How Spain's Conquest of the Americas Was Saved by an Eclipse

                      Astronomie Populaire 1879/Camille Flammarion

Today, many across the USA are watching in fascination a rare solar eclipse as the moon's shadow makes its way across the country this afternoon. These days that fascination is astronomical, but before astronomy, for much of the world it was apocalyptic. And the terror it inspired is at the root of a curious incident in 1502. Often lost in the grand saga of the conquest and colonization of the Western Hemisphere by Spain and Portugal, this incident almost doomed Christopher Columbus’ third expedition to the Americas – and would’ve set back the Spanish conquest in incalculable ways.

After leaving Cádiz, Spain on May 11, 1502, Chris and an eventually rather disgruntled crew had made it to the Antilles by June 1503 when they noticed that shipworms (actually a breed of clams) had bored into two of the ships’ hulls and was causing them to fall disintegrate. Scuttling those two, the gang had to beach the two remaining caravels on the north coast of what is now Jamaica and survive until rescue. Islanders welcomed them brought them food, but after six months they cut it off because of repeated cheating, trickery, and thievery by the Spaniards.

Desperate to get supplies started again, Columbus noticed in consulting an almanac that a lunar eclipse was coming up on March 1, 1502 (unlike a solar eclipse, where the moon comes between sun and earth, in a lunar eclipse the earth is between the sun and moon, casting a shadow on the moon and making it darker). So he hit upon a plan, requesting a meeting with the local cacique (chief), and telling him his god was angry with the locals’ refusal to continue supplies, and to show it would render the moon “inflamed with wrath”.


When the eclipse occurred on schedule, the islanders were so terrified that, according to a later account by Columbus’ son Ferdinand,

…with great howling and lamentation they came running from every direction to the ships, laden with provisions, praying the Admiral to intercede by all means with God on their behalf; that he might not visit his wrath upon them…

Columbus then withdrew to his cabin, pretending to pray, and when less than an hour later the moon went back to normal, told the Indians his god has magnanimously forgiven them.

Ah, well played, Chris, you wily SOB – an especially clever and fortuitous example of the deception and bad faith which won much of the “New World” for Spain.

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Comment by Buzzy Gordon on January 4, 2020 at 6:50am

Nice post. How long did they stay on the island, and how did they get off?

Also, I understand that when Columbus returned to Spain with riches for Isabella, he brought slaves from the New World. Where did the captives come from?

Comment by Hal Peat on August 28, 2017 at 8:51am

Max - thanks for the interesting anecdote, do you also happen to know the general location within the north coast of Jamaica where the eclipse incident with the natives is said to have occurred?  

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