Portuguese American Journal

Essay | The Lusíadas as a Historical Document – Andrew Nunes

By Andrew Nunes

2024 marks the fifth centenary of the birth of Luís Vaz de Camões (1524/5?-1580). Across Portugal and in former Portuguese territories Camões crossed, countless commemorative programmes have been held by universities and institutions, with the Portuguese government planning to continue their commemorations until the end of the year. Such large commemorations, however, often overlook much of the history relating to the personages they reflect upon. Considering recent events have shown we should be more critical of who we today commemorate, we need to rethink Camões. Not necessarily to stress he was a ruffian and a jailbird, thus subversive in the sense some of his writings may have been a way for him to amend for his transgressions and then, never genuine praise for his kingdom that exiled him. Rather, to read Camões more critically for the history he chooses to tell. I demonstrate this through Camões’ most famous work, his Os Lusíadas (1572).

Os Lusíadas by Camões is an epic poem that immortalised Vasco da Gama and the Portuguese sea voyages to India via Southern Africa in 1497-1498. Over half a century after this voyage, Camões dramatises the event as world-changing, where a divine plan was proposed to the Portuguese with the intervention from the classical gods. In ten ‘cantos’, Camões narrates the history of Portugal, its birth, rise and growth through the Reconquista and expansion overseas. He also notes the fate of the Portuguese, their feats, ‘accomplishments’ and rewards, among other details.

Throughout the epic, there is frequent use of Greek/Roman mythology. A conversation could be had that Camões borrowed too much from the epics of antiquity. The introduction of Os Lusíadas evokes deliberately the beginning of Virgil’s Aeneid, and throughout the shaping of Virgil’s epic itself; ‘it is to be regretted that Camões borrowed too much from the genius of others, when, without misplaced confidence, he might judiciously have relied upon his own’.[1] Despite these reservations, the epic has become emblematic of Portugal. Since its publication, it has been sourced to bolster national pride, especially during the Estado Novo period (1933-1974) that cultivated an imperial mythology and ethos surrounding the figures of the nation’s foundation, its navigators, and Camões himself.

In the historical context of this piece of Renaissance poetry, it provides a case that the Portuguese were the ushers of modernity due to their exploits and establishment of new trade routes via the seas. This is a problematic argument for various reasons. The epic is entirely in service to praise Portugal and the Portuguese. It is an uncritical account of a time of Portuguese empire-building. Excluded are the more damaging aspects of these voyages by Vasco da Gama, his biography, and other Portuguese men. Despite old hegemonic narratives like this epic of, and on, Portugal’s past, we must consider that these voyages (often referred to by the Portuguese lexicon as ‘Discoveries’) were to become the establishment of a colonial system for economic gains, that included the exploitation and subjection of people, the Atlantic slave trade, and so on. Withstanding these biases and silences, the epic still introduces some factual and historical events we can learn from.

As there is an abundance of literature and translations on Os Lusíadas, this essay does not attempt to analyse the epic meticulously but instead, its contribution is in highlighting some of its most notable parts that can inform the reader on various matters pertaining to Portugal, its people, and more. This essay will then, demonstrate that this piece of Renaissance poetry serves as a historical document, where we can acquire information on Portugal, and other matters, through the lens of a sixteenth-century Portuguese literary artist (Luís Vaz de Camões). Using the English-translated version by Landeg White (2008 [1997]), I note in brackets and footnotes the cantos, stanzas, and pages from which information is obtained, given to us by Camões himself.

Rather than a study of Os Lusíadas’ poetic form, its ottava rima in 1,102 stanzas, and so on, that one could analyse regarding its poetry, this essay will instead extract from the epic certain aspects and themes. Using the epic instead then as a historical document to obtain knowledge, I will look at firstly, etymology; secondly, symbols; thirdly, monarchs, wars and expansion; and fourthly, and finally, love and prophecy.


