Eclipse mania swept the United States this week when a total solar eclipse caused the sun to almost disappear behind the moon for a few minutes. Interest in this fascinating phenomenon is not new, though. These astronomical spectacles have been wowing people at least as long as written history has been in existence. One eclipse even saved Christopher Columbus and his crew from starvation.
In 1503, Columbus was making his fourth trip to the New World, traveling from Cadiz, in Spain, to the island of San Salvador. Unfortunately for him, his ships became infested with shipworms at some point, which then proceeded to eat holes in them. To save themselves, Columbus ordered his crew to land on the north coast of what is now Jamaica on June 25th.
At first, the native Arawak Indians were friendly towards the Europeans. They provided food and shelter for many weeks, but after about six months they began to tire of receiving nothing but cheap trinkets in exchange for their valuable food. Making matters worse, some of Columbus’ men mutinied and murdered some Arawak for no reason. The supply of food abruptly halted. Now Columbus and his men faced certain death if he did not come up with a solution fast.
Salvation came in the form of an almanac the explorer kept on board. Navigators had been using astronomical charts to navigate by for some time, but now the book would provide assistance of a different kind. In it, Columbus discovered that a total lunar eclipse would occur on February 29, 1504. This gave him an idea.
He requested and was granted an audience with the Arawak leaders and informed them that his god was angry with them for not giving them food. In three nights, he said, if the Arawak did not help them, god would show his displeasure by making the moon disappear from the sky. This would only be the start of god’s wrath.
The Arawak leaders laughed at Columbus and left the meeting. Now, he had to wait to make sure eclipse prediction was correct. Fortunately, the almanac was correct, and the moon appeared to disappear from the sky on the appointed night.
Naturally, this terrified the Arawak, who begged Columbus to intercede with his god to return the moon to its proper place. Columbus pretended to consult god and informed the Arawak that the moon would indeed return in answer to his prayers.
The next day, the Arawak once again began providing food and supplies to Columbus and his crew. They were so awestruck that they bent over backwards trying to keep the European men happy for the next few months, at which time a Spanish ship came to the rescue of the stranded men roughly a year after they landed. Columbus returned to Spain at this point, never to return again to the New World. He would never have returned to his native soil were it not for the fortunate occurrence of that total lunar eclipse.