The Story of the Lusiad

June 15, 2019
15 mins read

Editor’s note:  The following is extracted from National Epics, by Kate Milner Rabb (published 1896).  The Lusiad (Os Lusíadas), by Luís Vaz de Camões, is the national epic poem of Portugal.

When Jupiter, looking down from Olympus, saw the Lusitanian fleet sailing over the heretofore untraveled seas, he called the gods together, and reviewing the past glory of the Portuguese, their victories over the Castilians, their stand against the Romans, under their shepherd-hero Viriatus, and their conquest of Africa, he foretold their future glories and their discovery and conquest of India.

Bacchus, who had long since made conquests in India, fearful lest his ancient honors should be forgotten, bitterly opposed the scheme of the Portuguese; Venus, however, was favorable to them, and Mars interceded, counseling Jove not to heed Bacchus, but to permit the Lusitanians to reach India’s shore in safety.

When the council of the gods was dismissed, Mercury was sent to guide the Armada, which made its first landing at Mozambique. Canoes with curious palm-leaf sails, laden with dark-skinned natives, swarmed round the ships and were hailed with joy by Gama and his men, who invited them on board. A feast was spread for them, and to them Gama declared his intention of seeking India. Among them was a Moor who had at first thought the Portuguese Moors, on account of their dark skins. Feigning cordiality while plotting their ruin, he offered them a pilot to Quiloa, where, he assured them, they would find a Christian colony. He and his friends also laid a plot to place some soldiers in ambush to attack Gama’s men when they landed next day to get water; in this way many would be destroyed, and certain death awaited the survivors at Quiloa, whither the promised pilot would conduct them. But the Moors had not counted on the strength of the Portuguese. Gama’s vengeance was swift and certain. The thunder of his guns terrified the Moors, and the regent implored his pardon, and with make-believe tears insisted on his receiving at his hands the promised pilot.

Many questions were asked by Gama concerning the spicy shores of India, of the African coasts, and of the island to the north. “Quiloa, that,” replied the Moor, “where from ancient times, the natives have worshiped the blood-stained image of the Christ.” He knew how the Moorish inhabitants hated the Christians, and was secretly delighted when Gama directed him to steer thither.

A storm swept the fleet past Quiloa, but the pilot, still determined on revenge, pointed out the island town of Mombaça, as a stronghold of the Christians, and steering the fleet thither, anchored just outside the bar. Bacchus, now intent on the destruction of the Lusitanians, assumed the character of a priest to deceive the heralds sent ashore by Gama, who assured their commander that they saw a Christian priest performing divine rites at an altar above which fluttered the banner of the Holy Ghost. In a few moments the Christian fleet would have been at the mercy of the Moors, but Cytherea, beholding from above the peril of her favorites, hastily descended, gathered together her nymphs, and formed an obstruction, past which the vessels strove in vain to pass. As Gama, standing high on the poop, saw the huge rock in the channel, he cried out, and the Moorish pilots, thinking their treason discovered, leaped into the waves.

Warned in a dream by Mercury that the Moors were preparing to cut his cables, De Gama roused his fleet and set sail for Melinda, whose monarch, Mercury had told him, was both powerful and good.

The fleet, decorated with purple streamers and gold and scarlet tapestry in honor of Ascension Day sailed with drums beating and trumpets sounding, into the harbor of Melinda, where they were welcomed by the kind and truthful people. The fame of the Lusitanians had reached Melinda, and the monarch gladly welcomed them to his land. His herald entreated them to remain with him, and brought them sheep, fowls, and the fruits of the earth, welcome gifts to the mariners. Gama had vowed not to leave the ship until he could step on Indian ground, so the next day the king and the commander, clad in their most splendid vestments, met in barges, and the monarch of Melinda asked Gama to tell him of the Lusian race, its origin and climate, and of all his adventures up to the time of his arrival at Melinda.

“O king,” said Gama, “between the zones of endless winter and eternal summer lies beautiful Europe, surrounded by the sea. To the north are the bold Swede, the Prussian, and the Dane; on her south-eastern line dwelt the Grecian heroes, world-renowned, and farther south are the ruins of proud Rome. Among the beauteous landscapes of Italy lies proud Venice, queen of the sea, and north of her tower the lofty Alps. The olive groves and vineyards of fair Gallia next greet the eye, and then the valorous fields of Spain, Aragon, Granada, and—the pride of Spain—Castile. On the west, a crown to it, lies Lusitania, on whom last smiles the setting sun,—against whose shores roll the waves of the western sea.

“Noble are the heroes of my country. They were the first to rise against the Moors and expel them from the kingdom. The forces of Rome were routed by our shepherd-hero, Viriatus. After his death our country languished until Alonzo of Spain arose, whose renown spread far and wide because of his battles against the Moors.

