How the moon saved Christopher Columbus in 1504

If you happen to see the moon turn red during tonight's lunar eclipse – the longest of this century – spare a thought for Christopher Columbus. In 1504, this very astronomical event saved his life

How the moon saved Christopher Columbus in 1504 © Getty Images

It’s February 1504 and Christopher Columbus is in the midst of his fourth voyage, though for the past eight months he has done precious little exploring. The previous June, his fleet had been caught in a storm and nearly wrecked off the coast of Cuba. It was all he could do to limp into what is now St Ann’s Bay in Jamaica – and he had been there ever since.

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At first the native people, the Arawaks, were welcoming of the newcomers and provided them with food. Weeks on, they were a little less congenial. Tensions continued to rise as the weeks became months, culminating in early February 1504, when a group of Columbus’s crew got into a fight and killed some Arawaks.

The donations of food stopped coming. Facing starvation (or worse, a violent death at the hands of the aggrieved natives), Columbus needed a way of making peace. He found it in an astronomical almanac created by German mathematician Regiomontanus.

Regiomontanus – real name Johannes Müller von Königsberg – had died more than a quarter of a century before, but his compendium of astronomical data remained a treasured possession amongst explorers. It contained precise tables logging the movements of the sun, moon and planets, as well as eclipses, until 1506.

When Columbus realised that there would be a total lunar eclipse on 29 February 1504, he knew exactly what to do. A few days prior, he met with the Arawak chief. By refusing to feed his men, Columbus said, the natives had made his God angry, and he could prove it. His God would project his wrath onto the moon, turning it the colour of blood.

Three days later, when the full moon rose it was not an iridescent pearl, but a fiery crimson orb. The Arawaks were panic stricken and sprinted to Columbus’s ship to beg that he intercede on their behalf. Columbus, the story goes, said that he had to retire to his cabin to pray. Once alone, he used his hourglass to time the eclipse, emerging only when it was at its peak – a point that astronomers describe as totality.

Columbus told the expectant throng that he had – with no small degree of difficulty – appeased his God on their behalf. And of course, now that totality had passed, the moon slowly lost its ruddy lustre and returned to normal.

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The Arawaks began bringing Columbus and his men food again after that, and they continued to do so until he rescued on 29 June. They had been stranded for just over a year.