Camoes, Lui's Vaz de (Lui's Vaz de Camoens)

Encyclopedia of the Literature of Empire - Mary Ellen Snodgrass 2010

Camoes, Lui's Vaz de (Lui's Vaz de Camoens)

Camoes, Lui's Vaz de (Lui's Vaz de Camoens) (ca. 1524-1580) Portuguese poet

The epic poet of Renaissance Portugal, Luis Vaz de Camoes (or Luis Vaz de Camoens) exalted the nation’s Golden Age of dominion over the seas and over Muslims, whom he dismissed as degenerate and small-minded. Born in Coimbra or Lisbon in the second century of the Portuguese Empire (1415-1999), he grew to maturity during explorer Pedro Alvares Cabral’s discovery of Brazil. After the death of his father, Captain Simon Vaz de Camoes, while adventuring in Goa, India, Camoes lived in Chaves outside Galicia with his widowed mother, Anne de Macedo of Santarem. Following a preliminary education under the tutelage of Dominicans and Jesuits, he studied classical literature, Latin, and modern European languages at the University of Coimbra under the patronage of an uncle, Abbe Bento de Camoes, the university chancellor.

Camoes nurtured ideals and ambitions beyond his rank. In spring 1548, he escaped the death penalty for a perceived insult against the royal family. Instead, he was exiled from the capital for his courtship of a royal lady-in-waiting, Catherina de Athaide, and also of the Princess Maria, sister of King Joao III. With sympathetic friends, he secluded himself in Ribatejo in central Portugal. The next fall, he accompanied the militia to Ceuta, Morocco, where cannon shrapnel blinded his right eye during a battle against Moors. While adjusting to monocular vision, he wrote Petrarchan sonnets, dramas, and songs and began the 20-year task of writing a national epic.

Camoes settled in Lisbon in 1551, and a year later, at age 32, he attacked one of the royal grooms, Gaspar Borges. Camoes’s three-stage punishment began with imprisonment. He paid a fine of 4,000 reis and, in March 1553, began a three-year probation in the Asian militia at Goa on India’s Malabar Coast. After exploring the Red Sea, Arabia, and East Africa and surviving combat in India and Egypt, he took a treasury clerkship in Macao, an island in the South China Sea that Portugal annexed in 1557.

Camoes became the first European poet to cross the equator and see firsthand remote world wonders and threats to Christian hegemony. Drawing on his views of Portugal’s declining national vision, compromised integrity, and precarious grasp on world power, he composed the epic poem Os Lusiadas (1572), also called The Lusiads or The Sons of Lusus, the founder of Lusitania, an ancient Roman province dating before 500 B.c. In a shipwreck off Cambodia’s Mekong Delta, he salvaged the manuscript from seawater that drowned his Chinese wife, Ti-Na-Men. In Mozambique, he languished in penury and filth. Repatriated at age 46, he lived the remaining decade in Lisbon on a legionary’s pension. Wracked with grief for his country’s military disaster after Sultan Abd al- Malik and his brother Ahmad killed King Sebastian I on August 4, 1578, at the battle of Alcacer Quibir during a Portuguese invasion of Morocco, Camoes died on June 10, 1580.

The Portuguese Epic

Out of patriotism and Catholic fervor, Camoes used verse to glorify the Portuguese; demonize the Moors as part of the Islamic war machine; slander Hindus as a wicked people governed by Satan’s laws; and honor commerce and Roman Catholicism, Portugal’s state religion. He dedicated The Lusiads to the boy-king Sebastian I, who had colonized Angola, Macao, Malacca, and Mozambique, a place the poet denigrated as a fount of “treachery and bad faith” (Camoes 1997, 114). For style, Camoes echoed the natural Portuguese cadence in ottava rima, which he adapted from the Latin iambic hexameter of VIRGIL’S AENEID (17 B.c.). In canto 3, Camoes pleads with the muse Calliope to empower his accuracy and gravity: “Inspire living song and a godlike voice in this mortal” (48). His humility adds gravitas to a nationalistic endeavor.

