The Lunar Trick Christopher Columbus Used To Save His Crew And His Life

Christopher Columbus, once hailed as a hero, the discoverer of America, now holds a rather dubious spot in history. But regardless of whether one views Columbus as a famed explorer or sees him as a complete farce, he did have moments of ingenuity during his travels — including one trick that literally saved his life and the lives of his crew, although it probably won’t do much to increase his popularity.

Columbus made four voyages to the “New World” during his time as an explorer. And it was on his fourth and final voyage that Columbus found himself in great danger.

He had left Spain in 1502 with four ships, but two of them had to be abandoned due to shipworms eating holes in the ships’ planking. He was forced to land his two remaining ships on the north coast of what is now known as Jamaica on June 25, 1503.

Jamaica was populated by the Arawak peoples who initially welcomed Christopher Columbus and his crew. The natives gladly provided their guests with food and shelter. But as their unintended stay stretched into months, half of Columbus’s crew mutinied. And during the revolt, some of the Arawaks were robbed and murdered.

The Arawaks themselves had already grown tired of supplying the strangers on their island with food in exchange for little more than useless items such as tin whistles and, after the mutiny, their sustaining support was withdrawn. Starvation now threatened Christopher Columbus and his crew, and in a moment of desperation, Columbus came up with a plan that seems like something straight out of a movie.

Like most explorers, Columbus had a copy of Johannes Müller von Königsberg’s (known mainly by his Latin pseudonym Regiomontanus) almanac, which contained astronomical tables that spanned from 1475 to 1506. The tables were full of detailed information about the sun, the moon and the planets, stars and constellations, all of which were invaluable to sailors trying to navigate their ships.

And because Columbus had a copy of this, he knew that a total lunar eclipse would occur on the evening of February 29, 1504, just a few days away.

And so Columbus met with the Arawak chief and bluntly told him that the Arawaks had angered the Christian god by refusing to feed and shelter Columbus and his crew and that Columbus could prove it. He told the chief that his god would give a sign of his anger in three nights, by covering the full moon and making it appear “inflamed with wrath,” which would be a warning, Columbus said, of the punishment the Christian god would inflict upon the Arawak.

And, of course, three nights later the lunar eclipse occurred, and instead of a bright, full moon the Arawaks saw a dim, red ball in the sky which must have looked very much like a moon “inflamed with wrath.”

According to Christopher Columbus’s son Ferdinand, the sight terrified the Arawak people, and “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.” The Arawak people promised Columbus that they would gladly provide him and his people with food and shelter if Columbus would intercede with his god on their behalf and return the moon to normalcy.

Again, using his atlas, Columbus made himself appear mighty and all-knowing. He agreed to intercede, but said he would need to do so privately, and then, using the tables provided, calculated when the eclipse would end, returning the moon to normal. And just minutes before that would happen, Columbus came forth and grandly announced that his god had forgiven the Arawaks and the moon began to reappear.

True to their word, the Arawak people kept Columbus and his men well-fed and well-sheltered until June 29, 1504, when a relief ship from Hispaniola finally arrived. Columbus and his crew had been on the island for a year and 4 days.

To say that Columbus and his men abused the hospitality of the Arawak is putting it mildly — they traded poor, useless goods for food and shelter, murdered and robbed their hosts, and then tricked the Arawak into providing for them for an additional six months more. It’s little surprise that Columbus is no longer seen as the adventuring hero-explorer he once was perceived to be but, to give credit where credit is due, armed only with an atlas he was able to get his crew safely home with food in their bellies.

What do you think about Columbus? Heroic or horrific?

[Image via National Geographic]