Introduction to Camões: Made in Goa

Posted on November 9, 2017 in News

The introduction to Camões: Made in Goa, a brand-new publication by Landeg White from Under the Peepal Tree press.

Camões arrived in India in November 1553, disembarking in Goa after a voyage of seven months. He arrived not as a Viceroy or Governor or Admiral, not as an authority figure of any kind, but as a convict soldier, sentenced to military service after being convicted of brawling in Lisbon. At the Corpus Christi festival in 1550, he had wounded a court official with a sword thrust, his subsequent prison sentence being commuted to a fine of 4,000 reis and three years military service in India.

It is hard to over-emphasis the scale of this personal disaster. Camões was 28, possibly 29 years of age. He was born into the lower ranks of the nobility, and all his ambitions had been focused on the Portuguese court, where he hoped his skills as a poet would secure him an appointment – the sixteenth century equivalent of a government job. The poems he wrote in pursuit of this were accomplished but conventional, versions of Petrarch whose sonnets in vernacular Italian had swept Europe with their celebrations of unrequited love, and pastoral eclogues featuring shepherdesses who were thinly disguised portraits of ladies at the Portuguese court. Suddenly, that ambition was shattered.

Or not quite suddenly. He had been in trouble before, exiled to Ceuta in north Africa following what tradition, and some poetic evidence, suggests was an intrigue with a court lady. There in his first exile, he had lost an eye in battle with local Berbers, and written of

…this foreign land, these new ways of being human,
a different people with customs I find strange… (1)

But that exile was temporary. This to India was likely to be permanent, and not easily survived.
The ship he arrived on was the only one of four to complete that year’s outward voyage. The historian Teotónio de Sousa has described how the Goan garrison was recruited “by the practice of emptying the prisons of Portugal. Over one-third of the men that embarked in Lisbon normally succumbed during the journey and the remaining number had to undergo a long or short period of hospitalization on arrival.” (2) Once at Goa, the state would feed them and pay a small salary during the five months of summer when they embarked in the coastal fleets, but during the remaining part of the year, they were left to fend for themselves, (living with local women, serving under neighbouring Indian rulers, or joining the church). There are grounds for thinking Camões may have avoided the worst of such circumstances – a hypothesis to which we shall return.

Meanwhile, he was immediately drafted into Viceroy Afonso de Noronha’s expedition to Expedition to Malabar, to free the rulers of Cochin and Porcá from the Sultan of Chembe who had been dubbed the “Pepper King”. It was a dispiriting action, as he records in his elegy O Poeta Simónides, falando (3). This occupied much of 1554. The following year, from February to November, he served with Viceroy Mascaranhas’s expedition to the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf, blockading seaways to suppress Arab trading networks. It was while stationed at Ormuz, opposite Cape Guardafui, he wrote perhaps his most despairing poem, the hymn Junta um seco, fero e estéril monte (4) at Ormuz.

For the disaster that had befallen him affected not just his ambition for a career at court. It was a crisis for his poetry too. What does the court poet write about when he loses his place at court? What themes does he address when courtly fashions are no longer available to him? Where does he find an audience? The practice of publishing slim volumes of verse, launching them upon the public to make their own way in the world, began only after Camões’s death. In his own time, poems circulated in manuscript among groups with shared backgrounds and relatively privileged positions. Deprived of that, what was the very point of writing?

It is the main theme of O Poeta Simónides, falando, written in 1555 after Camões’s return from the expedition against the Sultan of Chembe, and it begins with an extended comment on the fate that struck him in the spring of 1553 when sentenced to service in India as a common soldier:

Talking with captain Themistocles
one day, on matters of practical science, the Greek poet Simónides
offered him some contrivance just invented, to file systematically all his experiences,
showing him such subtle rules
that nothing would fade from his memory bank, however swiftly time rolls.

But Themistocles is sceptical:

‘O illustrious Simónides’, he said,
do you really put such faith in your trick
of showing memory a fresh road?

