02/29 – Columbus’ Lucky Eclipse

An idealized view of one of Columbus’ larger expeditions to the Americas, by Russian painter Ivan Konstantinovich Aivazovsky. (Wikimedia Commons)

On this day in 1504, Italian explorer Christopher Columbus and his party were stranded on Jamaica. Having destroyed his remaining ships through bad navigation and even worse seamanship six months prior, Columbus relied on the hospitality of the locals for food and shelter. Eventually, however, the Jamaicans grew tired of feeding the unfortunate explorer and his hungry posse, and the food supply was cut off. Columbus, anticipating death, locked himself in the main cabin of his beached vessel and, by many accounts, began to mope. But as the Italian explorer wallowed in self-pity, he noticed a copy of Zacuto’s Almanac covering the years 1475-1506. Columbus was struck by an idea.

A *very* idealized depiction of Columbus tricking the locals of Jamaica. (Public Domain)

Columbus emerged from his cabin sometime before dusk and called for a meeting with the local cacique (tribal chief). Anticipating more pleas for food, the cacique reluctantly met with Columbus. Instead, Columbus warned the cacique that God was angry with the Jamaicans for cutting off the explorers’ food supply, and a display of His wrath would occur at midnight. The cacique scoffed but sure enough, at 12:00 that night, a lunar eclipse took place. The locals ,”…with great howling and lamentation […] came running from every direction to the ships, laden with provisions…”. After 48 minutes of eclipse – just as Zacuto’s Almanac had predicted – Columbus told the cacique that God had forgiven the Jamaicans. The eclipse ended right on schedule, and the hungry Europeans gorged themselves on the provisions supplied by the cacique’s men.

Columbus’ exploits were parodied in “Prisoners of the Sun”, a Tintin story by Belgian artist Herg√©. (Twitter)

After a year on Jamaica (spent comfortably, thanks to the generosity of the terrified locals) Columbus and his party were rescued by an expedition from Hispaniola. The story – which has doubtlessly been embellished by scholars over the centuries – is one of countless stories that prove the sheer luck that enabled Columbus to survive his own (at times deadly) incompetence, and emerge as perhaps the most significant (and most hated) figure in the history of European colonialism.

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