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η Carinae is one of the most massive binary stars in the Milky Way. It became the second-brightest star in our sky during its mid-nineteenth-century ‘Great Eruption’, but then faded from view (with only naked-eye estimates of brightness). Its eruption is unique in that it exceeded the Eddington luminosity limit for ten years. Because it is only 2.3 kiloparsecs away, spatially resolved studies of the nebula have constrained the ejected mass and velocity, indicating that during its nineteenth-century eruption, η Car ejected more than ten solar masses in an event that released ten per cent of the energy of a typical core-collapse supernova, without destroying the star. Here we report observations of light echoes of η Carinae from the 1838–1858 Great Eruption. Spectra of these light echoes show only absorption lines, which are blueshifted by −210 km s−1, in good agreement with predicted expansion speeds. The light-echo spectra correlate best with those of G2-to-G5 supergiants, which have effective temperatures of around 5,000 kelvin. In contrast to the class of extragalactic outbursts assumed to be analogues of the Great Eruption of η Carinae, the effective temperature of its outburst is significantly lower than that allowed by standard opaque wind models. This indicates that other physical mechanisms such as an energetic blast wave may have triggered and influenced the eruption.