Three events marked these years in Portugal: she lost and rewon her independence, and Camões wrote The Lusiads.
She shared with Spain the ecstasy of expansion and the ferocity of dogma, and preceded her in decline. The rapidity of her colonial development had drained overseas her most enterprising sons; agriculture was neglected or left to spiritless slaves; Lisbon reeked with corrupt officials, covetous merchants, and penniless proletaires, all living ultimately on imperial exploitation or foreign trade. Young King Sebastian, inspired by the Jesuits with religious zeal, proposed to his uncle, Philip II, a joint conquest and Christianization of Morocco. Philip demurred, having his hands full; Sebastian proposed to undertake the enterprise unaided; Philip warned him that the resources of Portugal were too small for such a campaign; when Sebastian insisted Philip said to his Council, “If he wins, we shall have a good son-in-law; if he loses, we shall have a good kingdom.”48 Sebastian invaded Morocco and was overwhelmed and killed (1578) at the battle of Al-Kasr-al-Kabir (Alcázarquivir). A dedicated celibate, Sebastian left no heir; the throne was taken by his great-uncle, Cardinal Henry; but Henry himself died without issue in 1580, ending the royal Aviz dynasty that had ruled Portugal since 1385.
This was the opportunity that Philip had waited for. As grandsons of King Manuel of Portugal, he and Philibert Emmanuel of Savoy were the most direct heirs to the vacant throne. The Cortes of Lisbon recognized Philip; some rival claimants resisted his entry; the redoubtable Alva overcame them; and in 1581 Philip II entered Lisbon as Philip I of Portugal. By courtesy and bribery he strove to win the friendship of the nation. He forbade his armies to pillage the countryside, and Alva hanged so many of his troops for such offenses that he feared a shortage of rope. Philip promised to keep Portuguese territory under Portuguese administrators, to appoint no Spaniards to office in Portugal, and to maintain the privileges and liberties of the people. These promises were kept as long as he lived. So, with astonishing ease, Philip inherited the Portuguese navy and the Portuguese colonies in Africa, Asia, and South America. The old papal line of demarcation between Spanish and Portuguese possessions disappeared; and the most powerful of European kings, now made more powerful still, was ready to destroy himself by invading England.
While Portugal’s empire was passing to Spain and the Dutch, her greatest poet was singing the glory of her conquests. Again the barriers of nationality and language defeat our desire to understand. How can those who were not bred on Portuguese history, and who do not feel the sense and music of Portuguese speech, do justice to Luiz Vaz de Camões—our Camoëns?
He lived his song before writing it. One of his ancestors was a soldier-poet like himself; his grandmother was a relative of Vasco da Gama, who is the hero of The Lusiads; his father, a poor captain, was shipwrecked near Goa, and died there shortly after Luiz was born in Lisbon or Coimbra. The youth probably studied at the university, for his poem rings with echoes of Catullus, Virgil, Horace, and Ovid. His personal romance began in a church, in a moment of adoration: he saw a beautiful woman with “snow-white face and hair of gold,” and was stirred to poetry. Some of his lines must have offended the court; he was banished to a village on the upper Tagus, and there dreamed of an epic that “should increase the glory of Portugal and make Smyrna envious despite her being the birthplace of Homer.”49 The unappreciative government sent him into exile or military service in Ceuta, where, in battle or quarrel, he lost an eye. Back in Lisbon, he defended some friends in a brawl, stabbed a courtier, was jailed for eight months, and was released probably on his promise to enlist for foreign service. On March 26, 1553, aged twenty-nine, he sailed for India as a common soldier on the flagship of Fernão Álvares Cabrai.
He bore the tedium of humid nights on the half-year voyage by composing the first of two cantos of The Lusiads. In September his ship reached Goa, the Portuguese Sodom in India. He took part in many campaigns: on the Malabar Coast, off the shores of Arabia, at Mombasa, in the East Indies, and at Macao, the Portuguese Sodom in China. He describes himself as brandishing a sword in one hand and a pen in the other; his comrades called him Trincafortes—the Swashbuckler—and probably respected his sword more than his pen. A grotto at Macao is still shown as the place where Cames wrote part of his poem. An uncertain story pictures him as brought back from Macao in chains, having been arrested for causes now unknown. Another story (shedding his chains) tells how his ship was wrecked off the Cambodian coast and Luiz swam ashore with his epic between his teeth;50 in that wreck, however, he lost his beloved Chinese concubine. After months of misery he found his way to Goa, only to be cast into prison. Released, he was jailed again, this time for debt. A friendly viceroy freed him, and for a brief interlude the poet could enjoy life and a kaleidoscope of diversely colored mistresses. In 1567 he borrowed money and took passage for Portugal; his funds ran out in Mozambique, where he dallied in destitution for two years. Some transient friends paid his debts and his fare and brought him at last (1570) to Lisbon. His only possession was his poem. King Sebastian gave him a modest pension; the poem finally reached print (1572), and Camões was allowed to live in penurious peace for eight years. He died in Lisbon in 1580, and was buried with other plague victims in a common grave. Portugal celebrates his anniversary, June 10, as a memorial holiday, and cherishes as its national epic Os Lusiadas, whose title means “the Portuguese.” Camões took the term Lusia from the old Roman name for the western part of Spain, Lusitania.