If you could only reveal me the knack
of recalling nothing from my past,
you’d be doing me the better work!’

This excellent maxim, long ingested,
suits one who found myself deported,
my cherished hopes all dashed,

Oh, how appropriately he shouted,
‘Simónides, invent differently;
past and present aren’t connected!’

what does it serve that men burden
their minds with what’s past, given all
passes, unless to regret and know pain.

With this, Camões describes embarking for India. As he sails down the Tagus, the nymphs Galateia, Panopeia, Ligeia, Melanto and Dinamene surf beside him, scattering spray from their scallop shells. They had been the heroines of his early pastoral eclogues, thinly disguised versions of ladies at court, and he chats with them companionably. But they cannot face the Atlantic. They have to turn back, promising to convey his farewells to the Tagus shepherds and inscribe his name on the gold-bearing sands. He has to sail on without them. Within three tercets, he is in an entirely new hemisphere under constellations he does not recognize, and in new poetic territory:

then black clouds advanced at nightfall
as the brief dusk was nitrous
and the ocean turned foul.

In such a storm, the world’s apparatus
seemed about to implode;
the waves became vertiginous.

Fierce Boreas and Notus conjured
howling gales, tearing
the concave sails from the masthead;

the rigging whistled in the uproar;
the blaspheming of the shocked
mariners curdled the atmosphere.

Austere, terrible Jupiter shook
the bolts forged by Vulcan’s hammers,
leaving earth’s poles thunderstruck.

Ovid is partly in Camões’s mind here, drawing a status- claiming parallel with the Roman poet ambushed by storms en route to Tomis on the Black Sea. But there is no reason to doubt Camões really did encounter bad weather off the Cape of Storms. Most sailors did, but until this moment, he had never written anything remotely similar.

Then at the storm’s height, he makes a most curious vow. Turning, as it were, from Ovid to Petrarch, he promises that wherever his fate takes him he will remain true to the values of courtly love:

Yet Love showed himself in this extreme
all powerful, not disposed to flee
– the greater the challenge, the more firm –

as I spoke out, with death before me:
‘Lady, should you just once grieve, all
I suffered will vanish from my memory.’

In this crisis, nothing could forestall
constant love’s true nature
in any heart it had entered for real.

Some cause, my Lord, ordained for sure
that love is never truly courtly
while in the presence of its cure.

Wherever fate leads him, he’ll continue celebrating the chivalric values of the poems he wrote before his exile. Arriving in India, he does attempt this. Proceeding to his first campaign, he writes the sonnet Quem quiser ver d’Amor ua excelência (5), which concludes with the following sestet:

Wherever I’m placed by relentless fate
in sorrow, death, injury or perdition,
or in sublime and prosperous anchorage;

in short, whether in high or low estate,
until implacable death tracks me down,
on my tongue your name, in my heart your image.

Then, in the concluding tercet of sonnet Senhora minha, se a Fortuna imiga (6), he makes a similar vow:

In the front line, in an echoing, strident
voice, boasting your name alone,
I’ll put hurricanes and the enemy to flight.

This is touching and, as always with Camões, the technique is impeccable. But it’s surely more than a little absurd. As already noted, the first action Camões saw was as part of Afonso de Noronha’s expedition against the Sultan of Chembe, intended to secure the market in peppers. There was nothing remotely chivalrous about it. Camões was what would later be called a degredado, but he’s pretending to be Knight of the Round Table. A more precise parallel is perhaps with Cervantes’s Dom Quixote, patterning his behaviour on his books of chivalry in a world that has left them far behind. The gap between Camões’s poetic language and his actual circumstances is being stretched to breaking point.

Returning to the Elegy, the account given there of this first expedition could hardly be more different:

In this manner, it was my destiny
to reach the distant and longed-for
Goa, the grave of honest poverty.

