Astronomy Online

Solar Eclipses: Some Historical Notes

Eclipses were feared

Solar and lunar eclipses have often been interpreted as bad omens. Several such eclipses, and the fear following them, have actually changed world history.

A well known Chinese example goes back to 1851. The old Manchu emperors were about to fall, due to the so called Taiping Rebel Group.

Western governments tried to support the Chinese Emperor, sending modern weapons and British and American officers. The General of this army was Charles Gordon, a military genius.

He suffered his first defeat in 1851. A rebel headquarter was to be attacked on a moonlit night. Very unexpectedly, a lunar eclipse occurred shortly before the assault.

The superstitious Chinese soldiers interpreted this as a most evil sign and lost their fighting spirit. As a result, the attack failed and there were high casualties.


A dreadful Chinese space monster, preparing to eat our Sun.

Several years later General Gordon himself died, indirectly due to a solar eclipse. In 1884-85 he led the defence of the Sudanese capital of Khartoum against an attack by rebels. This time a solar eclipse demoralised Gordon's native forces and the city was captured shortly before a British relief expedition arrived. General Gordon was among those slaughtered. For more information about these events, read for instance the excellent article by Bradley E. Schafer in the astronomy magazine Sky & Telescope (December 1992, pages 639-643).

Another well known historical example dates back to Christopher Columbus. On his fourth voyage to America in 1504, Columbus faced problems. His ships were in poor condition due to shipworms and the vessels had to be beached in Jamaica. A lot of his supplies had been stolen. Half his crew had mutinied and now, while his ships were sitting like ducks on the beach, the indigenous population refused to supply them with food.

In this dire situation Columbus had a great idea. Western European astronomers had calculated that a lunar eclipse would occur during the night of September 14-15, 1494.

Columbus now announced that, due to the wrath of the Gods, the Moon would disappear during the following night. The lunar eclipse appeared right on schedule and Columbus finally got his supplies! Click on the drawing to get a larger version (GIF, 73k).

Related Projects in Maths/Science

Columbus and the Lunar Eclipse in 1492

During all his lifetime Columbus did not believe that he had found a new continent, but instead, believed he had discovered a new trade-route to India.

Read more about this in connection with the Lunar Eclipse Project. A simple observation of a lunar eclipse that happened in 1492 during his first voyage could have shown Columbus, that he had not arrived in India. However, due to a surprisingly simple mathematical error, he miscalculated his position again.

What happened at Golgatha?

Both Mattheus (The Bible; 27,45) and Lucas (23,44) mention that the sky darkened, while Jesus was crucified at Golgatha. Some researchers have interpreted this to be the result of either a solar eclipse, a sand storm - or some other unknown (divine) phenomenon. However, could this darkening of the sky really have been a solar eclipse?

The scientific answer seems to be no. According to the Bible, Jesus was crucified on Good Friday. Recent research shows that the ancient Jewish Passover (Easter) period did fall around first Full Moon shortly after spring equinox (21 March).

Here is an exercise: Repeat the conditions for Full Moon in your laboratory:

Now show that a solar eclipse never happens during Full Moon, but - if at all - only during New Moon.

Thus the first explanation - a solar eclipse - seems unlikely!

Contact addresses

This above information has been prepared by the European Student Project Group:

Josée Sert

Francis Berthomieu

Brian Stockwell

Anders Västerberg

Mogens Winther


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