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Modern Eclipses - Part One

Christopher Columbus' Eclipse (1504 CE)
After a long trip to the Americas in 1503, in his fourth voyage, Columbus was stranded on the island of Jamaica. In principle, he managed to obtain provisions from the Caciques natives in exchange for some trinkets and rubbish. As the months went by, novelty and hospitality started to decrease and also the sailors became more aggressive with the natives in order to obtain food. Then the native Jamaicans communicated to the Spanish that they would not provide any more supplies.

Columbus presenting an Eclipse to Native Americans

Columbus became desperate with the threat of famine and came up with an ingenious plan. He checked his Calendarium, which contained predictions of lunar eclipses for several years. In particular, it predicted a total eclipse of the Moon on the Antilles on February 29, 1504 CE. That evening, he invited the Caciques onboard his Capitana for a serious conversation. He told them that they were Christians and their God did not like the way they had been treating them and would punish the Indians with famine and pestilence and, as a sign of dissatisfaction, he would darken the Moon. As soon as he said that, the Earth's shadow started to cover the white disk. Terrified, the natives begged Columbus to bring back the light. According to Ferdinand Columbus (second son of Christopher Columbus), cited by Sinnot (1992):

The Indians observed this [the eclipse] and were so astonished and frightened that with great cries and lamentations they came running from all directions to the ships, carrying provisions and begging (...) and promising they would diligently supply all their needs in the future.

He replied that he needed to consult his God. He shut himself in a cabin for nearly two hours. Just before the end of totality, he reappeared and announced that God had given his pardon, and would bring them back the Moon provided that the Christians were given provisions. Immediately, the Moon reappeared. Astonished, the natives immediately provided Columbus and his crew their needed provisions until they were able to return to Europe.

The use of eclipses as a tool to manipulate populations less knowledgeable about eclipses is also present in diverse works of fiction. In 1889, Mark Twain published A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, a novel envisioning life in the sixth-century England. The author has Hank Morgan, the yankee in the title, hoodwinking the ignorant folk of that era by invoking prior knowledge of a solar eclipse on June 21, 528 CE. Twain has Morgan, who is jailed awaiting execution, threaten King Arthur with a blanking out of the Sun:

Go back and tell the king that at that hour I will smother the whole world in the dead blackness of midnight; I will blot out the Sun, and he shall never shine again; the fruits of the Earth shall not rot for lack of light and warmth, and the peoples of the Earth shall famish and die, to the last man!

The description provided by Twain is accurate in many senses, except for the fact that there was no solar eclipse at all visible in England in 528 CE. There are more examples of this theme in literature, such as The Adventures of Tintin by Georges Remi and King Solomon's Mines by H. Rider Haggard.

Edmond Halley's Eclipse (1715 CE)
A few seconds before the Sun was all hid, there discovered itself round the Moon a luminous ring about a digit, or perhaps a tenth part of the Moon's diameter, in breadth. It was of a pale whiteness, or rather pearl-color, seeming to me a little tinged with the colors of the iris, and to be concentric with the Moon. - Edmond Halley

Edmund Halley's Eclipse
Visible as a partial eclipse in Paris, Halley's eclipse provided the chance to observe the event in various ways: directly through telescopes, smoked glass, pinholes, sieves, and various filters, or indirectly by reflection in a bucket of water. Source: Bibliotheque nationale de France (BnF).

Above was the description of the British astronomer Halley (1656-1742) for the solar corona during the total eclipse of April 3, 1715 CE, which was visible in England and Wales. Halley thought that he had seen the Moon's atmosphere for the first time! He became famous for discovering the periodicity of certain comets and predicting their return 76 years after the one he had observed in 1682. Basing his calculations on the law of universal attraction established by Newton, he provided the first physical explanation for the appearance of these wandering bodies that had previously terrified people.

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Author: Norma Reis

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