Crafty Columbus Plays a Leap Year Trick

Christopher Columbus
Christopher Columbus

by Ray Setterfield

February 29, 1504 — Anyone born on February 29th would not consider themselves lucky. For a start, they have a real birthday only once every four years when it is a leap year, such as 2016. The list of famous people born on this day is short, if not almost non-existent. Research shows that rapper Ja Rule as possibly the most well known.

Nevertheless, leap years are considered by some to be lucky and it is said that any enterprise started on February 29th is certain to succeed.

Italian explorer Christopher Columbus, the man who discovered America, certainly found this to be true in 1504. Nine months earlier he had become marooned on the island that we now know as Jamaica, his ship fatally damaged by a woodworm epidemic.

Fortunately, the native people – Arawak Indians – were friendly and were happy to provide food and shelter for Columbus and his crew. At first.

But as the months went by the Arawaks grew tired of this one-sided arrangement and became annoyed, according to some historians, by the “arrogant and overbearing” attitude of Columbus himself. Things came to a head when some Arawaks were killed in a fight with the crew. So they stopped the supply of food to the castaways.

Facing starvation, the explorer came up with an ingenious plan. After consulting an almanac in his cabin, he learned that a total lunar eclipse would occur on Thursday, February 29, 1504 – in just three days’ time.

He then told the Arawaks that his Christian God was angry with them for stopping the food and that as a sign of His anger He would soon make the moon appear “inflamed with wrath” as a signal to them of the punishments He would inflict.

Sure enough, on the third night, the normally bright new moon appeared as a bloody and dim ball in the sky. According to Columbus’s son, Ferdinand, the Arawaks were terrified and "with great howling and lamentation came running to the ship laden with provisions and beseeching the Admiral to intercede with his God on their behalf”.

Columbus said he would have to think about it and went to his cabin. He did not emerge for nearly an hour – shortly before the end of the eclipse – and then told the Arawaks that his God had pardoned them.

And, just as Columbus told them it would, the moon – in reality emerging from the Earth’s shadow – slowly began to reappear in its normal form and brightness. The awestruck Arawaks kept Columbus and his men well fed until a relief ship took them away four months later.

** In 1875, the Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana in Venice acquired a Latin copy of the first letter Christopher Columbus wrote to Ferdinand, King of Spain, describing his discoveries. It was stolen in the mid-Eighties.

Then in 2003 a collector unwittingly purchased it from a rare book dealer in the United States. He agreed to return it to Venice after its authenticity was verified by experts, which must have been quite a blow – because the letter's market value is estimated at $1.3 million.

Published: April 24, 2016

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