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Library Happenings – Recounting a historically lucky Leap Day

By Angie Georgeff

This Saturday will be Feb. 29—Leap Day—and our Gregorian calendar will again be restored to equilibrium. At certain times in certain countries, ladies were permitted to propose to gentlemen on that day.

A man who refused the offer was required to pay a penalty in cash or clothing to the disappointed damsel. Among the upper classes in many European countries, the penalty was paid in gloves.

That allowed the lady to conceal her unadorned ring finger and preserve her from the pity of strangers. In Ireland, the tradition is said to date from an agreement between St. Patrick and St. Brigid, which allowed the commonly accepted roles of men and women in courtship to reverse on Leap Day.

One Lucky Leap Day

On Thursday, Feb. 29, 1504, Christopher Columbus, his young son Hernando and what was left of his crew were marooned on the Caribbean island of Jamaica.

His ships were unseaworthy, his crew was mutinous, the indigenous inhabitants of the island were hostile and Columbus had to rely on his wits and his legendary luck to see him through. Providentially, an almanac in his cabin held the key to his survival.

Columbus invited the Taino leaders to a feast, where he warned them that his God was a powerful and vengeful god who would launch famine and pestilence among them if they did not deal kindly with the Spaniards. The Tainos were skeptical, so Columbus prophesied that the moon would be consumed by God’s wrath against them on that very night.

Columbus had left Spain almost two years earlier and had already survived many ordeals. Was the day of the fractious feast actually the day he thought it was? In 1504, calculating longitude was an inexact science at best, and the almanac had been written for the longitude of Salamanca, Spain.

Were the Admiral’s calculations sufficiently accurate? If they were too far west, the eclipse would not be visible. The Tainos would feel free to vent their anger on the Spaniards, believing that their god would not avenge them. It was a gamble, but the best chance Columbus had.

As it turned out, the timing was perfect. Just as the moon rose, the earth’s shadow started to displace the moon’s light. Columbus’s son Hernando recalled the howl of dismay that rose from the Tainos into the dusk. They begged Columbus to intercede on their behalf.  He magnanimously agreed to speak with God and prudently retired until the midpoint of the eclipse. 

When he finally emerged, Columbus proclaimed that God would restore the moon and protect the Tainos if they would supply the Spaniards with all the food they needed. The frightened Taino people eagerly agreed. Columbus and his crew were saved by a conveniently timed lunar eclipse.