The meandering narrative winds itself about the historic voyage (1497–99) of Vasco da Gama from Portugal around the Cape of Good Hope to India. After an invocation to King Sebastian and the “nymphs of Tagus,” the story proceeds with da Gama’s fleet up the east coast of Africa. Feeling an obligation to imitate Homer and Virgil, the poet pictures a conclave of the gods debating whether they should allow the expedition to reach India. Bacchus votes No, and rouses the Moors of Mozambique to attack the Portuguese who are landing for water. Venus intercedes with Jupiter in the sailors’ behalf; the Moors are repulsed, and Mercury bids da Gama to get along. The fleet stops on the Kenya coast and is hospitably received; the native king falls into Camões’ plan by asking Vasco to tell him the history of Portugal. The admiral responds at length, recounts the tragedy of Inés de Castro, describes the fateful battle of Aljubarrota (1385), where the Portuguese first won their freedom from Spain, and ends with the sailing of his own expedition from Lisbon. As the new Argonauts cross the Indian Ocean Bacchus and Neptune stir up a typhoon against them, and Camões, having lived through such a storm, rises to an exciting description. Venus stills the waves, and the fleet triumphantly reaches Calicut.
On the return voyage Venus and her son Cupid arrange a feast for the weary crew; at her bidding lovely Nereids rise out of the sea, load palace tables with delicacies and flowers, and comfort the sailors with food and drink and love.
What famished kisses were there in the wood!
What gentle sound of pretty lamentation!
What sweet caress! What angry modest mood
That into bright mirth knew sweet transformation!
From dawn till noon such pleasures they pursued
As Venus kindled to a conflagration,
Which men would rather taste of than condemn,
Rather condemn who cannot taste of them.51
Lest some such Portuguese should complain that these lines insulted monogamy, Camões assures us that the affair was quite allegorical, and that the nymphs were “nothing more than honors … whereby life is exalted and refined.”52 In any case the sailors allegorically stumble back to their ships, and the fleet finds its way back to Lisbon. The poem concludes with a plea to the King to reward merit everywhere, and not least this patriotic song.
Even through the mist of translation an alien can feel the rippling music and lyrical ecstasies of this remarkable poem, the warm blood of a soldierpoet who conveys to us the lusty mettle and adventurous history of the Portuguese in those expansive days. Tasso is reported to have named Camões as the only contemporary poet against whom he would not confidently measure himself; and Lope de Vega, when Spanish and Portuguese were not so far apart as now, ranked The Lusiads above both The Iliad and The Aeneid.53Today the poem is a bond of unity, a flag of pride and hope, wherever Camões’ language is spoken—in lovely Lisbon, in decadent Goa and Macao, in thriving, burgeoning, spirited Brazil.
Camões, hearing that Philip was taking Portugal, is reported to have said, almost as his last words, “I loved my country so much that I shall die with her.”54 So long as Philip lived, the captive country fared reasonably well; but his successors violated his vows. Olivares proposed to merge the two nations and languages into one; Spain took most of the gains from Portugal’s colonies and trade; and the English and the Dutch, at war with Spain, captured or pillaged Portuguese as well as Spanish possessions, markets, and fleets. Spaniards crowded into Portuguese offices, Spanish ecclesiastics into Portuguese sees. The Inquisition laid a pall upon Portuguese literature and thought.
Popular discontent rose as national income declined, until at last the nobility and the clergy led the infuriated nation in revolt. Encouraged by England and Richelieu, the patriots declared John, Duke of Braganza, to be the King of Portugal (1640). France and the Dutch sent protective fleets into the Tagus, and France pledged itself never to make peace with Spain until the independence of Portugal was recognized. Spain was so harassed with foreign war that she had hardly any men or money to put down the resurgence of her neighbor; but when other pressures eased she sent two armies, totaling 35,000 troops, against the new government (1661). Portugal could raise only 13,000; but Charles II of England, in return for Catherine of Braganza, a more beautiful dowry, and a lucrative treaty of free trade with Portuguese ports in all continents, dispatched to Portugal a force under the brilliant General Friedrich Schomberg. The Spanish invaders were defeated at Évora (1663) and Montes Claros (1665), and in 1668 exhausted Spain acknowledged that Portugal was free.
I. Don Carlos was made the subject of plays by Schiller, Alfieri, Otway, Marie Joseph de Chénier, Juan Pérez de Montalván, etc,
II. “In the painful episode of the imprisonment and death of Don Carlos, Philip behaved honorably.”—Encyclopaedia Britannica, XVII, 722c. Cf. Martin Hume, Spain, Its Greatness and Decay, 150, and R. Trevor Davies, The Golden Century of Spain, 149η.
III. Juan de Ribera was canonized in 1960.