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If you’re doing an assignment that involves analyzing The Lusiads, by Luis de Camoes, it’s important that you understand and define some of your terms first. For example, this poem was written hundreds of years ago in Portuguese, so the term “Lusiads” comes from the original Portuguese term “Lusiadas.”

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The name means “sons of Lusus.” This itself is a reference to the Portuguese in general. It comes from the old Roman name from a province in Europe during the Roman Empire called “Lusitania” which covered Portugal. The reason why this is important is that it defines the flavor of the poem. There are many references to Roman culture in the poem, and you can emphasize this in your analysis since the name of the poem itself is a reference to Ancient Rome.

Examples of other references include Jupiter at the beginning of the poem, and Bacchus, the God of Wine, towards the end. There’s even a reference to Portugal as being the land of gods, all with a Roman flair. It will help your analysis to start with the Roman allusions and go forward from there to understand the place the author is coming from in praising Portugal and its accomplishments in the fields of discovery and conquest as of the time the poem was written.

The Poem

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Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama’s ships are off the coast of east Africa, while at a council of the gods on Olympus in Greece, Bacchus speaks against the Portuguese and Venus speaks for them. Mars intervenes passionately on Venus’s side. Jupiter states his support of the voyage. Bacchus, failing to persuade the gods, inspires the inhabitants of Mozambique to set a trap. The Muslim peoples there are easily defeated, and da Gama sails on to Mombasa, an island he has heard will be friendlier.

At Mombasa, Bacchus again inspires the locals to attempt a trap by taking da Gama’s ships, but Venus and her nymphs hold back his ships. Venus approaches Jupiter seductively and nearly naked to plead the Portuguese case. Jupiter reassures her and promises a great future for Portuguese exploration and conquest. She then sends Mercury to Malinda to arrange a friendlier welcome for da Gama. The king of Malinda visits da Gama on his ship and asks the explorer about his country.

Da Gama, before sailing to Africa, had set out from Portugal. His course takes his ships south past Morocco, Madeira, the Canaries, the Congo, and other points along the coast. The ships sail past unfamiliar sights: the Southern Cross, a huge waterspout, and St. Elmo’s fire. At the Cape of Good Hope, the ships are confronted by a huge and monstrous being that angrily predicts future storms and shipwrecks for any so bold as to pass the cape. The beast identifies itself as the titan Adamaster, led by his love of the Nereid Thetis to join the titans in their war against Jupiter.

Da Gama’s ships pass the cape in the face of hostile currents. The have several encounters with primitive peoples, as they anchor to scrape the ships’ keels. The crews have a bout with scurvy before arriving at Mozambique and Mombasa and finally at Malinda.

The Portuguese, after a lavish party, set off again. Bacchus visits Neptune’s underwater palace and convenes the gods and goddesses of the sea, then fires them up over the arrogance of the human trespassers in their realm. Neptune summons Aeolus, god of the winds. Meanwhile, the men on watch are entertained with the story of the Twelve of England, twelve Portuguese knights who go to England to defend the honor of twelve noble ladies. As he is finishing, Aeolus’s winds strike the fleet and nearly sink it. Venus arrives with her nymphs, who seduce the various winds. As day breaks, the sea is calm again, and India is within sight.

A geographical survey of India is ordered, and da Gama sends men ashore. They soon meet a Barbary Muslim, Monsaide, who speaks Spanish. He invites them to his home and tells them of the history and customs of India. The king of Calicut gives da Gama permission to come ashore. Da Gama visits the palace, disapproves to the idols, and admires a series of wall paintings telling of India’s history. Da Gama offers the king a commercial treaty, so the king visits da Gama’s ship.

Meanwhile, Bacchus in another form appears in a dream to a Muslim priest, who persuades other Muslim leaders to spread the word against the Portuguese. The king summons da Gama to answer their accusations, which he does successfully. The Muslims next refuse to let him return to his ship and try to lure his fleet into port so they can attack it. Da Gama, however, plays on their greed and finally manages to get back to his ship.

Da Gama learns from his Barbary friend, now converted to Christianity, that the Muslims want to keep the Portuguese ships in port until a large, well-armed fleet arrives from Mecca. Da Gama takes his factors and goods on board and sets sail for home. Venus, to reward their exploits, summons Cupid and creates an island paradise stocked with nymphs. The mariners stop to take on water, discover the nymphs, and have a day-long romp.

