While today is federally recognized as Columbus Day, that name has become controversial in recent years, as public awareness grows that its namesake and his crew did some absolutely abominable things to the people who lived on this continent before he “discovered” it. In remembrance of what an abhorrent character he was, and in honor of the people whose trust he betrayed, it’s worth recounting the tale of Columbus’ final voyage to the Americas, and the cleverest trick he ever pulled.
It was June of 1503, and Columbus’ crew had just been chased out to sea from Panama by a group of natives when a combination of bad weather, heavy casualties, and rapidly-decaying ships forced the crew to make landfall in Jamaica. All told, “stranded in Jamaica” wasn’t a bad deal; the islanders were welcoming, and provided food for Columbus and his men while they awaited their salvage mission over the next several months. Eventually though, as sailors forced ashore are wont to do, the crew grew rowdy. Brawls broke out frequently, and whispers of an insurrection circled the encampment as the men wondered if they’d ever get home. However, the tensions mounting within the crew paled in comparison to those in the larger island community.
The Spaniards didn’t make much of an effort to maintain good relations with their hosts, the Tainos, and as a result they had officially worn out their welcome by the end of 1503. The Tainos, tired of being cheated and stolen from by these unruly foreigners, stopped bringing gifts of food, leaving them to fend for themselves. After several months of such an arrangement, Columbus and his men longed for the days of easy sustenance and friendly neighbors that had greeted them when they arrived. Desperate to regain the luxuries that came with the Tainos’ good graces, but in no position to attempt diplomacy, Columbus hatched a plan.
On the leap day of 1504, Columbus met with the Taino leader, to ask that his men again be treated as guests by the tribe. When the leader rebuffed him, Columbus grew cold, saying that the Taino had angered Columbus’ God by refusing to honor his men. The Taino leader was unfazed, and Columbus retreated to his ship, but made a threat before he left—that night, God would make his wrath known by the light of the moon.
That evening, as it climbed into the sky, the moon grew red as sunlight filtering through Earth’s atmosphere began to fall on its face. As our planet’s shadow moved to cover it, the moon’s light grew dimmer and dimmer until it was nearly extinguished. By the time the eclipse had reached totality, the Taino were already outside Columbus’ ship with offerings of food and goods, desperately shouting their pleas that he intervene with his God on their behalf. Columbus, no doubt doing his best to maintain a solemn composure, accepted the gifts and promised to appeal to the lord to bring back the moon. Consulting the almanac that had prepared him for the eclipse’s coming, he then waited patiently in his cabin. When he emerged and told the natives that their sins of inhospitality had been absolved, it was only a few moments before the moon began to reappear, cementing Columbus’ status in their minds as a man of immense mystical power.
While there must have been some among the Taino who had seen eclipses before, the geometry of the solar system was still a mystery to them. Just as lightning was ascribed to Zeus until we began to understand electricity, the gaps in the Tainos’ knowledge was likely filled with folklore about the caprice of deities, and the notion that this foreigner could commune with those deities made him a force to be reckoned with.
It’s been said that giving a man power is the best way to test his character. It’s also been said that knowledge is power, and that was never more true than on February 29th, 1504. In this case, Columbus’ power was astronomy—the collective knowledge of generations of scientists who’d noticed that eclipses were regular, predictable phenomena. And so, seeing gaps in the Tainos’ knowledge where he held the truth, Columbus shoved his own God into those gaps—a vengeful and angry god that served his purposes.
Columbus could have taught the Tainos of European astronomy, and the book that told him when the moon would be eclipsed. He could have shown them the periodicity of the phenomenon, and in doing so he could have taught them an awe-inspiring lesson about the grander order of the cosmos. Instead, he chose to create fear, and to use that fear to control people. Columbus’ trick was clever, but all things considered, it was pretty evil, and I guess that’s the moral of this story—everything you learn gives you power, makes you more capable of understanding the universe and dealing with its eventualities. Just make sure you’re using your powers for good.