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Farmers Almanac
The 2014 Farmers Almanac
Farmers' Almanac

How did an Almanac Save Christopher Columbus?!

How did an Almanac Save Christopher Columbus?!

On October 12, 1492, as every schoolchild has been taught, Columbus stepped ashore on an island, northeast of Cuba, called Guanahani by its natives (the Genoese explorer later renamed it San Salvador, which means Holy Savior). Certain that he had sailed to a point just off the coast of China, Columbus returned to Spain in triumph. Over the next ten years he would make three more voyages to the New World, bolstering his belief that he had reached the Far East by sailing west.

Unfortunately, in those days of wooden boats, shipworms (teredos) often bore holes in the wood and caused serious leaks that ultimately lead to the sinking of a vessel if repairs were not made. Thanks to an epidemic of teredos, Columbus’s tiny armada was soon turned into a collection of sieves. Forced to abandon two ships, Columbus finally had to beach his last two caravels on the north coast of Jamaica, on June 25, 1503. Two Spaniards, accompanied by native paddlers, were sent by canoe to get help from Hispaniola, a nearby Spanish colony. Its new governor, Nicolás de Ovando, refused the plea for rescue.

Initially, the friendly natives of Jamaica welcomed Columbus’s castaways, and provided them with ample food and shelter, but as the days turned into weeks, tensions gradually mounted. Finally, after being stranded for more than six months, half of Columbus’s crew staged a mutiny, stealing from the flotilla’s dwindling supplies as well as robbing and murdering some of the natives. After many weeks and months, the natives had themselves grown weary of supplying cassava, corn, and fish in exchange for little tin whistles, trinkets, hawk’s bells, and other useless goods.

With famine threatening, Columbus formulated a desperate, albeit ingenious, plan.

CONSULTING AN ALMANAC

Coming to the Columbus’s rescue was Johannes Müller von Königsberg (1436-1476), known by his Latin pseudonym Regiomontanus, an important German mathematician, astronomer, and astrologer. Before his death, Regiomontanus wrote an exceptional treatise on astronomy/astrology and published almanacs containing astronomical tables (ephemerides) covering the years 1475-1506. In some ways, Regiomontanus’s almanacs were not too different from our own Farmers’ Almanac, because printed alongside his astronomical calculations were weather predictions and other observations.

Columbus had a copy of an almanac with him on his fourth voyage. He discovered from studying its tables that on the evening of Thursday, February 29, 1504, a total eclipse of the Moon would take place right around the time of the moonrise. He deduced there would be at least a few hours in which the Moon would not appear in its normal guise. That would be just enough time for Columbus to set the stage for the celestial drama that was to come.

Armed with this knowledge, Columbus asked for a meeting with the natives’ cacique (chief) three days before the evening of the eclipse, He announced that his Christian god was angry with the natives for refusing to continue supplying Columbus and his men with food, and his god was about to provide a clear sign of this displeasure. Three nights hence, said Columbus, his god would all but obliterate the rising full Moon, making it appear “inflamed with wrath,” signifying the evils that would soon be inflicted upon all of them.

Just over an hour later, as full darkness descended, the Moon indeed exhibited an eerily inflamed and “bloody” appearance. In place of a normally brilliant late-winter full Moon, a dim red ball hung in the eastern sky.

According to Ferdinand, the natives were terrified at this sight and “. . . with great howling and lamentation, came running from every direction to the ships laden with provisions, praying to the Admiral [Columbus] to intercede with his god on their behalf.” They promised that they would gladly cooperate with Columbus and his men, if only he would restore the Moon to its normal state. The explorer promised to do his best and drew aside, pretending to pray. He told the natives he would have to retire to confer privately with his god, then shut himself in his cabin for about fifty minutes.

His “god,” in this case, was merely a sandglass that Columbus turned every half hour to time the various stages of the eclipse, based on the tables printed by Regiomontanus.

Just moments before the end of the total phase, Columbus reappeared and announced to the natives that his god had pardoned them and would allow the Moon to gradually return. At that moment, true to Columbus’s word, the Moon slowly began to reappear. As it emerged from the Earth’s shadow, the grateful natives hurried away. From then on, they kept Columbus and his men well supplied and well fed, until a reluctantly sent relief caravel from Hispaniola finally arrived on June 29, 1504. Columbus and his men returned to Spain on Nov. 7.

If you notice a hole in the upper left-hand corner of your Farmers' Almanac, don't return it to the store! That hole isn't a defect; it's a part of history. Starting with the first edition of the Farmers' Almanac in 1818, readers used to nail holes into the corners to hang it up in their homes, barns, and outhouses (to provide both reading material and toilet paper). In 1910, the Almanac's publishers began pre-drilling holes in the corners to make it even easier for readers to keep all of that invaluable information (and paper) handy.