Captain Edgar Barron cursed his luck. His ship the Noble, in the North Pacific between Hawaii and Japan, was in the grip of a vicious storm. He had hoped to make landfall at Hekili before this, but they had encountered doldrums last month which delayed their journey significantly.
He had eagerly read and re-read Edmund Halley’s 1715 publication on the Moon’s Eclipse of the Sun, and the path of that shadow was to pass over these seas today, 25 May 1770. Had they made Hekili island as scheduled, he could have witnessed the eclipse first hand, or rather second, since it was known to be dangerous to view the event directly.
Now the Noble was taking on water, her main mast was cracked and threatening to break, and her sails were in tatters.
“Captain, she can’t take this much punishment forever. I’m afraid it’s Davy Jones Locker for the lot of us, God have mercy.”
Just hold on a bit longer, Chandler. This storm can’t last.”
“Aye sir.” The First Mate returned to his duties, barking orders to the men, not because he thought it would do much good, but to keep their minds on their work and not on impending death.
Once Chandler walked more than a few paces from him, Barron could no longer hear him over the rush of the wind and the roar of the waves. Then he heard a sound that was unmistakable.
“The main mast has broken. It’s falling lads…it’s fall…”
Barron’s urgent warning to his officers and crew was cut off as a piece of the mast struck him in the right side of his head, knocking him unconscious.
He drifted in and out, he didn’t know for how long. He was vaguely aware that there were no sounds of the storm. He saw light and shadow, heard murmuring voices. Once he could feel a cool compress placed on his forehead.
Edgar Barron sat upright. He had a splitting headache, and the right side of his face ached and throbbed.
It was dark. No, sunlight was filtering in. He was in a building, a hut by the look of it, although everything was in shadow. A child, a little boy brought in what could have been a bowl of water, saw the man was awake, turned and ran yelling in some heathen language. Wait. He knew that tongue. It had been recorded in the logs of Captain Daniel Rawlins. His ship the Majestic had been the only English vessel ever to visit the Pacific island of Hekili, and that was more than twenty years ago.
He’d made it. Somehow the Noble survived the storm and arrived at her next destination.
He sat up and became dizzy and nauseous. The right side of his face was covered with some sort of dressing. Likely he was injured during the storm. Yes, he remembered being struck by flying debris.
“Are you an Englishman?”
Barron looked up. An old man was standing in the doorway, just a shadow since the light of the sun came in from behind him.
“I am. Captain Edgar Barron at your service.” He tried to stand and extend his hand, but the dizziness overcame him. The boy at the old man’s side rushed over to him and helped him lie down again while speaking excitedly.
“I am Akamai, leader of my people Hekili. The children saw you washed up on the beach and called the men. We brought you here to our village. Hoana, my youngest daughter tended to your wound.”
The old man shook his head. “Hoana says your right eye is gone.”
“So I’m half blind.”
“At least you have one eye to see with, Captain Englishman.” Akamai spoke to the boy in their language. The child ran back over to him, took the old Hekili by the hand and led him back outside.
The days passed and Barron grew stronger. Sometimes the boy tended to him and sometimes it was Hoana. She was bright and beautiful, perhaps fourteen years. Though more than twice her age, he felt drawn to her.
Finally the day came when he felt strong enough to move about. No one but Akamai knew English or at least knew it very well. He was middle-aged when the Majestic had visited this land and was taught to speak the King’s English by the crew. Captain Rawlins’s log described the Hekili as kind, innocent, and curious.
After weeks inside a darkened hut, Barron blinked at the brightness of the Sun. At least he had one good eye to still see it with.
When his vision adjusted, Hoana slowly took the Captain on a tour of the small village. He saw the children playing, which was such a joy. People made their way from one area to another, either led by a younger person or moving on their own, but very slowly.
“What has happened here, Hoana?”
“Akamai,” was all she said. He’d forgotten that she girl couldn’t speak his language.
She led him into a hut, larger than the one that was Barron’s quarters. Akamai was sitting on the dirt floor drawing random patterns in the dust with a stick.
Hoana announced herself in the Hekili language and Barron heard her mention his name. She motioned for him to sit down and when he did, she left.
“You are the only survivor we found, Captain. There was almost no trace of your ship, just small bits of wreckage. You are welcome to stay with us. We could use your help.”
“How long have you been blind, Akamai?”
“Since the day the Sun went dark.”
“I do not know that word, Englishman. Does it mean when the Sun goes darker and darker, as if being eaten by a black shadow, until it is a black hole in the sky surrounded by white fire?”
Yes. It’s a natural phenomena. The moon travels across the sky temporarily blocking the sun’s light. You looked at it, you all looked at it.”
“Not all, Captain. The men did, some of the elder women who had standing in the tribe. The children and younger women were forbidden. We did not know what it was, but we looked for a message from our gods in the dark sky above. Then our eyes…our eyes…”
The old chief looked down as if about to weep. Captain Barron nearly wept at their misfortune as well.
“Some of us can see some things, like looking through water or like seeing through shadows. Some like me see nothing at all. We cannot hunt game. We cannot fish in our canoes. The younger women and little children gather fruit and vegetables. We try to teach them how to tend our crops. Now do you see why we need you, a man who can see clearly?”
“Yes of course, Akamai. In the land of the blind, a one-eyed man is King.”
A month later, Captain Barron married Hoana and took his place as leader of the Hekili.
I didn’t think I’d be watching the solar eclipse today. The area of totality swings north of where I live and work but even from here, more than 90 percent of the Sun would go dark.
One of my co-workers brought glasses for the three of us on our team, so right around 11:15 a.m. local time, we went outside and took peeks through our dark glasses at the eclipse. For me, the most interesting part was how dark the sky got when the Sun was almost completely covered. I work at a large manufacturing plant, and the automatic lighting outside came on. I took a couple of photos of the sky and people looking up.
Of course, the whole thing about the glasses and how looking at even a partial solar eclipse can damage your eyesight was the topic of conversation, so I started to wonder. There must have been some point in the past when some people groups wouldn’t have known this and, at the same time, not have been too afraid of the event to look up at it.
Did whole populations go blind?
I tried to find out more about this and read the brief article Why People Used to Be Afraid of Solar Eclipses? It didn’t tell me what I wanted to know, but the Time magazine story did mention Edmund Halley’s 1715 article. I looked up the history of solar eclipses, trying to find one that would be in the Pacific in the 18th century. I found this one.
The island and its inhabitants are fictional as are all other people and ships mentioned in my story, but the phrase about the land of the blind and the one-eyed king was the driving theme behind my tale.