Luís Vaz de Camões is considered to be Portugal’s greatest poet. His treatment of verse and his linguistic ability has been compared to literary heavyweights Shakespeare, Vondel, Homer, and Dante. While he wrote many lyrical poems and dramas, he is best remembered for his epic work Os Lusíadas (The Lusiads).
Not a huge amount is known about Camões himself, but we do know that he moved around a lot during his 55 years. Born in Lisbon in 1524, the poet moved to Coimbra to study at university then to Morocco where he lost an eye during combat as a soldier for the Portuguese army. He then moved to India, where he served as a soldier for three years; Arabia and the east African coasts on military expeditions launched from Portuguese-ruled India; Macau, where he worked as a chief warrant officer and was charged with managing the properties of missing and deceased soldiers in the Orient; and Goa. He was eventually shipwrecked on the Mekong River along the Cambodian coast, before finally returning to Lisbon.
It was during Camões’ time in Macau where he began to write Os Lusíadas in a hidden grotto – every poet's favorite hideaway. When Camões finally made it back to Lisbon in 1570, two years later, he published Os Lusíadas, and it’s still widely regarded as the most important work of Portuguese literature. The epic poem celebrates the discovery of a sea route to India by the Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama (1469–1524). Made up of ten cantos (sections) and a total of 1,102 stanzas, the work takes on a fantastical interpretation of these 15th and 16th century voyages. Here we use Street View to explore some of the locations Camões described in his monumental poem and learn more about the poet himself.
Mount Olympus, Greece
Not one to start small, the beginning of Os Lusíadas sees the gods of Greece being called to decide whether or not the Portuguese will be successful on their voyages. Watching over the voyage of Vasco da Gama from Mount Olympus, the gods have divided loyalties. Who wouldn’t want to see the gods battle it out? Venus favors the Portuguese but is opposed by Bacchus, who in the poem is associated with the east and isn’t a fan of newcomers on his territory. Later in the voyage, unable to sit back, Bacchus in disguise urges locals to attack the explorer and his crew, putting the Portuguese voyage in jeopardy. The first few lines are a great introduction to Camões’ lyrical style, get a sense of his vivid descriptions below:
“Arms and the Heroes, who from Lisbon's shore,
Through Seas where sail was never spread before,
Beyond where Ceylon lifts her spicy breast,
And waves her woods above the watery waste,
With prowess more than human forced their way”
– Luís de Camões
The Island of Mozambique, Nampula Province, Mozambique
The island's name is derived from Ali Musa Mbiki (Mussa Bin Bique), sultan of the island in the times of da Gama. This name was then adopted by the mainland country – now modern-day Mozambique – and the island was renamed Island of Mozambique. The Portuguese established a port and naval base there in 1507 and built the Chapel of Nossa Senhora de Baluarte in 1522, now considered the oldest European building in the Southern Hemisphere.
In Os Lusíadas, the Portuguese fleet arrives on the Island of Mozambique and they are initially welcomed by Muslims who, intimidated by the power of the ships, promise them supplies and a pilot to take them to India. Camões was familiar with the island, having lived there from 1568 to 1570 – the story goes that it was there that the poet undertook the final revisions of Os Lusíadas, before returning to Lisbon.
The voyagers spend several days in Melinde, which today is known as Malindi, on the east coast of Africa. Camões has da Gama (the main narrator in the poem) recount the entire history of Portugal for the king of Melinde, from its origins to the inception of their voyage, which can be found in cantos III, IV, and V. Though this might initially not sound like a great party trick, these cantos contain some of the most descriptive passages in the poem. Here, in stanza 87 da Gama explains the apprehension felt before their voyage:
“To weigh our anchors from our native shore
To dare new oceans never dared before
Perhaps to see my native coast no more
Forgive, O king, if as a man I feel,
I bear no bosom of obdurate steel.”
– Luís de Camões
In public readings of the poem, they’re often accompanied by slides to illustrate what da Gama is referring to in his speech, because while beautiful it doesn’t always translate too well to modern ears!
Battle of Ourique, Baja, Portugal
Featuring in cantos III and another example of Camões’ descriptive passages, the battle of Ourique is the clash between the forces of Portuguese Prince Afonso Henriques (of the House of Burgundy) and the Almoravid, led by Ali ibn Yusuf. In Camões' poem, Afonso Henriques (who is impressively credited as being the first king of Portugal) defeats Ali ibn Yusuf after having a vision of Christ, we’ve all been there right? As a result, this leads him to paint the five shields on the flag of Portugal.
Mekong Delta River, Vietnam
Camões alludes to his time being shipwrecked on the Mekong Delta river in Os Lusíadas but only very briefly. The story goes that the poet was returning from Goa after responding to accusations of misappropriations during his time in the military. It was along the Cambodian coast that Camões hit trouble and became shipwrecked.
His lover, Dinamene, who was traveling with Camões from China, unfortunately did not survive the accident. But fear not, because the poet did make sure his manuscript of Os Lusíadas was safe, phew! Although of course we'll never really know whether he could've saved both of his loves. The story goes that Camoões risked his life for the manuscript by holding it aloft while swimming to the shore so the stack of papers didn’t get soggy. If that's not commitment, we don't know what is! He continued to work on the epic before slowly making his way back to Lisbon.
Padrão dos Descobrimentos, Lisbon, Portugal
Padrão dos Descobrimentos (Monument of the Discoveries) is a monument on the northern bank of the Tagus River estuary, in the civil parish of Santa Maria de Belém, Lisbon. It celebrates the Portuguese Age of Discovery written about in Os Lusíadas and is located along the river where ships departed to explore and trade with India and the Orient.
The monument was conceived in 1939 by Portuguese architect José ngelo Cottinelli Telmo and sculptor Leopoldo de Almeida. Camões himself features on the western profile of the monument as his poem about the discoveries has become almost as significant as the original voyages. While you're in the area be sure to visit the nearby Belém Tower, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, along with the Jerónimos Monastery, a stunning example of Portuguese Gothic architecture – and try don't forget to try the famous Pastéis de Belém while you're there!