The etymology of certain words is given to us (the reader) by Camões in a few of his cantos. Here we learn the meanings behind the words that denote Portugal, and its people, originating from antiquity. In the Iberian Peninsula, the Roman province south of the Douro River, to the southern coastline of the Algarve (including a section of modern Spain that adjoins modern-day Portugal’s border) was a region named Lusitania within the Roman Empire. ‘Lusitania’ was named after Lusus, the son or companion of, the Roman god, Bacchus (canto 8, stanza 2-3), and the Indo-European people, the Lusitanians, that inhabited the land before the Roman conquest. The Lusitanians equate to the early Portuguese. The Portuguese are referred to by their ancestors in this etymological sense. The epic’s title, Lusíadas, itself is this reference to the land and people that the epic champions: the sons of Lusus (canto 3, stanza 95), the ‘heirs of Lusus’ (canto 7, stanza 2), the Lusitanians – the Portuguese. This emphasis on origin, Portugal’s founding myth was to disassociate the Portuguese and their identity with that of the Moors that had previously occupied the Iberian Peninsula for centuries. Other terms for places, Camões notes in the epic, another name for Portugal, more contemporary, is said to derive its name from the city of Porto (canto 6, stanza 52). Lisbon too, is alluded to by its former name in the epic, ‘Ulysippo’ founded by Ulysses, the Greek Odysseus (canto 3, stanza 57). In addition, in the final canto, Brazil is mentioned as obtaining its name due to ‘its red brazil-wood’ (canto 10, stanza 140).

Camões also notes a unique Portuguese term for the nymphs that live within the oceans and rivers from Greco-Roman mythology, the tágides. The word tágides means the nymphs of the Tagus River (Portuguese: Rio Tejo) that runs through the Iberian Peninsula to the Atlantic Ocean, with Lisbon as its mouth. The word is believed to have been created by André de Resende in an annotation to his poem Vicentius (1545) and is used by Camões thereafter, in his epic. It is the water nymphs of Lisbon’s river that Camões, following the masters of antiquity, asked for inspiration in the writings of Os Lusíadas (canto 1, stanzas 4-5). The tágides are then, a Portuguese adaptation of the Nereids of Greco-Roman mythology.


The origins of some symbols are noted in the epic by Camões. The Kingdom of Portugal’s second flag, or banner, is the best example. The first flag of Portugal was a blue cross on a white background. The second flag had the blue cross removed entirely, adding in its place five blue shields. The five blue shields represent, supposedly, five Moorish kings who were defeated in battle by the first King of Portugal, D. Afonso Henriques (reign, 1139-1185). These events tied with ‘the miracle of Ourique’ (1139) and the dominance of Catholicism at the time, the blue shields were placed in a cruciform shape, emblematic of the five wounds of Christ at his crucifixion (canto 1, stanza 7, and canto 3, stanza 53).

Another example of symbolism that appears close to the end of the epic is the ‘Island of Love’. Created by Venus, with the help of Cupid, this island is conjured up as a reward for the Portuguese. In a summary of the symbolism of this island, it is noted in the epic that it is the physical representation of Portuguese triumph, for their efforts and their exploits (canto 9, stanza 89).

I will analyse this ‘island’ later in this essay in the context of a different theme – Love and Prophecy. However, much more could be explored on this, and elsewhere, in the Lusíadas regarding its symbolism. The example of the flag is one of the most significant, however, because Portugal’s national flag still retains these details in its current form from the twelfth century.

Monarchs, wars and expansion

We ascertain through Os Lusíadas Portugal’s beginnings, that the Portugal of today was created through a portion of land given to Henry of Burgundy, and Teresa (daughter of Afonso VI of Castile), both the parents of Afonso Henriques. Henriques later inherits this county after the death of his father, and a war of succession takes place against his mother supported by Castile. Henriques defeats his mother’s army becoming King of Portugal, D. Afonso I. The county of Portugal grows during his reign, and the Reconquista, with Lisbon falling to the Portuguese in 1147 with the support of other European kingdoms en route to the Second Crusade (canto 3, stanzas 57-60).

Poetic but descriptive in his epic, Camões provides a further record of dynastic events; a string of successions and attributes accredited to various monarchs following the death of Portugal’s first king, D. Afonso I (canto 3, stanza 83). D. Sancho I is crowned the second King of Portugal (canto 3, stanza 85-6). After D. Sancho I’s death, heir D. Afonso II becomes king, and following his death D. Sancho II, followed by D. Afonso III.[2] D. Afonso III captures the Algarve expelling all the Moors from the area (canto 3, stanza 95). The capturing of this region marks the final territory known as modern-day Portugal within the Iberian Peninsula. Camões’ poetry names and describes more monarchs. D. Dinis is crowned who developed Portuguese infrastructure and created Portugal’s first university in Coimbra (canto 3, stanzas 96-8). D. Afonso IV aided Castile against the Moors capturing Granada in 1492, ending the Reconquista.[3] The death of D. Fernando I leads to a succession crisis against Castile with D. João being victorious in the conflict maintaining Portugal’s independence. His crowning (becoming D. João I) is the first of a new dynasty, the House of Aviz (canto 4, stanza 2). Under D. Manuel I, Portugal goes through a period of extensive expansion outside of the Iberian Peninsula. In the epic, this period of ‘discoveries’ tells of the Portuguese setting out on their voyages from Belém, Lisbon (canto 4, stanzas 85-7). In the earlier voyages before those under D. Manuel I (from the Algarve region, not Lisbon which was later), the Portuguese were the first to inhabit Madeira (canto 5, stanza 5). In the main narrative that the epic follows of Vasco da Gama’s voyage to India, a man named Veloso tells further a history of Portugal, to keep the sailors onboard the ship awake.[4] In this narrative, he mentions the epoch of D. João I (returning the reader to the start of the House of Aviz) which involves England’s Philippa of Lancaster and her marriage to this king (canto 6, stanza 47).

