The Eclipse That Changed History

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As you read this, assuming the post office delivers the paper on time, a partial eclipse of the sun looms. This isn’t the big one. That’s coming on Monday, April 8, 2024. It’s a total eclipse of the sun that begins roughly at 3:18 PM and lasts for almost 4 minutes. The center line of that eclipse goes through Batavia, so that’s about as close as you can get.

Assuming it’s not cloudy.

The eclipse I’m talking about now is a partial eclipse of the sun. This is an annular eclipse. That’s the one where the moon doesn’t quite cover the entire sun. It leaves a bright ring. Pretty impressive looking. Pretty scary looking. It’s scheduled to happen on Saturday, October 14 right around 1:13 PM as a partial eclipse.

Assuming it’s not cloudy.

But let’s go back to the scary part for a moment. In history, cultures that didn’t understand the science of eclipses often associated them with magic, demons, or other supernatural powers.

Strike that. Sometimes a few people in a culture understood the science (or, more appropriately, the math) of eclipses, but the larger population didn’t. That these few people were most often the spiritual leaders of the community only made eclipses seem “otherworldly” to everyone else.

You can guess where this was going. If you knew when an eclipse would occur (and most astrologers did, going back to ancient times), your neighbors might think you had special powers. That made them afraid of you.

Then folks got smart. At least that’s what we assume happened during The Enlightenment. Of course, The Enlightenment didn’t turn on all over the globe like a lightbulb. No, it slowly emerged from city-state to city-state, from kingdom to kingdom, from nation to nation.

And you can forget about the continents. It took even longer for that.

Now, imagine you’re a storyteller. Wouldn’t it be great if you could work the mysticism of eclipses into your plot?

That’s exactly what Mark Twain did.

In A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, Twain’s hero Hank Morgan represents, not quite an entrepreneur, but an innovative mechanical engineer. His practical wits, however, don’t translate well to people skills. He gets knocked on the head at the factory he superintends. He falls unconscious and wakes up in the past. Thirteen centuries in the past, to be exact. At the time of King Arthur.

Unfortunately, he was still wearing the same clothes from his hometown of East Hartford. The knights didn’t take too kindly to this stranger from another land. Led by Merlin the magician, they convince King Arthur to burn poor Hank at the stake.

That’s when Hank realizes his execution day coincides with the famous solar eclipse of 528AD. He threatens to “blot out the sun.” At first, no one believes him. But when the Moon starts to cover up the Sun, the time traveler plays it for the maximum effect. King Arthur frees Hank. The good people of King Arthur’s time henceforth treat the Connecticut Yankee as someone with special powers, much to the jealous regret of Merlin.

But you’ll have to read the book to find out what happens.

On the other hand, it’s likely Mark Twain found inspiration for this scene from a real-life event.

The hero of this actual event also traveled to strange new worlds. He lived the life of an entrepreneur (or what amounts to one during his time). While a polymath who knew many practical things (again, for his time), he lacked those people skills that played a large part in keeping you from being burned at the stake.

You know his name. You might not know his full story. A lot of people are trying to tell you what they think is his full story, but their narrative reflects the biases of their times, not of our hero’s times.

And Christopher Columbus was a hero for his time. Then he wasn’t a hero for his time. Then he became a hero again.

Columbus made four voyages to America. Hailed as a hero upon the return from his first, his third trip ended with the usurpation of his wealth, property, and authority. Based on the testimony of his underlings, he sat in jail for six weeks until King Ferdinand had him released. The King and Queen returned his wealth to him and gave him what he needed to complete a fourth voyage.

A devout Catholic, (it is said his favorite prayer was “Jesus cum Maria sit nobis in via”—“may Jesus, along with Mary, be with us on the way”), this fourth voyage offers hints of divine intervention. On the first leg of this expedition, he rescued stranded Portuguese soldiers. Then, spotting an oncoming hurricane sought refuge in the port of Santo Domingo. There, Francisco de Bobadilla, the governor who had Columbus arrested and jailed, refused to believe Columbus’s hurricane story.

He denied Columbus use of the port. And, to spite the Discoverer of America, Bobadilla set sail with the royal treasure fleet. The governor took 30 ships. Twenty were lost at sea, and 500 Spaniards lost their lives (including Bobadilla, who went down with his flagship).

Among the surviving ships included the Aguja, perhaps the weakest ship in the entire fleet. It was the only ship to reach Spain. It was the one that contained Columbus’s belongings and his gold. This led some to claim Columbus invoked a black magic to seek vengeance against Bobadilla. Then again, this was merely the Age of Discovery. We were still a few centuries away from the Age of Enlightenment.

Columbus’s ship survived this hurricane, but a year later, a storm damaged his ship beyond repair. He and 230 men found themselves marooned on Jamaica. When notified, the governor of Hispaniola, who hated Columbus, put up all kinds of roadblocks that prevented rescue.

To repeat, like Twain’s Hank Morgan, while brilliant in practical matters, Columbus lacked people skills.

And, like the Connecticut Yankee, when the Jamaican natives got restless and stopped trading food for Spanish goods, Columbus used his astronomical smarts to save himself and his crew. He remembered he had an almanac of charts. These charts included a table of eclipses. He then told his hosts (in the 1893 words of Washington Irving from The Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus), unless they offered provisions to the stranded sailors, “a signal would be given that very night in the heavens. They would behold the moon change its color, and gradually lose its light; a token of fearful punishment which awaited them.”

Upon seeing the lunar eclipse that night, Ferdinand Columbus (the son of Christopher Columbus) wrote, “with great howling and lamentation they came running from every direction to the ships, laden with provisions, praying the Admiral to intercede by all means with God on their behalf; that he might not visit his wrath upon them.”

Good thing the skies weren’t cloudy that night.

While his wits saved him and the men who depended on him, despite his insistent efforts (and those of his family’s after his death), he was never given the earnings promised him by the Spanish Crown. As part of the Royal resistance, they used Columbus’ legacy as a poor administrator and ignored his courage that led to wealth that came from his discoveries.

Contemporary accounts of Columbus offer a confusing and contradictory perspective on the famous explorer. Pulitzer Prize winning New York Times reporter John Noble Wilford explains it when he wrote, “Although the record of Columbus by contemporaries is more substantial than that of any other 15th-century explorer, surviving accounts are often difficult to assess from this distance. Whose version is to be trusted?” (Wilson Quarterly, Autumn 1991).

Indeed, for the next century, Columbus remained in this purgatory. With other Spanish explorers reaching new heights, Columbus may have become a victim of “what have you done lately?” Still, the fact the new world wasn’t named after Columbus but after an Italian cartographer really tells you all you need to know about his lack of a good PR team.

By the 1600s, with personal politics dead and long forgotten, Columbus’s legacy was reborn. It started with his character appearing first in Italian plays, then in Spanish plays. It became ensconced in history by British colonists, who emphasized his heroic and steadfast entrepreneurial skills that led to the discovery of the land they adopted as their home.

Today, many bemoan the deification of Columbus; Instead, they appear to place pre-Columbian cultures on some unrealistic pedestal. One must be reminded that Wilford wrote, “The innocence of the indigenous Americans was more imagined than real. To one degree or another, they knew warfare, brutality, slavery, human sacrifice, and cannibalism. Columbus did not, as charged, ‘introduce’ slavery to the New World; the practice existed there before his arrival…”

We are all strong enough to not let today’s sensitivities eclipse the reality of history.

Assuming our minds aren’t cloudy.

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  1. […] did you know it really happened? And who did it happen to? Read this week’s Carosa Commentary “The Eclipse That Changed History,” to find out the two reasons we’re publishing this column this […]

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