A lavish banquet is held on the island. One of the nymphs gives a detailed prophecy of Portugal’s future triumphs in India. Another nymph takes da Gama to an enchanted mountaintop and shows him a small and hovering model of the cosmos, explains its workings, points out the earth and its continents, and describes their various inhabitants. The fleet, nymphs and all, returns to Portugal, which has seen a decline of its warlike spirit. King Sebastian is exhorted to support explorers and colonizers and to listen only to the wise and experienced.

The Lusiads

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The Story:

The gods and goddesses, called together by Jove, assembled on Olympus. When they had taken their places, Jove announced to them that the Fates had decreed that the men of Lusitania, or Portugal, should outdo all the great conquerors of ancient times by sailing around Africa to Asia, there to become the rulers of a new continent. Of all the assembled pantheon only Bacchus, who looked upon Asia as his own, dissented. Venus, however, friendly toward the Portuguese, took their side, aided by Mars.

Vasco da Gama was the captain chosen to head the voyage of exploration. Having sailed southward to the Cape of Good Hope, the Portuguese ships made their way around it and then sailed northward along the African coast, until they arrived at the island of Mozambique. The natives of that island pretended friendliness but tried to ambush the sailors when they put ashore for water; fortunately, the Portuguese escaped. Leaving the island behind, da Gama sailed northward along the African coast in search of India. He tried to land on another coast, but there, too, the natives were unfriendly. When they tried to lay an ambush, Venus interceded on behalf of da Gama and his men.

Guided by Mercury, da Gama set sail for a point still farther north. Arriving off Mombassa, the Portuguese ships dropped sails and anchors. The king of Mombassa made the Portuguese welcome to his domain, as Jove had told Venus he would, and gave the men of Portugal needed supplies. While paying a visit to da Gama’s ship, the king asked the Portuguese leader to tell him about Portugal’s history and the history of the voyage thus far. Da Gama was only too glad to give an account of his long and troublesome voyage and to tell of his nation’s history.

Da Gama told the king where Portugal lay on the map of Europe and related how the Moors had at one time overrun the land. He described the great battles of Portuguese kings against the Moors: how the first Alphonso had first pushed the Moors back toward the shores of the Mediterranean and how his grandson, also named Alphonso, had continued the wars against the Moors and defeated with a small army five hosts of Moors under five Moorish kings. The second Alphonso was succeeded by Sancho, who, continuing the wars against the Moors, drove them from Europe and then fought against them in the Holy Land. Da Gama also told of the wars between the Spanish kings and the descendants of the great Alphonsos.

After ending his narrative of the martial history of Portugal, da Gama described his own adventures since leaving the mouth of the Tagus River. He told how his ships had sailed past the Canary Islands, past the Hesperides, and past the mouth of the mighty Congo. He told the king of the strange waterspouts they had seen, the terrible storms they had endured, and the awesome sea creatures they had met. He related how they had tried to make friends of the people of the African coast by giving them odd knickknacks and how the Africans in return had tried to kill them after pretending friendship. Da Gama told of the experiences of one of his men, Veloso, who had wandered too far inland and had almost been killed by Africans, and how Veloso had claimed that he returned quickly only because he thought the ships in danger.

Da Gama also narrated his adventure with the spirit of the Cape of Good Hope. The spirit appeared to the Portuguese as his ships sighted the cape and told them that they were the first men to sail in those waters. In return for their daring, the spirit prophesied, some of them would have to die, and that many of these men who followed them would also die for venturing so far into strange lands. The spirit said that he was one of the Titans who had fought against Jove and that his name had been Adamastor. The Titan had pursued a nymph, a chase which ended when divine wrath changed him into a range of mountains forming the cape at Africa’s foot. Da Gama next told of the plague that had struck his crew, of the shortage of drinking water, of the loss of necessary food through spoilage. He also told of battles and ambushes in which the Portuguese fought with unfriendly natives of the east African coast.