Keeping with this monarchical theme, there is also some criticism of a foreign kingdom, that of England. Camões attacks King Henry VIII for his Protestantism and false title of ‘King of Jerusalem’. A title Henry held despite not holding the actual city of Jerusalem from the Turks at the time (canto 7, stanza 5). This is an interesting critique of a former ruler of another kingdom, in so few words, by a literary artist of the time. This sort of criticism works to reinforce Portugal’s self-image as superior, especially in a spiritual sense.[5]

Love and prophecy

Although love is not a conventional marker in which we can read history, Camões provides a snapshot of Portugal’s past through this theme with some figures of the Portuguese nobility. The most famous romance in Portugal, due to its tragic nature, that came before William Shakespeare’s fictional Romeo and Juliet (1597), is that of Pedro and Inês from the fourteenth century (canto 3, stanzas 118-37). In this history, Inês de Castro, a Galician, was in a forbidden love affair with Prince Pedro, son of D. Afonso IV, the King of Portugal. This relationship was forbidden by the king, and since it persisted D. Afonso IV ordered the killing of Inês. It was only after becoming king himself, D. Pedro avenged the killing of his love, and wife, Inês.[6]

Following such a theme of love, or love that is not accepted by others, Camões tells the reader about Fernando and Leonor. D. Fernando I (reign, 1367-1383) is said to have been negligent in leaving the Kingdom of Portugal exposed to Castile due to his infatuation for Leonor Teles, a woman who was regarded as treacherous. Camões, with centuries of hindsight and Portugal’s sovereignty intact, forgives D. Fernando I, despite him leaving Portugal vulnerable. The rationale for this is Camões’ understanding of the transformative power of love. Camões expresses that those who criticise D. Fernando I, have never experienced love, a ‘fantasy or flame’ (canto 3, stanzas 138-43).

Surrounding this theme of love, in the Lusíadas, is ‘the Isle of Love’, or ‘Island of Love’ (this was previously mentioned in the section on symbolism). Here, however, love is only a name in a paradise of carnal pleasure and prophesy. According to Camões dramatisation of Vasco da Gama’s return from India, upon reaching the Cape of Good Hope on route to Portugal (canto 9, stanza 16), Venus prepares a reward for the Portuguese to whom she has been guiding for so many years (canto 9, stanza 18). The reward prepared is the Island of Love (canto 9, stanzas 18-22). Venus asks Cupid for assistance in creating the paradise as a gift to the Portuguese for their exploits (canto 9, stanzas 38-43).[7] Once completed, along with Cupid’s task, the Portuguese encounter the island on their way back to Portugal (canto 9, stanza 51).[8] On the island, the Portuguese with their ‘lovers’ (the nymphs) are later taken to a palace (canto 10, stanzas 2-3). Here a nymph sings of Portuguese glories, a history of their voyages and conquests noting the invasions of South Asia:[9] The conquest of Goa, captured for the second time on St. Catherine’s day, 25 November 1510 (canto 10, stanzas 42-3), and the foretold future conquest of Colombo, Sri Lanka (canto 10, stanza 51); ‘All will be subject to the Portuguese’ (canto 10, stanza 44). The nymph later ends the song of ‘Portuguese glories’ and of their future exploits (canto 10, stanza 74). In this celebration and prophecy of the Portuguese, the goddess Tethys explains that God has selected Vasco da Gama, and gives him a vision of the universe (canto 10, stanzas 76-9). ‘This sphere I set before you, represents the whole created world, so you may see where you have been, and are, and wish to be’ (canto 10, stanza 79). Vasco da Gama is shown Europe and Africa (canto 10, stanza 92); China (canto 10, stanzas 125, 129-30); Japan (canto 10, stanza 131); Timor (canto 10, stanza 134); and Brazil, that the Portuguese ‘will colonise’ (canto 10, stanza 140). Tethys states, that these places are lands that the Portuguese will add to the world, places not yet known, and that the Portuguese are granted to continue in their exploits (canto 10, stanza 142).

