The Lusiads or How Portugal Won an Empire

Leer esto en castellano

I went to Portugal for a week with a book and came back with two; the new one is in Portuguese.

I felt this might be the closest I’d ever get to reading The Lusiads in the original…

This sounds grandiloquent but you needn’t turn yellow with envy: I did not manage to learn Portuguese merely in one week (I blame the Portuguese who insisted on speaking to me in English). Nevertheless, I acquired a book in Portuguese, and not just any book but the most famous piece of Portuguese literature: the epic poem The Lusiads by Portugal’s national poet, Luís Vaz de Camōes.

Although only in the form of a comics book.

Any Spanish speaker will testify to the fact that if you can read Spanish, you can read Portuguese to a very decent degree. Consequently I fancy my chances of making sense of The Lusiads when accompanied by LOTS of pictures. Better still: I fancy my chances of making sense of The Lusiads when accompanied by LOTS of pictures and when I already know the plot.

Because the story Luís de Camões tells in The Lusiads is from the heroic age of Portuguese navigation: the journey of Vasco da Gama in 1497-98, when he became the first European to reach India by rounding the Cape of Good Hope. And the book I went to Portugal with, Conquerors: How Portugal Forged the First Global Empire by Roger Crowley, treats the same journey – and a bit more.


How Portugal Built a Naval Empire

Diogo Cão’s inscription on the Stone of Ielala, Congo [public domain via Wikimedia Commons]
Roger Crowley is an English historian and to the best of my knowledge he only ever wrote four books: I own three, and can’t wait to get my hands on the fourth one. The title of this one speaks for itself: this is the story of how Portuguese sailors inched their way along the coast of Africa in the 1400s until finally they managed to round the Cape of Good Hope and reach India.

  • It’s about the vision of Henry the Navigator, the painstaking efforts of João II and the ambition of Manuel I.
  • It’s about exploration and espionage, battles and diplomacy, the careful mapping of the African coast, the search for the riches of the spice trade, the first collision of East and West in the Indian Ocean.
  • It’s also the story of blue water sailing in the 15th century: contrary winds, treacherous coastlines, storms, shipwrecks, crews dying of scurvy and ships destroyed by shipworm – journeys of incredible hardships by  Diogo Cão, Bartolemeu Dias and Vasco da Gama.
  • And ultimately, it’s the story of the first Portuguese empire builders: Francisco de Almeida and Afonso de Albuquerque with all the captains and fidalgos who served under them.

A story of bravery, pride, ambition, talent, greed, cruelty and in-fighting… a conquistador tale, but none the less fascinating for all of that.

Camões & The Lusiads

Crowley’s book covers the years of 1483 to 1515: in those thirty years, Portugal forged a naval empire from nothing. The man who turned this epic history into an epic poem was Luís Vaz de Camões (sometimes written in English as Camoens).

Camões was born in the same year Vasco da Gama died (1524); they lie opposite each other in the Jeronimos Monastery in Belém, a suburb of Lisbon on the banks of the River Tagus, from where Portugal launched her caravels to eternal fame (or at least onto the page of discoveries in school atlases).

The tomb of Vasco da Gama in the church of Mosteiro dos Jerónimos, Belém

The Lusiads describes the voyage of Vasco da Gama in the form of an epic poem in ten cantos. For antecendents, think Homer and Virgil’s Aeneid. 

Arms are my theme, and those matchless heroes
Who from Portugal’s far western shores
By oceans where none had ventured
Voyaged to Taprobana and beyond,
Enduring hazards and assaults
Such as drew on more than human prowess
Among far distant peoples, to proclaim
A New Age and win undying fame.

(The opening lines of The Lusiads by Luís Vaz de Camões)

Half a century after Vasco da Gama, Camões sailed the same route as an enlisted soldier on the only ship in a fleet of four that actually arrived to its destination. The trip to India in Camões’s day was still far too often a one-way trip. In Conquerors, Roger Crowley mentions a sobering statistic: a third of all crews sailing to India failed to return. History forms the backbone of The Lusiads,  but Camões could embellish his tale with small telling details, born of personal experience, from travelling the same route only a generation later.

The fate of the fleet of Pedro Alvares Cabral, who discovered Brazil in 1500 [public domain via Wikimedia Commons]
Camões led a somewhat riotous life. Debt and duelling resulted in him being exiled, arrested and imprisoned on various occasions. In between these episodes he fought against the Moors in Ceuta and served many years in the new Portuguese colonies of India both as a soldier and an administrator. He wrote The Lusiads during this latter time, and according to legend, when he was shipwrecked on the Cambodian coast, he swam ashore saving his unfinished epic poem by holding it above his head (but leaving his Chinese lover to drown). He made it back to Portugal in 1570 and published the poem, which earned him everlasting fame and a small royal pension. What with feeling his age too, he presumably led a quieter life afterwards.

Portuguese, the Language of Camões

In Os Lusíadas Camões achieved an exquisite harmony between classical learning and practical experience, delicate perception and superb artistic skill, expressing through them the gravity of thought and the finest human emotions.

(Encyclopaedia Britannica)

The Lusiads is generally regarded as the most important work in the Portuguese literary canon; so much so that Portuguese is often referred to as ‘the language of Camões’. But this doesn’t mean that it’s well known amongst the general public outside Portugal. Despite of having studied literature at university twice, I for example only knew it, somewhat bizarrely, from a memorable scene in Jules Verne’s The Children of Captain Grant (also known as In Search of the Castaways) which I read when I was eleven. In the book the absent-minded French geographer, Jacques Paganel learns Spanish during an Atlantic crossing – only to find on arrival in Argentina that he can’t understand a word of the “infernal patois” of the locals. Defending his Spanish speaking skills to his companions, he pulls out the book he learned all his Spanish from…

“And what’s the name of this book?” asked the Major, as he took it from his hand.
“The LUSIADES, an admirable epic, which—”
“The LUSIADES!” exclaimed Glenarvan.
“Yes, my friend, the LUSIADES of the great Camoens, neither more nor less.”
“Camoens!” repeated Glenarvan; “but Paganel, my unfortunate fellow, Camoens was a Portuguese! It is Portuguese you have been learning for the last six weeks!”

(Jules Verne: In Search of the Castaways or the Children of Captain Grant, Ch. XV)

You might also like:The Lusiads by Luís Vaz de Camões and The Children of Captain Grant by Jules Verne, both freely available on Project Gutenberg
⇒ City of Fortune, about a great book on the history of Venice by Roger Crowley
⇒ Roger Crowley's websiteRest in Peace? The Wandering Remains of Christopher Columbus

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