#February 29, 1504: The crafty Christopher Columbus’ leap year trick
Anyone born on February 29th would not consider themselves lucky. For istance, they have a real birthday only once every four years, when it is a leap year, such this 2019. The list of famous people born on this day is very short and research shows that rapper Ja Rule as possibly the most well known (but who is he?), or american singer Mark Foster.
However, leap years are considered by some to be lucky and, according to some superstition, any enterprise started on February 29th is certain to succeed.
The world-famous italian explorer Christopher Columbus, the man who discovered America, certainly found this to be true in 1504. Nine months earlier he had been stranded on the island that we now know as Jamaica, with his ship fatally damaged by a woodworm epidemic.
Fortunately, the native people, Arawak Indians, were friendly and happy to provide food and shelter for Columbus and his crew. At least…in the beginning.
As the months went by the Arawaks grew tired of this one-sided arrangement and were not happy, according to some historians, by the “arrogant and overbearing” attitude of Columbus himself. Thus, things came to a head when some Arawaks were killed in a fight with the crew, and as a result they stopped the supply of food to the castaways.
Facing starvation, the explorer came up with an ingenious plan: after consulting in his cabin an almanac authored by Abraham Zacuto of astronomical tables covering the years 1475–1506, 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 very 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. Thus, the frightened Arawaks kept Columbus and his men well fed until a relief ship took them away, four months later.