In all, this ‘Island of Love’ has three purposes: (1) an interval of joy and a carnal gift to the Portuguese as a reward for their exploits. (2) To disseminate the genetics of the Portuguese, populating the world with their offspring, of ‘the strong and beautiful’, to form a union with the sea (canto 9, stanza 42).[10] (3) Prophesy, the revelations given to the Portuguese of other parts of the world unmapped, the oceans not yet sailed (canto 9, stanza 86).

Considering these prophecies they make for a problematic read, absolutely of its time. For instance, suffering and death caused by Portuguese exploits to other civilisations is not the concern of the Portuguese, nor the classical gods, in this narrative by Camões. Rather, their military and maritime efforts are described in the epic as simply a Portuguese God-given right. Yet, in defence of Camões, we need to understand the mentalities of his time, when dominating non-Christian kingdoms and civilising was a commendable feat, and vice versa for Islamic dynasties and their empire-building. Therefore, such criticism or pacifism we hold highly in contemporary times would have been treasonable in Camões’ time. We cannot then, imagine Camões condemning his own country for what they were doing, and about to do. We can, however, rethink the man, as Camões himself took part in these voyages on routes plotted by the heroes of his epic, and was a soldier in ‘Portuguese’ India, thus was implicit in this past of exploitation due to association. All of which, is too often excluded from the official record and then, a collective memory of the man. Therefore, when there are contemporary commemorations of Camões in Portugal, such as June 10th, known as ‘Portugal Day’ (Day of Portugal, Camões, and the Portuguese Communities), a public holiday in Portugal. An event that is also celebrated by (some not all) Portuguese people around the world. We should consider various things. Is Camões so great compared to Homer, Virgil, the numerous authors of epic Arabic poems, Dante, John Milton, Voltaire, and so on? And how did these ‘Portuguese communities’ get to these places in the first place, and why? Was it through empire, settler colonialism, or the mass migration in the twentieth century of Portuguese people to Europe: France, Luxembourg, the United Kingdom, etc. and North America for work that, thereafter, remained?

Final comments

This essay was never an in-depth analysis of Os Lusíadas as a piece of epic poetry to learn about the full history of Portugal, its people and other themes. It only offered this in an introductory way; a dissection of various points from the epic poem that can be explored further. Therefore, what I have brought out and presented was brief and wide-ranging, from the etymology of places, people, and even deities. Themes of love and prophecy involved the Portuguese, and illuminating a large portion of the epic covers a top-down history of early Portugal and its development through its concentration on Portuguese monarchs. However, through this method of dissecting the epic poem to understand Portugal and other aspects, I demonstrated the epic poem not as poetry and this purpose but instead as a historical document. A text disseminating Portuguese History thus, a form of written scholarship but one that contains extreme biases.

There are many problems with the epic due to its wholly bias nature, as I have already indicated but will further stress. Countless hyperbole exists throughout the epic emphasising the superiority of the Portuguese. In its opening, it is said that the Portuguese are the new great civilisation of great deeds, to forget the Greek exploits and the classic conquests (canto 1, stanza 3). To the extent, that the Portuguese are more obedient and disciplined than any other people at sea (canto 5, stanzas 71-2). There is the proclamation to make Lisbon a second Rome, an empire akin to the vast Roman Empire (canto 6, stanza 7). Moreover, a Portuguese Empire does exist with its presence in Africa and Asia, and if there is more, the Portuguese will find it (canto 7, stanza 14). If this is not enough, the gods are admiring and assisting the Portuguese in the epic. Neptune who governs the activities of the oceans from his underwater palace, along with the sea nymphs who discuss the Portuguese, comprehend that they (the Portuguese) dare to venture out into the oceans even further than the Romans (canto 6, stanza 30).[11] Underneath all this hyperbole, however, Camões’ epic is trying to compensate for something.

Underpinning the entire epic, its heroic and hyperbolic message of the exploits of the Portuguese, there is a subtle lamentation. The initial encounters of the Portuguese in ‘new lands’ had already happened. Camões had missed it. His voyage to India in 1553 was to witness the early signs of Portuguese domination in the region begin to decline, as now, other European kingdoms (the English, French and later the Dutch) were already marauding.[12] As such, it needs to be understood that the epic was written post-Vasco da Gama (1469-1524) and everything already established: a string of coastal ‘feitorias’ in Africa; Goa (1510); Malacca (1511); Ormuz (1515); and Macau (captured in 1554 but no longer sustainable by the Portuguese Crown).[13] Therefore, due to this decline, the epic is a call to rekindle Portugal’s imperial adventure, to regain dominance, targeted at then, the boy king, D. Sebastião. Camões makes a dedication to him in his first canto (canto 1, stanza 6). He then, addresses and advises the king in his final canto (canto 10, stanzas 145-56).[14] The epic, perhaps even inspired the boy king, as he would later lead a vast invasion of Morocco. This invasion, however, was a catastrophic failure, subsequently, leading to the Iberian Union (1580-1640).

