Places: The Lusiads

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: Os Lusíades, 1572 (English translation, 1655)

Type of work: Poetry

Type of plot: Epic

Time of work: Fifteenth century

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places Discussed*Portugal

*Portugal. Lusiads, TheFledgling country in Camões’s time to whose remarkable history The Lusiads is dedicated. Camões identifies Portugal as the “crown” on the head of Europe, the nation that has taken the lead in exploring the world and bringing true religion to primitive races. Approximately one quarter of his poem is devoted to a recounting of how his tiny country, long an obscure province of other nations’ empires, eventually became the world’s foremost naval power. In the process of accomplishing this task, the narrative often makes direct connections between dramatic events in the past and aspects of the country’s natural landscape that would be familiar to sixteenth century readers: A famous King’s victorious military strategy is likened to a fierce guard dog’s attack on a bull, and this ruler’s death causes Portugal’s hills to weep for him and its rivers to overflow in sorrow. Camões’s technique of infusing the everyday present with the atmosphere of a glorious past makes poetry out of the prosaic and flatters his contemporary readers by suggesting that they are the worthy heirs of a distinguished tradition.

*Mombasa

*Mombasa (mohm-BAH-sah). City on the east coast of Africa in what is now Kenya. Although da Gama and his crew have considerable contact with the city’s predominantly Muslim residents, The Lusiads treat the Mombasans merely as a backdrop for the evil plotting of Bacchus, the Roman god of wine who is the most powerful enemy of the Portuguese explorers. The poem’s only glimpse of Mombasa’s interior occurs at a house in which Bacchus has created what appears to be a Christian shrine; however, this is in fact a ruse aimed at convincing the Portuguese that Mombasa’s king is well disposed toward them; the complicity of local Muslims in this charade is treated as evidence of their essential deceitfulness.

*Malindi

*Malindi (mah-leen-DEE). Port city about one hundred miles northeast of Mombasa, also now in Kenya. Unable to find a reliable pilot in Mombasa, da Gama backtracks to Malindi after being informed that it is the likeliest place to hire one. Malindi’s inhabitants, also Muslims, are depicted as being much friendlier than the Mombasans, although their city goes similarly undescribed by the text.

The explorers’ apparent lack of interest in sights they have never seen before implies that places such as Mombasa and Malindi are not worthy of anyone’s notice. An even stronger indication of this attitude is provided by the fact that the narrative devotes more attention to what the mariners wear when going ashore than it does to the alien societies in whose midst they find themselves. This is very much in keeping with The Lusiads’ primary concern of celebrating the expansion of Portugal’s global influence and is also a forecast of the elitist prejudices that European nations would subsequently use to justify the oppressive treatment of their colonial possessions.

*Calicut (Calcutta)

*Calicut (Calcutta). Indian city that is the most distant destination of da Gama’s voyage. This bustling metropolis is the capital of a Hindu kingdom whose ruler initially welcomes the Portuguese as worthy and distinguished visitors. In contrast to Camões’s treatment of Mombasa and Malindi, Calicut is described in some detail; an account of the interior of a Hindu temple, in particular, offers one of The Lusiads’ few portraits of a non-Western culture, even though the emphasis is on the heathen barbarity of its contents rather than any worthwhile characteristics that the religion might possess.

Once again, however, it is the anti-Portuguese machinations of the god Bacchus, now as before aided by devious Muslim collaborators, that take over the plot and push any consideration of the actual location of these events to the sidelines. Although the narrative’s relatively favorable treatment of Hindus vis-á-vis Muslims probably stems more from the contemporary fear of the latter as a menace to Christendom than from any belief in the positive qualities of Hinduism, it does indicate that Camões is capable of making distinctions among alien cultures. On the whole, however, The Lusiads treats all non-Western peoples as inferior and largely uninteresting segments of humanity, and denies them either voice or representation.

Olympus

Olympus. Mountain home of the Greek and Roman gods. As is characteristic of the classical epics that Camões employs as his models, the gods are conceptualized as possessing supernatural powers and recognizably human personality traits. Mount Olympus is depicted as a place of opulent furnishings on which the gods debate the fate of the Portuguese in a manner similar to that of an earthly legislative assembly, and the victorious speeches of those deities who support the explorers provides Camões with many additional opportunities for the rhetorical exaltation of his country’s national aspirations.

Neptune’s court

Neptune’s court. Underwater palace of the god of the sea and his cohorts. Bacchus is more successful at inciting some of the marine deities to assail the Portuguese, and the ensuing scene of the expedition’s ships battered by an ocean storm is exciting, as well as one of the few passages in which nature is realistically depicted.

Isle of Love

Isle of Love. Island created by Venus to reward the voyagers for their efforts. This luxuriant paradise, where an abundance of fabulously beautiful nymphs is ready to indulge the voyagers’ every desire, represents the text’s vision of Eden come down to earth: delicious fruits, beautiful flowers, and the ultimate in sexual gratification.

BibliographyBowra, C. M. “Camões and the Epic of Portugal.” In From Virgil to Milton. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1967. An explication of The Lusiads as an epic poem, a poem of the ideal in manhood. Demonstrates Camões’ indebtedness to classical tradition and especially to Homer, Vergil, and Ariosto.Burton, Richard Francis. Camões: His Life and His Lusiads. London: Bernard Quartich, 1881. Biography, history of Portugal up to the death of the poet, geography, annotations, bibliography.Freitas, William. Camões and His Epic: A Historic, Geographic, and Cultural Survey. Stanford, Calif.: Institute of Hispanic American and Luso-Brazilian Studies, Stanford University, 1963. Uses The Lusiads as a source for information on Portugal’s clashes with the nations of Islam, Africa, and India. Twenty illustrations, including portraits and maps.O’Halloran, Colin M. History and Heroes in the “Lusiads”: A Commemoration Essay on Camões. Lisbon: Comissão Executiva do IV Centenário da Publicaçao de “Os Lusiades,” 1974. Discusses the poem as a record of and tribute to Portugal’s national drive to conquer new lands and to win Christian converts. Accessible, although all the quotations from the poem are in Portuguese.
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