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How a Blood Moon eclipse spared Christopher Columbus from disaster on final voyage to New World

In 1492, Christopher Columbus made his infamous voyage across the Atlantic Ocean to the New World that set the stage for future voyages. However, his fourth and final voyage almost ended in disaster if it were not for the help of the moon.

Over a decade after his first trip to the New World, Columbus set sail on his fourth and final voyage that was riddled with problems.

His fleet in the 1502 voyage across the Atlantic was comprised of four ships, but not all of them made it to their intended destination.

"The four ships that he had were being eaten by worms that would eat the wood, so the ships started becoming unstable and leaking," said Mel Blake, associate professor of physics at the university of northern Alabama.

Later that year, Columbus and his crew landed on the island now known as Jamaica, with only two of his four ships. However, these two ships were damaged, so they were stranded on the island until relief arrived.

An artist's depiction of Christopher Columbus landing in the New World. (Photo/Library of Congress)

At the time, Jamaica was inhabited by local people called the Arawak Indians who decided to help Columbus and his men.

They showed up with large ships and gusts, and it all seemed very impressive, so the local people helped them, Blake said.

For months, the Arawak Indians helped Columbus and his crew as they waited to be rescued, giving them food and supplies.

"This went on from about June 1503 when they arrived until well into the fall until finally the local people were getting tired of helping them," Blake said.

Eventually, the Arawak Indians refused to help Columbus and his crew any longer, a decision that could spell disaster as they were not equipped to survive on the island for an extended period of time.

"Christopher Columbus knew that he had no way of getting off of the beach because his ships were still leaking and he was waiting for relief, so he needed a way out. He decided to use blatant trickery."

How a Blood Moon would come to Columbus' aid

Back in the time of Columbus, they used astronomical charts to help navigate while out at sea. They also had astronomical almanacs that would entail positions of the moon, as well as events such as lunar eclipses.

Columbus had a copy of an almanac that described a total lunar eclipse that would happen on the evening of Feb. 29, 1504. This eclipse would be his opportunity to convince the local people to help him again.

A total lunar eclipse photographed in 2015. (Photo/AccuAstronomy Fan Pascal Pharand)

Three days before the eclipse, Columbus told the Arawak Indians that his god was very angry and that they were no longer helping him. As a repercussion, his god would turn off the moon until they decided to help again.

This may have sounded like a ridiculous claim to the local people, but three days later, Columbus' prediction began to unfold.

"The eclipse stared happening and the moon started to get a little nibble taken out of it as the Earth's shadow crossed the face of the moon," Blake said.

"It turned this blood red color the way total lunar eclipses do."

This terrified the locals. They promised to help Columbus again as long as he restored the moon back to normal.

Shortly before the eclipse ended, Columbus announced that his god was pleased again, and that the moon would return to normal.

Moments later, the eclipse was over, the moon appeared as it normally does in the night sky and Columbus' trick had worked perfectly. The locals would now supply him and his crew with food and supplies throughout the remainder of their stay until relief arrived.

While this may sound like an ingenious trick to the benefit of Columbus, there was a chance that it could have backfired.

"It was a bit of a risk because the tables at the time for the eclipses weren't as accurate as they are now where you can predict within the minute," Blake said.

If the total lunar eclipse happened a day later, or was not completely visible in that part of the world, it would not have panned out as Columbus had hoped.

Additionally, if the weather was not in favor of Columbus, his predicted lunar eclipse would not have been visible, wasting the opportunity to take advantage of such a rare event.

But Columbus' plan worked out perfectly to the benefit of him and his crew.

Later that year, relief arrived to rescue Columbus and he was able to return to Europe.