I saw in our own people such hauteur
and in the land’s owners so little, against whom
it was at once necessary to make war.

Some island the King of Porcá claimed
had been taken by the King of Pimenta;
we were sent to retake it, and did the same.

With a huge armada, fitted out
by Goa’s Vice-Roy, we pressed on
with every armed man located,

and with very little effort we won
against a people skilled only with bows,
punishing them with death and arson.

There’s nothing courtly about these lines, no reference back to a lady whose cause he is championing. Nor do they celebrate any kind of imperial triumph. Camões seems disgusted with the “hauteur” of the colonial society he has joined, and his sympathies are entirely with the “people skilled only with bows”, who didn’t stand a chance against Portuguese cannon.

The Elegy concludes with a long section reflecting on what might have been had he been born into a different level of society. “O happy those who work the land,” he writes, “if only they knew their own good.’ Thirteen tercets follow, describing the benefits of rural existence, including its aesthetic and intellectual pleasures, in contrast both to the court and to his present existence. This backward glance, at the rural Portugal he has left behind but which was never his, rings true. Camões was a great admirer of folksong, as his many ballads, rounds and roundels illustrate, and life as a peasant poet might have suited him. But, he continues, how could any shepherd or cowherd understand his present situation?

How could he grasp what I have to say
about having to pursue dreadful Mars,
my eyes always on my jeopardy?

Yet it must be, my Lord, by whatever muse,
that even if fate has such authority
to divide me so far from all I prize,

it can’t divide me from the prime duty
of my muscular verse, while death postpones
my passage to Rhadamanthus’s court,
if sad people can enjoy such fortune!

This conclusion emphasizes his “prime duty” to his “muscular verse”.

But what sort of verse? The Elegy’s ending is inconclusive, and in that sense unsatisfactory. It has acknowledged there can little connection between the poet he was & the poet he must now become. It has bid goodbye to the Tagus nymphs, the heroines of his pastorals. It has flirted with the idea of maintaining courtly love as his theme, but faced with actual fighting has abandoned any notion of presenting it in chivalrous terms. It has flirted with folksong as a genre, but has recognized his status and his experience have made a shepherd’s life an impossible dream. It has concluded by emphasizing his lifelong vocation as a poet, but without knowing what kind of poetry his future holds.

Hence the title of this selection, Camoes: Made in Goa. It is not intended to suggest he arrived in Goa as a tabula rasa, a blank slate. The language of his verse is Portuguese, along with some Spanish. His amorous adventures alone make it likely he learned some Konkani, but there is no evidence he wrote in that language. His writings in Goa continue to exploit his deep knowledge of Virgil, Horace and especially Ovid, and they continue to demonstrate the technical mastery he developed back at the Lisbon court. At the same time, it has to be conceded there is little directly about India in his poems. He didn’t travel for travel’s sake, and he experienced Africa, India and the far East as a long and bitter exile. By modern standards, he didn’t make the most of his opportunities. He didn’t match the British judge Sir William Jones in founding the Asiatic Society of Bengal and revolutionizing language studies by proposing Sanskrit as a source for both Greek and Latin. (7) He didn’t attach himself to a guru, or learn to play the sitar, or follow the hippy trail and smoke pot on Anjuna beach, or any of the things the modern European visitor is supposed to do in India. To expect this of him is a little unfair. He lived a century and a half before the enlightenment, when Europeans began taking a serious interest in the countries they visited. In his day, only Jesuit missionaries studied local languages and culture, and they did so with a view to proselytization. For the rest, as we shall see in a moment, the Inquisition made such enquiries dangerous.

Afer his return to Portugal, in a long autobiographical hymn that seems to be his last major poem, he looked back briefly on his time in Africa and India:

My humanity failed me; in my first
danger, I saw the friendly people
as hostile, and in my second
the land I had set foot in seemed lethal
as to breath the very air was refused,
while time and the world were what in the end
I missed, with their tough and profound secrets… (8)

Only the best of returning expatriates feel like this. The sense of missed opportunities seems palpable.
So what difference did India make? Consider the following sonnet:

Invent fresh arts and cunning,
Love, to destroy me, and new frustrations;
but you can’t remove my expectations
by taking away what I don’t have.

