How a lunar eclipse saved Columbus

On the night of Feb. 20, the full moon will pass into Earth's shadow in an event that will be visible across all of the United States and Canada.

The total lunar eclipse will be made even more striking by the presence of the nearby planet Saturn and the bright bluish star, Regulus.

Eclipses in the distant past often terrified viewers who took them as evil omens. Certain lunar eclipses had an overwhelming effect on historic events. One of the most famous examples is the trick pulled by Christopher Columbus.

Shipwrecked

On Oct. 12, 1492, as every schoolchild has been taught, Columbus came ashore on an island northeast of Cuba. He later named it San Salvador (Holy Savior). Over the next ten years Columbus would make three more voyages to the "New World," which only bolstered his belief that he reached the Far East by sailing West.

It was on his fourth and final voyage, while exploring the coast of Central America that Columbus found himself in dire straits. He left Cádiz, Spain, on May 11, 1502, with the ships Capitana, Gallega, Vizcaína and Santiago de Palos. Unfortunately, thanks to an epidemic of shipworms eating holes in the planking of his fleet, Columbus' was forced to abandon two of his ships and finally had to beach his last two caravels on the north coast of Jamaica on June 25, 1503.

Initially, the Jamaican natives welcomed the castaways, providing them with food and shelter, but as the days dragged into weeks, tensions mounted. Finally, after being stranded for more than six months, half of Columbus' crew mutinied, robbing and murdering some of the natives, who, themselves grew weary of supplying cassava, corn and fish in exchange for little tin whistles, trinkets, hawk's bells and other rubbishy goods.

With famine now threatening, Columbus formulated a desperate, albeit ingenious plan.

Almanac to the rescue

Coming to the Admiral's rescue was Johannes Müller von Königsberg (1436-1476), known by his Latin pseudonym Regiomontanus. He was an important German mathematician, astronomer and astrologer.

Before his death, Regiomontanus published an almanac containing astronomical tables covering the years 1475-1506. Regiomontanus' almanac turned out to be of great value, for his astronomical tables provided detailed information about the sun, moon and planets, as well as the more important stars and constellations by which to navigate. After it was published, no sailor dared set out without a copy. With its help, explorers were able to leave their customary routes and venture out into the unknown seas in search of new frontiers.

Columbus, of course, had a copy of the Almanac with him when he was stranded on Jamaica. And he soon discovered from studying its tables that on the evening of Thursday, Feb. 29, 1504, a total eclipse of the moon would take place soon after the time of moonrise.

Armed with this knowledge, three days before the eclipse, Columbus asked for a meeting with the natives Cacique ("chief") and announced to him that his Christian god was angry with his people for no longer supplying Columbus and his men with food. Therefore, he was about to provide a clear sign of his displeasure: Three nights hence, he would all but obliterate the rising full moon, making it appear "inflamed with wrath," which would signify the evils that would soon be inflicted upon all of them.

Bad moon rising

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