A salute to the age of discovery, the poet’s 10 cantos survey the Portuguese Empire during the discoveries of the explorer Vasco da Gama, a family relative who chose a life of challenge “from motives of pride and honor” (11). Camoes states the nation’s ambition in the opening lines: “We look to yoke and humble Arabia’s wild horsemen, infidel Turks, and India’s sons and daughters” (4). In place of Virgil’s pagan and mythic symbols of Roman imperialism, the poet merges the Christian cross with the astrolabe, a historical union of the guidance system of the Iberian navigator with the Catholic mission to proselytize and rescue pagans from eternal damnation, a period rationalization for invasion and conquest. Canto 6 declares “heaven was fully resolved to make of Lisbon a second Rome” (120), an affirmation of Portuguese tactics to secure their celestial destiny. Camoes later boasts that “even the vanquished will feel no disgrace, having been overcome by such a race” (150). In the midst of grand predictions of a Portuguese triumph over its enemies, the poet intersperses moral aphorisms as warnings to vainglorious pirates. Of greed, he warns, “Gold conquers the strongest citizens, turns friends into traitors and liars, … blinding discernment and impartial thought” (176).

Camoes emulates Virgil’s beginning in medias res (in the middle of things) and reprises prophecies of victory, merciless storms, and metaphysical forces in nature and the heavens. The narrative provides contrast to da Gama’s hardships by reflecting on empires established by Alexander the Great, the Romans, the Queen of Sheba, and CHARLEMAGNE, the warrior-king of the Frankish Empire. In imitation of the Trojan Aeneas’s sojourn with Queen Dido of Carthage, canto 9 includes a visit to paradise on the Island of Love and the reliance of the hero on Venus, Aeneas’s mother. Through the logic of association, Camoes honors her as a patroness of Portugal because of “her love of the Roman virtue she saw resurrected in them” (9). His amorous lines reflect the style and tone of 13th-century troubadour verse to the Virgin Mary, a form of GODDESS LORE that Alfonso X El Sabio (The Wise), king of Castile-Leon, compiled in Cantigas de Santa Maria (Songs to the Virgin Mary, ca. 1283). For theme, the poet pursues a traditional view of fate: “That no human resistance can prevail against such forces, for man is powerless before destiny” (150). The statement thus exonerates Vasco da Gama’s militarism on the African coast, his bombardment of the port of Calicut, India, in 1502, and the piracy of Arab merchant vessels as a worthy modus operandi blessed by God.

Less subtle and more romantic than Virgil, Camoes’s panegyric elaborates on scene and character. His Venus becomes a sensual coquette and Jupiter a blatant despoiler of females, even goddesses. Applying verbal high relief, the poet contrasts glory with barbarity and enslavement. As “Capitad” da Gama sails his three caravels along the African shoreline during his first voyage to and from Calicut in 1497-98, Camoes heightens the actions with the sounds and sights of battles, the glamour of dinner at Neptune’s palace, and threats from the sea ogre Adamastor, a composite of the forces of nature that lurk off the Cape of Good Hope. While da Gama walks the decks and stares up at an occluded sky, the monster “materialized in the night air, grotesque and of enormous stature, with heavy jowls and an unkempt beard … its complexion earthy and pale, its hair grizzled and matted with clay, its mouth coal black, teeth yellow with decay” (105). In contrast, during the battle off the coast of Ormuz on the Persian Gulf, Camoes blesses a propitious wind that generates poetic justice by redirecting Arab arrows against the bowmen who shot them. The poet applies an epic boast to da Gama that he “will try his hand at ruling the empire, when at his sight the Red Sea will turn yellow in sheer fright' (209). The hyperbole illustrates how far the author strays from the controlled Roman model to achieve historic stature.

The Lusiads was very influential on world literature. Its style inspired a legend of the Brazilian empire—the epic Caramuru (1781), a conquest story of the Tupinamba Indians by Santa Rita Durao—and appealed to the authors Herman Melville and Edgar Allan Poe as well as poets such as Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and Ezra Pound. A romantic scenario influenced the German-Jewish composer Giacomo Meyerbeer to reset a section of the narrative in his opera LAfricaine (produced posthumously, 1865), a musical fantasy of Vasco da Gama's troubled infatuation with the beautiful Inez of Lisbon.


Camoes, Luis Vaz de. The Lusiads. Translated by Landeg

White. 1997. Reprint, Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.

Nicolopulos, James. The Poetics of Empire in the Indies: Prophecy and Imitation in La Araucana and Os Lusiadas. Philadelphia: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2000.