Look where my hopes are grounded!
Observe what perilous guarantees
that I don’t fear even on the wildest seas
contrast or change, the ship having foundered.

But insofar as I’m not unhappy
when hope fails, Love maintains within
an evil that destroys, and in secret:

some days there pitches camp in me
I know not what, nor where it is born,
nor whence it comes, nor why it hurts. (9)

To those familiar with Camões’s early work, this is recognizably the same poet. There is the same sweetness and lucidity of style, the same management of cadences, the same mastery of the sonnet form, the same trademark movement throughout the poem towards greater simplicity and poignancy of expression. Love still the theme, but not courtly love, not Cupid with his sharp arrows, no high- born lady with her customary disdain, nor courtly presence at all, not even courtiers pretending to be shepherds and shepherdesses, but rather a mysterious ailment of the heart. Camões has moved away from the sophisticated wit of the Petrarchan mode to write a complete different, completely original type kind of love poem, one that is intense, personal, utterly direct and, for the translator, dismaying simple.

The Shakespearean scholar Barbara Everett has shown something similar happening with Shakespeare’s sonnets, as he moves on from the lordly, aristocratic wit of Surrey and Sydney to write intensely personal poems that have no courtly reference and “are never at home anywhere”. The difference is that Camões, writing in Goa, was doing it 40 years earlier. (10)

Even more startlingly, consider the following:
That slave I own
who holds me captive,
living for her alone
who scorns I should live,
no hybrid rose
drenched in dew
had ever to these eyes
half such beauty.

The flowers in the field
and the stars above
in their radiance, yield
to my love.

Distinct in feature,
eyes dark and at rest,
tired creature,
but not of conquest.

Here dwells the sweetness
by which I live,
she being mistress
of whom she is captive.
Her hair is raven
and the fashion responds,
forgetting its given
preference for blonde.

Love being negro,
at so sweet a figure,
the blanketing snow
vows to change colour.
Gladly obedient,
and naturally clever,
this may be expedient
but barbarous, never!

Quiet presence
that silences storms;
all my disturbance
finds peace in her arms.
This is the vassal
who makes me her slave,
being the muscle
that keeps me alive. (11)

The ghost of Petrarch haunts this poem, the poet praising his mistress for being lovelier than the rose, brighter than the meadow flowers or the stars in the heavens, a heartless unattainable beauty whom the enslaved lover can worship only from afar. Yet this Barbara is dark-skinned, with black hair rather than golden, and non-European features. She is his ‘captive’, a word that would have alerted Camões’s first readers to the fact that she is a slave, a female prisoner whom the soldier poet has made his apparently reluctant concubine. It is to this situation of gross colonial and sexual exploitation to which the conventional metaphors of courtly love are applied, providing Camões with his astonishing opening lines and equally astonishing conclusion.

Having turned both social and poetic conventions upside down, he subverts other modes – the idea that white skin, an alabaster neck, a snowy bosom, blue eyes and golden hair, are the marks of a desirable mistress. Barbara has non-European features, her eyes are dark eyes, and her hair is raven. “Love being negro,” Camões writes, ”at so sweet a figure / the blanketing snow / vows to change colour.” The figure, of course, is Barbara’s. But it is also the metaphor, associating love with darkness. In this unflinching poem of love and respect, perhaps the most disturbing line is the fourth “who scorns I should live”. Is this the cruel mistress of the Petrarchan mode, disdaining her lover? Or is this the smouldering resentment of a slave, hating her exploiter?

Fifty years later, Shakespeare & Donne would have fun in upsetting the conventions of courtly love (“My mistress eyes are nothing like the sun”). But it is hard to feel anyone travelled so far as Camões in taking Petrarch apart.

