Christopher Columbus and the Lunar Eclipse

About 500 years ago, Christopher Columbus was on his fourth voyage to the New World. His earlier voyages were the stuff of legends. Unfortunately there's an end to every good luck streak and on this voyage, bad luck would strike in the form of worms. In the days of wooden boats, worms would attack and bore holes in the wood which eventually would cause leaking and ultimately sinking if repairs were not made. Columbus had no choice but to beach his leaky ship on St. Anne's Bay, Jamaica, and make repairs. Chris and his sailors spent over a year there, most of it waiting for his lieutenant's ship to come and help him.

The local Jamaican natives were quite fascinated with Columbus and his men and were very nice to them. They provided Columbus and his sailors with food and other supplies and helped them build shelters. In fact, the Natives treated Columubs better than his own men treated him. The sailor's on this voyage were a pretty rough bunch and had repeatedly argued with Columbus, coming close to mutiny on several occasions. Unfortunately, the sailors gave no better treatment to the Jamaicans, and took advantage of them whenever they could, even cheating and stealing from the Natives.

Eventually the Natives grew tired of being treated so badly and decided to make a point and cut off the food supply to Columbus and his crew. The sailors were more than willing to try and fight with the natives to get what they wanted and they even argued with Columbus about it. But Chris thought there was a better way to deal with these issues and he asked the native chiefs to attend a meeting with him just before sunset on February 29, 1504.

Columbus opened the meeting with a somber announcement, "The Almighty was unhappy, He didn't like the way the natives were treating Columbus and his sailors. The Almighty would now show his disapproval by removing the Moon from the sky." One can only imagine the natives sniggering over this announcement. No one, in their opinion, could control the sky. Shortly thereafter, the full moon began to appear over the eastern horizon. As the Sun set, the full moon rose, and the sniggering probably continued.

And then, ever so subtly, the moon began to change. Sniggers were replaced by an uneasiness. The Moon began to dim and turn a blood red colour. Soon all eyes were riveted on the dimming orb. Clearly, as it rose, there was something wrong. Not only was the Moon the colour of blood, by the time the lunar disk was completely above the horizon, the lower half of the Moon was missing!

Over the next few hours, little by little the Moon became harder and harder to spot. A dim red orb hung in the sky where once the brilliant Moon had bathed them in moonlight. It looked as if the Moon had been reduced to a dim ghost of its former self.

Supposedly, the natives were terrified. It is doubtful that they had never observed a lunar eclipse before, but they likely believed the gods controlled such events, and now, here was a mere human who could not only communicate with the gods but could predict his actions as well! Clearly they were frightened by this display of power.

The natives pleaded with Columbus to return the Moon to its former self. They promised food and anything else Columbus or his men wanted. They begged for forgiveness With high drama, old Chris told the natives he would just nip inside and seek a bit of counsel with the Almighty and see if he was in the forgiving mood. In this particular case, "the Almighty" was most likely an hourglass clever Chris was using to time the 48 minute duration of totality.

Strolling casually back out from his ship, Columbus reappeared just before totality ended and announced that the Almighty Power was indeed in a forgiving mood and if the natives would thusly promise to provide food for Columbus and his crew, the Almighty Power would have the Moon reappear. Of course the Natives agreed and with much nodding, smiling and posturing, the deal was sealed and quite soon thereafter, the Moon was its former brilliant self.

Thereafter, it is doubtful that Columbus had much trouble with the Natives. He probably even gained a bit more respect from his sailors but one thing is for sure, Columbus did have a good bit of knowledge from Persian, Greek, Islamic and European science. He reportedly had an almanac which he used to schedule the meeting with the Natives based on eclipse times!

 

Early Greek Astronomy and Solar Eclipses

 

The claim that the Greek philosopher Thales(624-546 BC) predicted a solar eclipse in the sixth eclipse in the sixth century BC is a different matter, for in this case there are many sources of information and speculation. Although no written works of Thales have survived, Greek historians such as Herodotus and Thucydides wrote extensively about his achievements.

 

 

Thales’ status as a Wise Man came from his reputation as a philosopher, not from a position in politics, as was the case for the others accorded this honour. Some consider him to have been the teacher of Pythagoras, though it may be only that he advised Pythagoras, to travel to Egypt and Chaldea. From Eudemus of Rhodes (about 320 BC) we know that Thales studied in Egypt and brought Egyptian learning to Greece. All ancient sources ascribe to him the introduction of mathematical and astronomical sciences into Greece. Since none of his writing survives, it is difficult to determine his philosophy and to be certain about his mathematical discoveries. Nevertheless, he is credited with five theorems of elementary geometry.

 

In spite of all his other achievements, Thales’ fame has always rested on the reports of ancient Greek historians that he successfully predicted a solar eclipse. The most frequently quoted source is Herodotus. One of the most important writers of ancient Greece, Herodotus is often called ‘the father of history’. In his famous chronicles of ancient Greek times, The Histories, he recounted the story of the war between the Lydians and the Medes. It was a long war which had been waged for five years with neither side gaining prominence. Herodotus tells how, during a battle on 28 May 585 BC,

 

the day was turned to night. Thales of Miletus has foretold this loss of daylight to the Ionians, fixing it within the year in which the change did indeed happened. So when the Lydians and the Medes saw the day turned to night they ceased from fighting and both were more zealous to make peace.

 

It is wonderful to think that a war could be ended by a spectacular natural phenomenon which humbles belligerent armies. But more interesting to us today is Thales’ prediction. How did he do it?

 

Some skeptical scholars have pointed out that the writings of ancient historians, Herodotus included, contain examples of portentous eclipses which never took place – now referred to as ‘literary eclipses’. One report in Herodotus describes how Xerxes and his Persian armies observed an eclipse just before they set out from Sardis to conquer the Greeks. But no such eclipse can be found by modern computations to match the date of the invasion. Clearly, there was a political motive for creating a  celestial omen: it would indicate that the gods were with Xerxes and a great change was about to take place. But Thales could have had no political motive for making an eclipse prediction. In fact, Thales’ prediction may have been the real event that inspired other, fictional accounts.

 

Moreover, it is not only Herodotus who tells us about Thales’ eclipse prediction. Diogenes Laertius, in his Lives of Eminent Philosophers, refers to Xenophanes as having been amazed by Thales’. This is significant since Xenophanes lived in the same century as Thales, and could therefore be a more reliable source. Nevertheless, respected modern scholars, Thomas-Henri Martin in the nineteenth century and Otto Neugebauer more recently, have concluded that the story of the prediction is nothing but a myth. It could be argued that such skepticism is unfair when viewed in the light of the usual procedures used in classical studies. Evidence from independent sources for Thales’ prediction seems too strong to be denied. Yet, if we are to accept the reality of Thales’ achievement, there remain the questions of how and why he made his prediction.