After hearing his account of Portuguese history and da Gama’s fabulous voyage, the king thought he could not do enough to show his friendliness toward the great men who represented Portugal. The Mombassans sent a pilot to da Gama and also the provisions and water necessary for a voyage across the Indian Ocean to the city of Calcutta. Bacchus, meanwhile, was furious at the success of da Gama and his ships. Determined to prevent Asia from falling into the hands of the Portuguese, Bacchus went into the depths of the sea to the court of Neptune, there to seek the aid of the sea god. He told Neptune that the men of Portugal were despoiling his kingdom and that the Portuguese spoke of the ruler of the sea only in terms of insolence. Neptune, angered at the report, sent storms to destroy their ships, but Venus interceded once more on behalf of the Portuguese and saved them from the storms unleashed by Neptune.

The Portuguese, arriving on the Indian coast, landed on the shore near Calcutta. One of the first to meet the men of Portugal was a Mohammedan who was glad to see them because he himself was from the northwestern part of Africa. He sent word to the Emperor of Malabar, informing him of the white strangers and of the distance they had traveled. The emperor quickly gave audience to da Gama, who told the ruler that he wished to trade for products of the eastern lands. Arrangements went forward to exchange Portuguese goods for spices and other products of India. The Mohammedan peoples in India became aroused and tried to bribe the king’s council to halt the trading. Failing in that plan, they tried to delay da Gama’s departure, for they hoped to destroy the Portuguese ships in battle with a fleet sailing from Arabia. Da Gama outwitted his enemies, however, and set out on the return voyage before the Arabian fleet had arrived.

As the Portuguese ships sailed westward toward home, Venus moved an island into their path. Needing a rest from their travels, da Gama and his men anchored off the island and went ashore. There, under the guidance of Venus, nymphs charmed away the hours for the sailors, and the goddess herself took da Gama to a castle high on a hill and showed him a vision of the future in which he saw later Portuguese—Albuquerque, Sampoyo, Noronia, and others— completing the conquest of Asia for their king and nation.

Critical Evaluation:

Descended from an ancient Galician family, Luís de Camões was distantly related to the hero of his epic narrative. In addition, the author had covered part of Vasco da Gama’s route when he went to the Orient as an agent of the crown. On his return trip from Macao, Camões was shipwrecked, saving nothing but a faithful Javanese slave and the manuscripts of The Lusiads. The poem was the product of a man of action during a period of great national activity, at a time when the national spirit of Portugal had reached a high point. In the epic tradition, the poem finds the gods of Olympus siding for and against the Portuguese heroes; there is a descent into the underworld of Neptune. The famous weapon in this poem, a feature of epics, is the Portuguese ships’ cannon. All of the other hallmarks of the epic are present, too, for those who seek them.

The Lusiads is one of the world’s noted epics. It is dedicated to Portugal, and its author, Luís de Camões, is regarded as a symbol of that country. A poem of distant enterprise, one of whose themes is “man against the sea,” The Lusiads also contains a fund of historic, geographic, cultural, and scientific information. It presents a panorama of interesting personalities, such as kings, navigators, conquistadors, missionaries, and Asian monarchs. The poem is thus much more than a glorification of Vasco de Gama’s discovery of India and more than a jingoistic puffing-up of Portugal’s sixteenth century conquests in Asia, Africa, and Brazil.

Camões selected da Gama’s 1497-1499 voyage only as the literary center of his work. This voyage is used merely to tell the real story—that of the “Lusiads,” or the men of Portugal. These men founded a new nation in Spain’s northwest corner, following the battle of Ourique in 1139, when they placed five blue shields on their flag in the form of a cross. Celebrating Christ’s five wounds and the five Moorish kings killed at Ourique, this symbol was carried southward in an anti-Islamic crusade until Portugal’s continental limits were reached in 1252.

No element was missing in Portuguese history for Camões to write his epic, for Portugal’s epic was achieved at home and, after 1415, abroad by kings, counselors, princes, saints, and all the heroes capable of conceiving, molding, and effecting a titanic enterprise. The common man, however, is its truest hero, for Camões wrote, “I sing the noble Lusitanian breast,” thus making an entire people his collective hero.