Early in 1556, following the Mascaranhas expedition, Camões seems to have been allowed to abandon military service a year early. After being jailed briefly for writing a play satirizing colonial society, he was released by Governor Francisco Barreto and awarded the post of Trustee for the Property of the Deceased in Macão. How do we explain this reversal in his fortunes? One plausible hypothesis is suggested by a comment made long afterwards by the Chief Secretary of the colony praising “the generosity of the Jews in sheltering and feeding the soldiers who arrived from Portugal and had nowhere to go,” (12) in contrast to Portuguese settlers who ignored them. Did Camões this early attract the attention and manage to gain the patronage of the wealthy physician Garcia da Orta?

Orta, who was at least two decades older than Camões, was a New Christian from a former Sephardic family. He had studied in Alcalá and Salamanca, had practised as a physician in Castelo da Vide and Lisbon, and in 1530 was appointed to Natural Philosophy at Lisbon University (13). In 1534, however, fearing investigation by the Inquisition, he accepted an appointment as personal physician to Martin Afonso de Sousa, a naval official, and attended him on expeditions to Diu and Cochin, settling in Goa in late 1530s when Sousa returned to Portugal. He became personal physician to several Viceroys, and a dealer in drugs and precious stones, with a wide range of friends including learned Hindus & Muslims. Later, he and Camões were certainly friends. The only doubt is whether this began as early as 1556 to explain Camões’s sudden good fortune.

We have no way of knowing what went wrong with the Macão appointment. It is difficult to imagine Camões as an administrator and perhaps the charge of embezzlement arose simply from the haphazard nature of his book-keeping. Perhaps his recall simply followed from the appointment of Constantino de Bragança as Governor. On his return voyage, he was shipwrecked in the Mekong Delta. Camões managed to swim ashore with his Lusíads manuscript, but his companion, who may or may not have been Barbara, was drowned. He commemorated her death in a series of heartbroken sonnets (14), under the name of Dinamene. This, it will be recalled, was the name of one of the nymphs who had accompanied him down the Tagus when he set sail from Lisbon to India. It is a token of how in India his work has matured. In the real world of the East, nymphs do not convort in the water: they drown.

Back in Goa in 1558, Camões was jailed while under investigation, and then jailed again for being unable to pay his debts. The next five years are a mystery, though under Viceroy Francisco Coutinho Camões’s life seems to have stabilised. There are several poems addressed to Coutinho and members of his family, including Dona Cuionar de Blasfé, who had married a Coutinho. Goa was no colonial backwater, and among his friends, acquaintances and rivals were some of the most distinguished men of the day. The genial banter of Se Não Queres Padecer (“If you’ve no wish to tolerate”, p. 154), an invitation to five friends to a dinner consisting of “roast crumbs of nothing / with zero as a piquant sauce” is ample illustration. When in 1563, Garcia da Orta published his Colóquios dos Simples e Drogas da India, a ground- breaking study of Indian medicinal plants, Camões contributed a dedicatory poem, addressed to Coutinho, praising “this ancient and lettered / man, burdened by years / and vast experience, instructed / by the muses of the Ganges.” It was his first published poem. (15)

Then disaster struck. Francis Xavier, the Jesuit missionary, had written to Jõao III in 1545, requesting an Inquisition to be installed in Goa. But it was in 1560, long after Xavier’s death, that the first inquisitors arrived, and in 1566 that, under the new Viceroy António de Noronha, they initiated what became throughout Europe a by-word for mindless oppression. In that year, Hinduism was proscribed and some 300 Hindu temples burned. Turning their attention to New Christians, the Inquisitors targeted among others Garcia da Orta. He eluded them by dying in 1568, so they seized his sister Catarina and burned her publicly in his stead, using evidence they obtained from her under torture to exhume Orta’s remains and incinerate them too.

