How a lunar eclipse saved Columbus

On the appointed evening, as the sun set in the West and the moon started emerging from beyond the eastern horizon, it was plainly obvious to all that something was terribly wrong. By the time the moon appeared in full view, its lower edge was missing!

And, just over an hour later, as full darkness descended, the moon indeed exhibited an eerily inflamed and "bloody" appearance: In place of the normally brilliant late winter full moon there now hung a dim red ball in the eastern sky.

According to Columbus' son, Ferdinand, the natives were terrified at this sight and ".. . with great howling and lamentation came running from every direction to the ships laden with provisions, praying to the Admiral to intercede with his god on their behalf." They promised that they would gladly cooperate with Columbus and his men if only he would restore the moon back to its normal self. The great explorer told the natives that he would have to retire to confer privately with his god. He then shut himself in his cabin for about fifty minutes.

"His god" was a sandglass that Columbus turned every half hour to time the various stages of the eclipse, based on the calculations provided by Regiomontanus' almanac.

Just moments before the end of the total phase Columbus reappeared, announcing to the natives that his god had pardoned them and would now allow the moon to gradually return. And at that moment, true to Columbus' word, the moon slowly began to reappear and as it emerged from the Earth's shadow, the grateful natives hurried away. They then kept Columbus and his men well supplied and well fed until a relief caravel from Hispaniola finally arrived on June 29, 1504. Columbus and his men returned to Spain on Nov. 7.

Another side to the story

In an interesting postscript to this story, in 1889, Mark Twain, likely influenced by the eclipse trick, wrote the novel, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court. In it, his main character, Hank Morgan, used a gambit similar to Columbus'.

Morgan is about to be burned at the stake, so he "predicts" a solar eclipse he knows will occur, and in the process, claimed power over the sun. He gladly offers to return the sun to the sky in return for his freedom and a position as "perpetual minister and executive" to the king.

The only problem with this story is that on the date that Mark Twain quoted — June 21, 528 A.D. — no such eclipse took place. In fact, the moon was three days past full, a setup that can't generate an eclipse.

Perhaps he should have consulted an almanac!

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