After the Moorish wars were completed, Portugal was blessed by key Portuguese such as the scholarly King Diniz, who consolidated the new country by peopling southern Portugal, planting pine forests to build ships, developing agriculture, and founding Coimbra University. By 1415, Portugal was a compact, military nation on Europe’s western edge with a martial aristocracy and hardy peasantry of Celtic-Swabian stock that unblushingly believed in the superiority of its religion, culture, and race. A geographic outpost of Europe, fanatically Christian, Portugal launched its ships into the uncharted seas, “never before navigated,” ending medieval geography and rolling back the “Sea of Darkness.” Its tiny caravels and galleons were commanded by Knights of Christ clad in chain mail, bearing the symbol of the Sacred Heart, and carrying huge, two-handed swords. Camões’ epic had as its stated purpose the destruction of Islam at its distant sources.

Having rounded the Cape of Good Hope and discovered India in 1497-1499, Portugal’s conquistadors continued the traditional Spanish-Portuguese vendetta against “the Moors” throughout the Indian Ocean. The Lusiads exults in their killing, burning, and looting as they took the spice trade from “the obscene Ismaelites.” They tried to capture Mecca and Medina so as to ransom the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem; they conquered most of the outlets to the Indian Ocean; they reached China seven years before Cortez reached Mexico. They seized and destroyed what they believed was the Dalada, or Holy Tooth of Buddha, and they plundered the tombs of the emperors of China, but their missionaries evangelized from the interior of Brazil to Japan. At the height of Portuguese Empire, Camões’ flag of “five azures in a cross designed” flew in Brazil, many regions of Africa including the interior of the area around the Congo, the coasts of Arabia, Persia, Malaya, parts of Indonesia, and over countless islands. It has been said that the empire of Camões’ poem comprised thirty-two foreign kingdoms, 433 overseas garrison towns, and many isolated fortresses, even though Portugal itself comprised less than one percent of Europe’s land area and had perhaps one million people.

The Lusiads has been translated into many languages. It was written during Camões’ seventeen years as a private soldier in Asia, where research opportunities were scant; yet, it is filled with mythological allusions, some of which are so obscure that professional classicists have to consult their texts in order to explain them. The astronomy of The Lusiads, for example, is accurate despite sixteenth century limitations, while Camões’ descriptions of the eternal correlation of sea and sky, of the ocean’s surface, and of weather conditions has been praised by naturalists. The most diverse elements enter into the complex structure of The Lusiads, including the flora and religions of lndia’s subcontinent. The poem’s nautical aspects have also been praised, often by professional seamen. Camões also intentionally archived elements of phonetics, grammar, spelling, and meter, for which reason his poem has been called simultaneously a poem and a museum. The poem’s thought soars above its polished surfaces, or even its complex symbolism. Camões was a religious writer, who must be considered a poet of the Counter-Reformation, and who depicted the great conquistadors Almeida and Albuquerque as missionaries who carried war to pagan lands. Camões was a person of unusual piety, and has been likened to “a Christian poet at the foot of the Cross of Calvary.” His deepest admiration is reserved for the fanatic young King Sebastian of Portugal, the so-called “Portuguese Quijote,” who died on a rash crusade against Islam in Africa’s interior, and whom Camões considered the perfect epitome of a “Lusiad.”

Camões also expressed his views on individual behavior, exalting virtues such as honesty, selflessness, and intrepidity in death. His heroes were always heroes of duty and honor, and he felt that death was happier than birth because there was one safe port—“to believe in Christ.” He pilloried jealousy, greed, selfishness, cruelty (except against Infidels), and materialism, and it has been said that The Lusiads is written in letters of gold on a whiteness of marble, as Portugal’s epitaph and testament.

The Lusiads remains a bond of unity between the peoples of the Portuguese world, whether in continental Portugal itself, on the adjacent islands of Madeira and the Azores, or in Brazil, Angola, Mozambique, Macao, Timor, and even the enclave of Goa, lost to India in 1961. Camões’ subtle influence on national behavior patterns is visible not only in “the unpleasing portraits of the poet that grace the walls of Portuguese taverns,” as Aubrey Bell stated, but because he is studied in the classrooms of Portugal, its colonies, and Brazil. His memory, not that of a great king or warrior, was used as a symbol of nationality when Portugal recovered its independence from Spain in 1640. It may be argued that there is no country that pays a greater homage to any of its national poets than Portugal does to Camões. Thus, the greatest influence of The Lusiads was felt after its author’s death, and the epic remains a living force wherever its language is spoken.


Bowra, 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.

Places Discussed

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*Portugal. Fledgling 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 (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 (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. 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.


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Bowra, 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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Critical Essays