Saved by an eclipse

Columbus made four voyages to the New World but we evaluate him by the results of the first one. His discovery introduced the world to the riches of the Western Hemisphere. He midwifed the planting of Spanish culture and language in 18 Latin American countries. But the true measure of the Great Navigator must be gleaned from his fourth and final voyage. Armed with only his courage and knowledge, he saved his sailors from hostile Indians when he was shipwrecked on Jamaica. That voyage, l502-04, was the supreme test of his genius.

Columbus sailed from the thriving Spanish colony of Santo Domingo in June l502. For almost a year he explored the coasts of South America and Central America but his two caravels were being sabotaged by an unseen enemy. Both were infested with teredos (shipworms) who bored tiny holes into their hulls. His gallant caravals turned into sinking, wind-powered sieves. There was no way they could survive 700 miles of open sea and return to Santo Domingo. Reluctantly, Columbus decided to beach them on the island of Jamaica.

There was a large Taino Indian village nearby. He arranged to exchange trinkets for food for the 116 men he commanded. Meanwhile, he dispatched a trusted officer to Santo Domingo in a large canoe, asking to be rescued. He and his men would spend one year and five days marooned on Jamaica. Thanks to his leadership, 100 would be rescued.

For several months, the natives brought them food but became increasingly hostile, partly because they did not need any more glass beads, mirrors and hawk bells. But some of the Spaniards mistreated their hosts. Food deliveries dwindled then dried up. Columbus feared they would starve or be attacked. He had to find some way to frighten the Taino into submission. This crisis brought forth the real genius of Christopher Columbus.

He had documents printed in Nuremberg, Germany predicting a lunar eclipse on Feb. 24, 1504. However, the data was calibrated for Europe. He used his navigational skills to calculate when it would reach Jamaica and for what duration. Once he had found the answer, he summoned the local chieftans to meet him.

Columbus told them his god was angry with them for not providing food for their guests. Therefore, he was going to punish them by taking the moon from their night sky. Many chiefs scoffed at his threat. Very well, Columbus said, return to me at nightfall and see the power of my god.

When the lunar eclipse began, the frantic Indians fell at his feet, begging him to entreat his god to spare them. They would never harm the Spanish and promised to always bring them food. Again, the genius of Columbus came forth.

He did not promise anything but said he would pray and ask his divine master for clemency. He withdrew into his cabin. The trembling natives heard his prayer but did not hear a small click every half hour. Columbus was using a small half-hour sandglass (an "ampolleta") to keep time. He knew how long the eclipse would last and plotted a last dramatic announcement.

Just before the eclipse ended, Columbus returned. He told the Indians his god had relented. He would return their moon but they must never again disobey him. They must protect and feed the Spaniards until they were rescued. Otherwise, his god would send an even greater calamity to punish them. The grateful chiefs repeated their promises and departed. According to Columbus, the eclipse had lasted five ampolletas or roughly two and a half hours.

When they were rescued in June, Columbus and his men were still being fed by the frightened, now docile, Taino Indians.

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