The Poem

(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

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,...

(The entire section is 761 words.)

The Lusiads

(Critical Survey of Literature, Masterpiece Edition)

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—...

(The entire section is 2654 words.)

Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)


*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...

(The entire section is 918 words.)


(Great Characters in Literature)

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.