The Use of the Moon

October 13, 2014

Most of us know the story of Christopher Columbus and his fleet of ships that brought the dawn of European exploration and colonization to the Americas. Many of us also know that Columbus is not an altogether wholesome character, but one who traded in slaves and used cheating and treachery to advance his own cause.

But you might not know about the time Columbus had to rely on the intersection between trickery and astronomy to save his own life and the lives of his crew.

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On Columbus’s fourth journey to the New World, his ships suffered from both hurricanes and termites, and Columbus and his crew had to seek shelter ashore the island of Jamaica. The Arawak Indians were friendly at first and supplied the white men with food, but as days turned into weeks and weeks turned into six months, they got tired of supporting the interlopers in exchange for worthless trinkets. Columbus found himself faced with angry natives and a crew near mutiny. He had to find a way to make people do what he wanted them to do.

Luckily, Columbus had a copy of an almanac written by Johannes Muller von Konigsber, also known as Regiomontanus. Regiomontanus was a German mathematician, astronomer, and astrologer who recorded detailed information about the sun, moon, and planets, as well as stars and constellations, which enabled sailors to navigate areas of the planet that had never been explored by Europeans before.

Through Regiomontanus’s almanac, Columbus knew that a lunar eclipse would happen on the evening of Thursday, February 29, 1504. Three days before this, he warned the Arawaks that they had angered God by refusing to feed Columbus and his men. God, Columbus declared, would provide a sign of his anger by making the moon disappear.

The Arawaks had certainly witness eclipses, but had no idea what caused them. They had no written history of the sky above their heads, no instruments to measure the heavens, and no way to predict what happened on the celestial canvas.

So when Columbus said something like, “Behold, God is angry and will take away the moon,” the natives might’ve listened pretty closely. And three days later, when the moon did in fact turn the blood red of a lunar eclipse, the natives might have felt pretty willing to do anything that the person who predicted this turn of events asked, as long as he put the moon right again.

And so, Columbus got to buy another six months of survival by capitalizing on the fear of his native hosts.

Nearly 400 years later, Mark Twain took inspiration from Columbus’s trick in his novel, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court.

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Accidental time traveler, Hank Morgan, saves his proverbial neck by predicting a solar eclipse, convincing the king that executing him is a bad idea. Just like Columbus, Morgan bought himself enough time to make it out of his dangerous situation alive.

This Columbus Day, no matter your feelings about the true history of Columbus, celebrate the use of scientific knowledge as a way of making friends—or at least a way of keeping your enemies from killing you.