Christopher Columbus is known for many things, such as sailing the ocean blue in 1492, not reaching Asia, and kickstarting an era of devastating colonialism, to name a few. With all those headline-grabbing achievements, it’s understandable to be less read on the smaller details. Like that time he told a lie that would inspire Mark Twain to write a story about it hundreds of years later.
All just to get a decent meal.
The trouble started when Columbus departed Cadiz, Spain, in May of 1502. At this point, he had already made three voyages to the New World, each time with different, yet profound, consequences. While he had failed to find a Western passage to the East, he had discovered fresh land to colonize, resources to procure, and indigenous tribes to exploit.
His second voyage saw him return to the New World with seventeen fleets, over a thousand colonists, and enough supplies for permanent residence. The plan was to mine precious metals and harvest resources, establish new settlements, and convert native people to Christianity. Columbus and his men visited and sighted several islands, naming them as they went. They christened the Virgin Islands, Antigua, and Montserrat, among many others.
Waters Get Murkier
Columbus’ third trip was one of reconnaissance, during which he hit the tip of South America, which he speculated might be the home of the Garden of Eden, because why not? Sadly, ill health cut his exploratory antics short, and Columbus sailed for Hispaniola, where a colony had been recently established.
If he anticipated finding a restful atmosphere when he got there, he was about to experience extreme disappointment. When he arrived, mutinous Spanish settlers were in a fury over the supposed bountiful riches of the New World. Many returned to Spain, where they complained about gross mismanagement, incompetence, and tyranny to the Spanish court.
Columbus hanged some of his crew to pacify his angry comrades, but it was not enough. In 1500, the Crown had him removed as governor (which he had been since his first trip), arrested, and transported to Spain in chains along with his brothers. Once a few weeks passed, the siblings plead their case to the King and Queen. After much lobbying, the royal couple restored their wealth and funded a fourth voyage to the New World. They sent Nicolas de Ovando to govern the West Indies in Columbus’ stead.
It would not be a pleasant trip.
Columbus left Cadiz with his flagship the Santa Maria and the vessels Gallega, Vizcaina, and Santiago de Palos. He sailed straight for Asilah, a town situated on the northwest tip of Morocco, where he had heard Portuguese sailors were under siege by the Moors. Then he made his way to Martinique, but continued on since he noticed a hurricane brewing. He hoped to find shelter at Santo Domingo on June 29th but was not allowed to make port. To make things worse, the new governor refused to hear his predictions of dire weather.
After stopping in Jamaica, Columbus and his crew sailed to Central America and spent two months exploring the coast of Honduras, Costa Rica, and Nicaragua. Then, on December 5th, a vicious storm battered the men and their ships and prevented further progress. Once it passed, they attempted to explore their way out of dangerous coasts and waters, but instead stranded one ship in the Belen river and saw others damaged by a combination of shipworms and attacks from the leader Quibían and his people, the Ngäbe.
The Spaniards fled to Hispaniola and sustained even more damage en route North. Finally, unable to travel any farther, they beached in St. Ann’s Bay, Jamaica. They were stranded for a year. A small group of natives led by a man named Diego Mendez paddled to Hispaniola in a canoe to ask for help, but none came. The governor, Columbus’ replacement Nicolas de Ovando, detested him and did everything he could to obstruct rescue efforts.
At first the native Arawaks were kind to the stranded sailors, offering them food and shelter. When weeks dragged into months, tensions started to run high. Half of the Spanish crew mutinied and robbed and murdered a few Arawak people. At this point, the natives were already tiring of swapping precious resources for invaluable objects like tin whistles and other trinkets. They cut off the Spaniard’s supply of sustenance in early February. Columbus knew starvation or a siege would soon follow.
Tell Me Lies, Tell Me Sweet Little Lies
To avoid this dreadful fate, Columbus got creative. He consulted an almanac published by a German named Johannes Müller von Königsberg, who also went by Regiomontanus because Latin names are fun. This highly regarded mathematician, astronomer, and astrologer had published an almanac that featured astronomical labels covering the years 1475 to 1506.
This valuable tome detailed information about the sun, moon, and planets, as well as important constellations and stars. Any sailor worth his salt would have had something like this on board when he set sail, as it was crucial for navigation. As he scoured the book, Columbus realized something remarkable — there was to be a total lunar eclipse on February 29, 1504. So he hatched a devious plan.
Meeting with the Arawak chief a few days before the eclipse was set to happen, Columbus delivered somber news. The Arawaks had angered his god, he said, and now he would show his fury by turning the moon the color of blood, signaling the beginning of a reign of terror. When the night arrived, a fiery moon rose up instead of the usually benign, pearly one the Arawak were so used to. If you had little knowledge of eclipses, and suddenly a stranger turned up claiming to have direct communication with the forces that controlled the moon, you might have felt a bit funny about the way things were panning out.
Press The Panic Button
According to Columbus’ son, Ferdinand, the Arawaks were horrified, and “with great howling and lamentation came running from every direction to the ships laden with provisions and beseeching the admiral to intercede with his god on their behalf.” Columbus, probably feeling pretty smug at this point, retired to his cabin to pray for them. While in his quarters, he used an hourglass to time the eclipse phases, aligning his reemergence with the end of the spectacle.
He announced that God had pardoned them, thanks to his begging on their behalf. The relieved Arawaks continued supplying the men with rations from their own precious winter stores until reinforcements arrived on June 29, 1504. History might have been very different had Columbus not had an almanac on board.
To be fair, there’s not much information out there regarding whether the Arawak people were familiar with lunar eclipses before that fateful night. Perhaps any instances had been ignored, unnoticed, or else thought to be related to other celestial happenings. Regardless, it wouldn’t be a stretch to imagine the drama surrounding the eclipse of 1504 creating an atmosphere of panic.
Close shave, Columbus.