Many of us gazed in awe and wonder at the solar eclipse that took place on Friday. As George Osborne tweeted, shortly after being criticised by the Institute for Fiscal Studies over his plans to cut welfare spending by £12bn in the next parliament, the eclipse was ‘brilliant’. Many of us may have felt a sense of apprehension during that brief moment when that life-giving light of the sun was obscured by the moon. Throughout history astral events such as lunar and solar eclipses have generated excitement, and sometimes also fear. Holding the keys to knowledge of this event can therefore be a powerful tool in a politician’s toolbox.


Historically Europeans constructed power over the world through the way in which they controlled and performed their ‘knowledge’. Patricia Seed has argued that ‘colonial rule over the New World was initiated through largely ceremonial practices – planting crosses, standards, banners, and coats of arms – marching in processions, picking up dirt, measuring the stars, drawing maps, speaking certain words, or remaining silent’.[1] As readers of this blog will no doubt know, the Genoese navigator Christopher Columbus was once known for his contribution to the history of European knowledge of the world, but is now better known for his contribution to the history of European power over the world. The story of how Columbus used the lunar eclipse to establish his authority is an example of the role that knowledge has played in the construction of colonialism.


While many histories of Columbus have romanticised his achievements, in his lifetime, Columbus continually struggled to gain credibility, wealth, and status. By the time of his fourth voyage (1502-1504) Columbus was in a bad situation. On 25 June 1503 Columbus and his crew became stranded in what is now known as Jamaica. While this would not have been a good position to be in at the best of times, Columbus had not helped himself in previous years through his frosty relations with both the indigenous inhabitants of the West Indies, and with his fellow colonists. On the nearby Island of Hispaniola, the Governor of the Indies, Nicolás de Ovando, was in no hurry to help Columbus. Columbus’ logbook reported that the local Arawak community originally did try to help the crew. However, as the residency of Columbus and his crew wore on, the task of sustaining this band of unproductive foreigners who defied local customs became more difficult for the Arawaks. The crew had also grown frustrated  with Columbus, who was known for his poor leadership, and with the impoverishment and deprivations that they had sustained during the expedition and now as castaways. These sailors had joined Columbus’ expedition because they had wanted to escape poverty and were driven by the mythologies of the riches and pleasures that could be found in distant lands. Faced with crisis, they did what crews normally do in such a situation: they mutinied. Needless to say, the plundering of local resources and murder of several Arawaks did little to ease tensions or remove the impending threat of famine. Columbus needed to think of something impressive to take control of this chaotic situation.


Columbus was not a great leader, he may not even have been a great sailor, but he was pretty well-read. The reason that he had managed to get backing for his voyage in 1492 was because he read a series of texts and (incorrectly) predicted that the diameter of the world was smaller than commonly believed. Columbus’ calculation of the small space between Spain and Asia was based on the calculations of the classical scholar Claudius Ptolemy and the ninth-century Islamic scholar Abū al-ʿAbbās Aḥmad ibn Muḥammad ibn Kathīr al-Farghānī, which he found in the work of the fourteenth-century Christian scholar Pierre d’Ailly. Columbus’ library was known to be eclectic. As Pauline Moffit Watts observed ‘Columbus apparently acquired much of his knowledge of geography, cosmology, history, astronomy, and other related subjects from a number of popular and quite widely diffused compilations’.[2] One of the books that he took on his voyage was the Ephemeris of the German astronomer Johannes Müller von Königsberg (1436-1476), or Regiomontanus, which contained information for predicting the movement of the sun, moon and stars.


As Columbus sat amid the increasingly hostile Arawaks and mutinous crew, he perused the literature that he had brought on his voyage, and while reading the Ephemeris Columbus realised that there would be a lunar eclipse on 20 February 1503. During a lunar eclipse the earth casts a shadow over the moon as the moon moves behind the earth. The moon then turns blood-red before reappearing. According to the legend of Columbus established by the first biography, written by his son Ferdinand, Columbus used this knowledge to his advantage to construct his authority on the island of Jamaica. Columbus warned the Arawaks that God would be angry if they stopped providing food to his crew and that the moon would become ‘inflamed with wrath’. The lunar eclipse occurred as predicted. According to Ferdinand, the indigenous were filled with fear and agreed to provide sustenance if Columbus would consult his god and restore the moon. Columbus then stepped out as the eclipse passed, to make it appear as though he had wrought the transition, and the Arawaks continued to provide food for the crew. Columbus thus constructed his authority and colonial power through his theatrical performance of knowledge.


Next time we gaze in wonder at astral events, we might also wonder not just at the darker side of the moon, but also at the darker side of knowledge and the role that performance of knowledge has played in the history of colonisation.


The next lunar eclipse will be on 4 April 2015.


[1] Patricia Seed, Ceremonies of possession in Europe’s conquest of the New World, 1492-1640 (Cambridge, 1998), p. 2 (my italics).

[2] Pauline Moffitt Watts, ‘Prophecy and Discovery: On the Spiritual Origins of Christopher Columbus’ ‘Enterprise of the Indies”, The American Historical Review 90, no. 1 (February 1985), pp. 73-102.


Julia McClure completed her PhD at the University of Sheffield and is a Max Weber Fellow at the EUI. You can follow her on Twitter: @DrJuliaMcClure.


Image source: The Columbus monument in Barcelona, wikicommons

Tags : astronomycolombuscolonial historyeclipsehistory of scienceknowledgelunar eclipsepolitical history
Julia McClure

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