Fooling The Natives

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This tale of Columbus's deceptive use of an eclipse to fool a less scientific people has been echoed in various works of fiction. Quite likely the episode provided a direct inspiration for such writers; for example, Washington Irving recounted Columbus's subterfuge in a best-selling book, making the story well-known.

In 1889 Mark Twain published A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, a novel that envisions life in sixth-century England. The author has Hank Morgan, the Yankee in the title (and Bing Crosby in one movie version), hoodwinking the ignorant folk of that era by invoking prior knowledge of a solar eclipse due on

King Solomon Mines Eclipse
FIGURE 3-5. Christopher Columbus is begged for forgiveness as he invokes the power of the Christian God to eclipse the Moon, persuading the Jamaican natives that it would be wise to supply his party with food and other necessities.

June 21, 528, even stating the precise time of totality (three minutes past noon). Twain has Morgan, who is jailed awaiting execution, threaten King Arthur with a blanking out of the Sun:

Go back and tell the king that at that hour I will smother the whole world in the dead blackness of midnight; I will blot out the Sun, and he shall never shine again; the fruits of the Earth shall rot for lack of light and warmth, and the peoples of the Earth shall famish and die, to the last man!

Morgan, though, is not believed, and he is tied to a stake to be burnt, Merlin wanting to light the flames himself. As in any thriller, rescue comes in the nick of time:

I said to myself that my eclipse would be sure to save me, and make me the greatest man in the kingdom besides . . .

I waited two or three moments: then looked up; he was standing there petrified. With a common impulse the multitude rose slowly up and stared into the sky. I followed their eyes; as sure as guns, there was my eclipse beginning! The life went boiling through my veins; I was a new man! The rim of black spread slowly into the Sun's disk, my heart beat higher and higher, and still the assemblage and the priest stared into the sky, motionless. I knew that this gaze would be turned upon me, next. When it was, I was ready. I was in one of the most grand attitudes I ever struck, with my arm stretched up pointing to the Sun. It was a noble effect . . .

"Name any terms, reverend sir, even to the halving of my kingdom; but banish this calamity, spare the Sun!" My fortune was made. I would have taken him up in a minute, but I couldn't stop an eclipse; the thing was out of the question. So I asked time to consider. The king said:

"How long—ah, how long, good sir? Be merciful; look, it groweth darker, moment by moment. Prithee how long?"

"Not long. Half an hour—maybe an hour."

There were a thousand pathetic protests, but I couldn't shorten up any, for I couldn't remember how long a total eclipse lasts.

It grew darker and darker and blacker and blacker. . . . It got to be pitch dark, at last, and the multitude groaned with horror to feel the cold uncanny night breezes fan through the place and see the stars come out and twinkle in the sky. At last the eclipse was total, and I was very glad of it, but everybody else was in misery; which was quite natural. . . . Then I lifted up my hands—stood just so a moment—then I said, with the most awful solemnity:

"Let the enchantment dissolve and pass harmless away!" There was no response, for a moment, in that deep darkness and that graveyard hush. But when the silver rim of the sun pushed itself out a moment or two later, the assemblage broke loose with a vast shout and came pouring down like a deluge to smother me with blessings and gratitude.

Twain's description of the eclipse seems accurate in every way, except one. There was no solar eclipse visible in England in A.D. 528. That was an invention.

One must never let the facts get in the way of a good story. In his first novel, King Solomon's Mines (1886), H. Rider Haggard has his heroes escape the clutches of a despotic African king by using a predicted eclipse in a similar way. Mind you, Haggard could not make up his mind whether it was a solar or a lunar eclipse, changing from one to another between editions: "Yet I tell you that tomorrow night, about two hours before midnight, we will cause the Moon to be eaten up for a space of an hour and half an hour. Yes, deep darkness shall cover the Earth, and it shall be for a sign." The lunar eclipse duly occurred, and while the natives are in terror of their lives (Figure 3-6) Allan Quatermain and his colleagues make a getaway. In the previous edition it was a solar eclipse just after midday. Perhaps someone had told Haggard that his science was wrong; he has Quatermain describing their flight in this way:

King Solomon Mines Eclipse

For an hour or more we journeyed on, till at length the eclipse began to pass, and that edge of the Sun which had disappeared the first became again visible. In another five minutes there was sufficient light to see our whereabouts . . .

Many eclipse enthusiasts would love to suffer the slings and arrows of hour-long totality, but the laws of physics forbid it. A handful of minutes is all you can get.

This basic idea of using an eclipse to escape hostile but ignorant natives was copied by the Belgian writer Hergé (Georges Rémi) in his Adventures of Tintin. In one episode Tintin and his eccentric colleagues are to be burnt at the stake by the Emperor of the Incas, having tried to make off with their pockets full of diamonds, just as in King Solomon's Mines. Although his friends think that Tintin is babbling nonsense, in fact he is giving praise to the Sun as an eclipse approaches, bringing about their salvation.

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