This sentiment underpinning the epic, and its notion of Portuguese exceptionalism still reverberates in contemporary Portugal, where the Lusíadas and Camões are highly venerated. We should then remember that his most famous work is an uncritical account of the Portuguese ‘Discoveries’. It contains much subjectivity and self-national interest. The negative consequences of the Portuguese voyages that threatened, subjugated and destroyed other civilisations are omitted in the epic’s narrative. A grand narrative entirely shaped by the atmosphere of its time, a different time when Catholic fervour and military campaigns were commonplace.

Os Lusíadas is a piece of poetic propaganda, however, there is no doubt that it is one of the most important Portuguese literary works ever produced. Yet, instead of literary praise, taking the epic poem only for its poetic elements and qualities, I argue it is best used in a historical sense, utilising it to see how Portuguese History was told by a Portuguese literary artist in the sixteenth century. In this context, extracting certain things from the epic as I have shown in this essay, we can see the epic poem by Camões as a historical document; Camões the historian (and ‘motivator’ of the Portuguese), rather than Camões the poet.

Editor’s Note: The original full title for the essay reads:

The Lusíadas as a Historical Document: Extracting Portugal, the Portuguese, Love and Prophecy from the Epic Poem

[1] Camões (1826), p. xiv.
[2] Camões (2008 [1997]), p. 66.
[3] Ibid., pp. 67-71.
[4] This story goes from pages 127-33, Ibid.
[5] A spiritual superiority; Portugal, a Catholic kingdom as opposed to England, a Protestant kingdom in a time of Reformation.
[6] D. Pedro claimed he married Inês in secret before her death, making her a posthumous Queen of Portugal. Although there is no evidence of their marriage, only D. Pedro’s words, the legend is he loved Inês so much that he had her body exhumed and coronated as Queen of Portugal. This tale of love is longer than I have described. It also has a long history of being told and represented throughout the Arts: in literature (a major example being the Lusíadas that this essay analyses), paintings, opera, music, television series, and films. A contemporary take on this story from 2018 is Pedro e Inês (English title: The Dead Queen) directed by António Ferreira.
[7] Cupid needs additional help for that task and calls for the assistance of the giant goddess Fame (canto 9, stanza 44). Cupid shoots his arrows at the ocean nymphs making them fall in love with the Portuguese (canto 9, stanza 47). In love, the nymphs make their way to the created island, waiting and ready to be set upon by the Portuguese (canto 9, stanza 50).
[8] The Island of Love floats above the ocean and moves around under Venus’ control, trying to get the attention of the Portuguese ships. The island is set down when it is clear the Portuguese are sailing towards it (canto 9, stanzas 52-53).
[9] Camões (2008 [1997]), pp. 199-211.
[10] Although this is mythological in the epic, this relationship with Portugal and the sea is very strong. The country’s geographical location, its maritime and fishing history, and the emphasis on this connection manifested in symbols and toponyms within Portugal’s urban landscape have made this relationship an intrinsic attribute of Portuguese national identity.
[11] Camões (2008 [1997]), pp. 120-6.
[12] Ibid., p. x.
[13] Ibid.
[14] Ibid., pp. 226-8.
Camões, Luís Vaz de, The Lusiad: An Epic Poem, trans. Tomas Moore Musgrave (London: John Murray, 1826).
———, The Lusíads, trans. Landeg White (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008 [1997]).
Helgerson, Richard, ‘Camões, Hakluyt, and the Voyages of Two Nations’, in Nicolas Dirks (ed.), Colonialism and Culture (Michigan: University of Michigan Press, 1992), pp. 27-63.


About Author

Andrew Nunes holds from Birkbeck, University of London, a BA and MRes in Spanish, Portuguese and Latin American Studies, and is currently a PhD candidate at King’s College London in Portuguese Studies. In the next academic year at King’s, he will lead an undergraduate seminar on Global Iberias: Themes (Rethinking the Portuguese and Spanish Speaking Worlds). Generally, Andrew’s research lies at the intersections of postcolonialism, memory studies, critical heritage studies and social movement studies, mainly employing qualitative research methods to reach answers to contemporary societal issues and trends in Portugal.

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