Christopher Columbus and the 1504 Lunar Eclipse
In June 1503, Christopher Columbus was forced to beach a damaged fleet in Jamaica. The native Arawaks were friendly at first, and furnished the castaways with food and shelter. However, as the days turned to months, the new arrivals began to wear out their welcome and the natives grew less friendly. Finally, after six months of rising tensions, Columbus’ crews mutinied and attacked their hosts, robbing and murdering some, at which point the Arawak stopped bringing them food.
Faced with starvation and the possibility that the enraged Arawak might fall upon the marooned men to massacre them, a desperate Columbus hit upon an ingenious plan. While perusing an almanac which contained astronomical charts covering solar and lunar eclipses from 1475 to 1506, he noticed that a total lunar eclipse was due shortly, on the night of February 29, 1504. So Columbus arranged a meeting with the Arawaks’ chieftain and told him that the Christian God was angry with the natives for not feeding Columbus and his men.
He informed the natives that his God would demonstrate His wrath three nights hence by turning the moon blood red, then blotting it out as a harbinger of calamities to come. The Arawaks scoffed, until the appointed night when Columbus’ prediction came true and the moon turned red, then started disappearing. According to Columbus’ son, the terrified Arawak “with great howling and lamentation came running from every direction to the ships laden with provisions and beseeching the admiral to intercede with his god on their behalf“, and promised to cooperate if Columbus would only restore the moon back the way it was.
Yes, that old Hollywood and pulp fiction cliche actually did happen in real life. Columbus played it up for all he was worth and told the locals that he would have to check with his God and see if He was in a forgiving mood. Retiring to his cabin, he used his hourglass to time the eclipse, and at its peak, he emerged to announce that he had interceded for the Arawaks with God, who had agreed – just this once – to forgive them and allow the moon to gradually return. The moon gradually reappeared just as Columbus finished talking, and from then on, the Arawak leaned over backward to be helpful and kept Columbus and his crew supplied and well-fed. The castaways spent a leisurely time for the remainder of their stay in Jamaica until rescue ships arrived to take them off the island months later.