Camões had every reason to be fearful, having so publicly endorsed the book in question. In late 1567, he left Goa. The evidence that he left in a hurry is that he hadn’t the means to travel to Lisbon, getting stranded in Mozambique for over a year, living in great poverty and eating at the expense of friends. He was found there in March 1568 by the much younger historian Diogo de Couto, who was himself travelling from Cochin via Goa to Lisbon, but was forced by the season’s winds to spend five and a half months waiting in Mozambique for an onward passage. Couto managed to prevail on friends to buy Camões’s passage, and they eventually left Mozambique in September 1569, arriving in Lisbon the following April. The main event that followed was the publication in 1572 of Camões’s masterpiece The Lusíads, the principal production of the years he had spent in Goa.

There are no extracts from The Lusíads in this volume. The epic has to be read whole (16) But it is very much a poem made in Goa, the Goan perspective being fundamental.

Take, as one example among many, stanzas 6 – 21 of Canto 3, where Vasco da Gama, doubling for the moment as Camões’s narrator, describes to the Sultan of Malindi the Europe from which he has sailed. It is a passage without precedent in earlier European writing, a vision of Europe as a single historical, geographical, and cultural entity, beginning where Russia borders Asia, and extending across Lapland and Scandinavia, through Poland and Germany, Greece and Italy and France, and finally to Iberia, with Spain the head of Europe and Portugal its crown. This vision has many features, but its key is that this is Europe seen for the first time from outside. More precisely, it is being described from the perspective of India.

The whole epic turns on this.

Camões was the first great European poet to cross the equator, and The Lusíads is the first truly global poem. It is no accident that his vision of the significance Portugal’s pioneer voyages should have come to him in India. No one can speak with assurance of what was passing through his mind during his long sojourn in the Orient. Our only source is his poetry, and any conclusions will follow from how that poetry, including his lyric poetry, is interpreted. The intuition that guided my translation of The Lusíads is as follows, that during his years in India, Camões ‘discovered’ two things.

First, he learned what it was to be Portuguese, to come from a landscape whose towns and rivers he loved, whose plains and castles were haunted by the ghosts of warriors who had fought for this territory, whose provinces were part of Christendom and the Holy Roman Empire but were emerging as a ‘state’, and whose people were learning loyalty to a concept of nation which transcended loyalty to kings. Secondly, he learned to celebrate what the Portuguese had given to the world with the pioneer voyages of the fifteenth century, culminating in the voyage to India, in revealing the planet’s true dimensions, its wealth, and its multitudes of peoples. It was the former of these ideas which was prophetic, taking wing after the restoration of Portugal’s independence from Spain in 1640. The latter, Camões’s celebration of the newness of the world, was a theme that required, and requires, constant rediscovery.


  1. The Collected Lyric Poems of Luís de Camões, p. 88.
  2. Teotónio de Sousa, Medieval Goa; a socio-economic history (2nd revised English edition, Broadway Book Centre, 2009), 86-7.
  3. “Talking with Captain Themistocles”, p.32.
  4. “Under a parched and barren mountain”, p.79
  5. “Whoever wants to witness Love at his best”, p.42.
  6. “My Lady, if it is Fortune’s will”, p.44.
  7. In his third presidential address to the society delivered 2 February, 1786.
  8. The Collected Lyric Poems of Luís de Camões, p. 302
  9. Busque Amor novas artes, novo engenho, p.104.
  10. see Barbara Everett, “Shakespeare and the Elizabethan Sonnets,” London Review of Books, vol 30, no 9 (8 May, 2008) 12-15,
  11. Aquela cativa, p.146.
  12. de Sousa, p. 88-9.
  13. The university was definitively transferred to Coimbra in 1537.
  14. see pps. 58-60
  15. Aquele único exemplo, p. 162
  16. Published by Oxford University Press in their World’s Classic series, it is current available through Amazon for £5.29.