friendly when Columbus arrived, but their hospitality had begun to wane after six months of the prolonged Spanish stay, the stranded party repeatedly needing to request food and water in return for such trinkets as they could offer, things like beads, nails, and mirrors. Both the novelty and the supply had run out by the end of the year.

The admiral had sent a party of men east in small boats to the Spanish-occupied island of Hispaniola (now Haiti and the Dominican Republic) to seek help, but did not hear back. In January 1504 half of the remaining crew mutinied and departed for Hispaniola, attempting to make the hundred-mile passage in canoes hewn from local timber.

This left Columbus with 50-odd men on board two worm-

permeated vessels. He could not abandon the ships because of the many valuable items on board, not the least being the survey maps he had drawn up in exploring the coasts of Honduras, Costa Rica, Panama and Nicaragua as he searched unsuccessfully for a passage west to the Pacific and Asia. By February the Indian caciques (leaders or chieftains) saw the Spaniards were at their mercy and refused to provide any more provisions.

Columbus was desperate. Referring to his Calendarium he found that a total lunar eclipse was due on the evening of February 29 (soon after midnight on March 1 as seen from Europe). He invited the caciques on board his flagship, the Capitana, providing them with some entertainment but with serious undertones. Columbus explained that he and his men were Christians who worshipped a powerful god, superior to the deities of the Jamaicans, and that He had been angered by their refusal to succor the Spaniards in their time of need. As a result it was the intention of God to punish them with famine and disease, but He would give the caciques one last chance, by providing a sign from Heaven of His displeasure, darkening the full moon soon after it rose in the east. As an additional clear indication of divine wrath, the Moon would be reddened. If they paid heed and changed their ways they might be saved from pestilence and starvation. With this Columbus sent them on their way.

Many of the chiefs mocked Columbus for his suggestion, but others were less confident. As the Moon climbed above the horizon it was seen to be somewhat dimmed, the partial eclipse having already begun. All were convinced as the shadow of the Earth enveloped the orb rising in the east, reaching totality an hour after moonrise. Pandemonium ruled, and the caciques dropped to their knees, begging Columbus to intercede on their behalf and save them, as depicted (rather imaginatively) in Figure 3-5.

Columbus was too smart to agree immediately. For added effect he retired to his cabin, knowing that the total phase would last for about one and three-quarter hours. Having timed his withdrawal with a sandglass, Columbus reemerged at the appropriate time. He told the Jamaicans that he had consulted God and persuaded Him to cease the shielding of the Moon, so long as they promised to behave themselves and supply the Spanish for so long as they needed to stay. The caciques hastily agreed, and with a wave of his arm Columbus gave the sign that the Moon should be unveiled, which of course was promptly enacted in the sky as the shadow slowly receded.

The Spaniards still needed to wait until June before a rescue ship appeared, but they did not lack food or water during the interim. For Columbus the eclipse had another implication, because it made it possible to calculate his longitude.

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