How Christopher Columbus used a lunar eclipse to his advantage

By | March 20, 2024

Over the next three weeks, this column will look at some fascinating historical – and future – true solar eclipse stories to get everyone intrigued and excited for the April 8 solar eclipse. Here is our first true story.

Throughout history, eclipses have been crucial in shaping events, cultures and scientific understanding. For example, the ancient Greek historian Herodotus wrote about a solar eclipse that abruptly ended a battle between the Lydians and the Medes, leading to peace talks. That eclipse had a major and positive impact.

And then there are stories that only have a happy ending some of those involved. In this historical example, Christopher Columbus used his knowledge of a lunar eclipse to manipulate indigenous peoples in the Caribbean. Let’s see what happened.

In 1504, Christopher Columbus and his crew were faced with a dire situation in Jamaica. Their journey had come to an unexpected halt when their ships, battered and no longer able to float safely, trapped them far from home.

With their ships in disrepair and stranded on foreign shores, the situation became increasingly desperate, requiring an ingenious solution to ensure their survival and eventual return. They desperately needed food and supplies, but the locals, who had initially been friendly, grew tired of helping them. Columbus needed a plan to convince them to help again.

An illustration shows explorer Christopher Columbus predicting a lunar eclipse for the locals of Jamaica.

An illustration shows explorer Christopher Columbus predicting a lunar eclipse for the locals of Jamaica.

Columbus knew a lot about the stars and the sky. He remembered reading about lunar eclipses, when the Earth comes between the sun and the moon, making the moon appear dark and sometimes red. There was a solar eclipse coming soon and Columbus had an idea.

He convened a meeting with the leaders of the local population. He told them that he had a message from his god: because they did not help his crew, he would make the moon disappear as a warning. The leaders were unsure, but agreed to watch.

On the night of the solar eclipse, everyone looked up at the sky. Slowly the moon began to disappear, covered by the Earth’s shadow, taking on an eerie red hue. People were amazed and scared. They thought Columbus really had the power to take away the moon!

When Columbus saw their fear, he went back to his cabin and pretended to talk to his god. After a while he came out and announced that his god had listened to his pleas. The moon would return if they promised to help him and his crew. As the shadow of the earth lifted and the moon began to shine again, everyone sighed with relief.

The locals, impressed and a little frightened by Columbus’s ‘power’, quickly agreed to give him the supplies he needed. Columbus’ trick worked perfectly. He used his knowledge about eclipses to turn a difficult situation into a victory for his crew.

This story shows how understanding science can sometimes give you a great advantage. Columbus’ clever use of the lunar eclipse not only got him the help he needed, but also left behind a story that people would talk about for centuries to come. It was a mix of smart thinking, a little acting and a lot of help from the moon!

However, recent reflections on history have made it clear that Columbus was not always the heroic explorer once universally celebrated. Records and historical evidence suggest that his interactions with the native population were often brutal.

This incident of using a lunar eclipse to trick locals into supplying his crew adds another layer to Columbus’ complex legacy, combining scientific knowledge with moral deceit.

Mike Szydlowski is a science teacher and zoo facilitator at Jefferson STEAM School.

TIME FOR A POP QUIZ

What major event involving an eclipse occurred between the Lydians and the Medes?

How did Christopher Columbus use his knowledge of a lunar eclipse in 1504?

What is the difference between a solar eclipse and a lunar eclipse?

How did the local population react to the lunar eclipse manipulated by Columbus?

What lesson can we learn from Columbus’ use of the lunar eclipse?

QUIZ ANSWERS FROM THE LAST WEEK

What caused the extinction of woolly mammoths?

Woolly mammoths became extinct due to climate change and hunting by early humans, which reduced their habitats and food sources.

How are scientists working to bring back woolly mammoths?

Scientists are using genetic engineering and special stem cells from the Asian elephant to mimic traits that allowed woolly mammoths to survive in Arctic conditions.

Why is the extinction of woolly mammoths important for elephant conservation?

The techniques developed for mammoth extinction could help artificially create and fertilize reproductive cells, providing new methods for the conservation of endangered elephant species.

What other extinct animals are scientists considering for de-extinction?

Scientists are also investigating the extinction of the passenger pigeon, the dodo and the Tasmanian tiger, among others.

What are the ethical and environmental considerations of de-extinction?

The extinction raises questions about the habitats and role of resurrected species in modern ecosystems.

This article originally appeared on Columbia Daily Tribune: How Christopher Columbus Used a Lunar Eclipse to His Advantage

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