29 February 1504: Lunar eclipse saves Christopher Columbus’s bacon

In Hergé’s Prisoners of the Sun, Tintin, Captain Haddock and Professor Calculus get themselves into a bit of a pickle in Peru, and find themselves about to be sacrificed by sun-worshipping Incans. But Tintin uses a snippet of astronomical information he found about an approaching eclipse, and claims to be able to command the sun to his will. As the sun is obliterated from the sky, the terrified locals set him free. (Unlike the Mayans, the Incans couldn’t predict eclipses.)

Now, this is all very handy as a storyline; a convenient way of extricating your hero from a sticky situation. Mark Twain used the same plot device in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court.

But something similar really did happen on this day in 1504.

On his fourth and final trip to the Americas, Christopher Columbus’s fleet suffered an infestation of shipworms, which forced him to take refuge in Jamaica. The local people took pity on them, and provided them with food and sustenance in exchange for trinkets and baubles.

After six months or so, the natives had collected enough trinkets, and had grown tired of supporting Columbus and his restless crew, who had begun entertaining themselves by raiding their villages. Enough is enough, they said. No more food for you naughty Spaniards.

As luck would have it, Columbus had a copy of Johannes Müller von Königsberg’s almanac, which contained comprehensive astronomical tables. It predicted a total lunar eclipse on the night of the 29th (1504 was a leap year).

Columbus went to the locals and demanded that they carry on supplying his men. If not, he said, they would incur the wrath of the all-powerful Christian God, who would darken the moon, and turn it the colour of blood, an omen of terrible things to come.

Don’t be daft, said the locals. Do you expect us to believe that? Do your worst.

Sure enough, as the moon rose, the sun’s shadow began creeping across it. The natives, struck down with terror, agreed to carry on supplying Columbus, and begged him to reconsider. Columbus retreated to his cabin, ostensibly to have a chat with God, but in reality to time his reappearance with an hourglass for maximum effect.

At the height of the eclipse he emerged with the news that God had agreed to turn the moon back to its proper colour. And so Columbus was able to take advantage of their hospitality for another six months until he was finally rescued.