Columbus and a leap of faith

Knowledge of a lunar eclipse such as the one shown here may have saved the fourth expedition of Christopher Columbus in 1504. Photo: Phil HartHad this been a leap year, this Saturday would be February 29. So what, I hear you say? Well, on that date some five centuries ago, one of the most famous men in history used an astronomical phenomenon to save himself and his men. Knowledge is all!

Many know the primary school mnemonic that goes: ”In fourteen hundred and ninety-two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue …” Far fewer, however, know he made four voyages across the Atlantic. On the last trip his four ships were plagued by a shipworm epidemic; coupled with bad weather, he had to ditch two of them. Eventually, he had to beach the other two ships on the island of Jamaica.

Provisions were running low, but fortunately, at first, the indigenous population assisted them by providing food. Unfortunately, after a mutiny by some of the crew members, which resulted in natives being robbed and killed, no more supply was forthcoming from the locals. Coupled with an anticipated rescue from the Spanish base in Haiti, which never materialised, the situation became dire. Staring starvation in the face, Columbus conceived a plan that relied solely on the accuracy of science to make predictions.

As a learned man and mariner, Columbus had with him a set of astronomical tables by a noted German astronomer of the time, Regiomontanus. Mainly used for navigation, they included predictions of eclipses. Realising an eclipse was pending, he met the local indigenous leaders and warned them that his god was unhappy and if they continued to neglect the needs of his crew, the anger of the deity would manifest in the disappearance of the moon from the sky. On February 29, 1504, the eclipse occurred as predicted, frightening the natives. A promise to repent quickly followed, resulting in Columbus and his crew dodging famine and surviving for a year, until they were finally rescued.

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