“Alonzo rewarded generously the heroes who fought under him, and to Prince Henry of Hungaria he gave the fields through which the Tagus flows and the hand of his daughter. To them was born a son, Alfonso, the founder of the Lusian throne. After the death of his father Henry, Alfonso’s mother became regent, and ere long wedded her minister Perez and plotted to deprive her young son of his inheritance. The eighteen year old son arose, won the nobility to his side, and defeated his guilty mother and her husband in the battle of Guimaraens. Forgetful of the reverence due to parents, he cruelly imprisoned his mother, whose father, the king of Spain, indignant at such treatment of his daughter, now marched against the young prince and defeated him. As he lay in prison, his faithful guardian Egas knelt before the king, and vowed that his master, if released, would pay homage to him. Well he knew that his master would never bow his proud head to pay homage to Castile. So when the day arrived, Egas, and all his family, clad in gowns of white like sentenced felons, with unshod feet, and with the halter around their necks, sought Castile. ‘O king, take us as a sacrifice for my perjured honor. Turn in friendship to the prince thy grandson, and wreak thy vengeance on us alone.’

“Fortunately Alonzo was noble enough to release the self-sacrificing Egas, and to forgive his grandson.

“The young Alfonso, pardoned by his grandfather, proceeded to Ourique, whither marched five Moorish kings. Over his head appeared the sacred cross; but he prayed heaven to show it to his army instead, that they might be inspired with the hope of victory. Filled with joy at the token, the Portuguese defeated the Moors, and on the bloody battle-field Alfonso was proclaimed King of Portugal, and from that day placed on his hitherto unadorned buckler five azure shields, arranged as a cross. He continued the wars with the Moors until, wounded and taken prisoner at Badajoz, he resigned the throne to his son, Don Sancho, who in turn won many victories. Alfonso II, Sancho II, Alfonso III, and Alfonso the Brave succeeded him. At the court of the latter was a beautiful maiden, Inez de Castro, whom Alfonso’s son Don Pedro had married secretly. The courtiers, fearful lest Pedro should show favor to the Castilians because Inez was the daughter of a Castilian, told the king of his son’s amour. In the absence of Pedro, Inez was led before the king, bringing with her her children, to help her to plead for mercy. But the king was merciless, his counsellors, brutal, and at his signal they stabbed her. Pedro never recovered from the shock given him by the fate of his beautiful wife, and after his succession to the throne, as a partial atonement for her suffering, he had her body taken from the grave and crowned Queen of Portugal.

“The weak Fernando, who took his wife Eleanora from her lawful husband, succeeded Pedro, and their daughter Beatrice not being recognized by the Portuguese, at his death Don John, a natural brother, came to the throne. In the meantime a Spanish prince had married Beatrice and invaded Portugal, claiming it as his right. The Portuguese were divided until Nuño Alvarez Pereyra came forward. ‘Has one weak reign so corrupted you?’ he cried. ‘Have you so soon forgotten our brave sires? Fernando was weak, but John, our godlike king, is strong. Come, follow him! Or, if you stay, I myself will go alone; never will I yield to a vassal’s yoke; my native land shall remain unconquered, and my monarch’s foes, Castilian or Portuguese, shall heap the plain!’

“Inspired by Nuño’s eloquence the Lusians took the field and defeated the Spanish in the battle of Aljubarota. Still dissatisfied, Nuño pressed into Spain and dictated the terms of peace at Seville. Having established himself upon the throne of Portugal, John carried the war into Africa, which wars were continued after his death by his son Edward. While laying siege to Tangier, Edward and his brother Fernando were taken prisoners, and were allowed to return home only on promise to surrender Ceuta. Don Fernando remained as the hostage they demanded. The Portuguese would not agree to surrender Ceuta, and Don Fernando was forced to languish in captivity, since the Moors would accept no other ransom. He was a patriotic prince than whom were none greater in the annals of Lusitania.

“Alfonso V, victorious over the Moors, dreamed of conquering Castile, but was defeated, and on his death was succeeded by John II, who designed to gain immortal fame in a way tried by no other king. His sailors sought a path to India, but ‘though enriched with knowledge’ they perished at the mouth of the Indus. To his successor, Emmanuel, in a dream appeared the rivers Ganges and Indus, hoary fathers, rustic in aspect, yet with a majestic grace of bearing, their long, uncombed beards dripping with water, their heads wreathed with strange flowers, and proclaimed to him that their countries were ordained by fate to yield to him; that the fight would be great, and the fields would stream with blood, but that at last their shoulders would bend beneath the yoke. Overjoyed at this dream, Emmanuel proclaimed it to his people. I, O king, felt my bosom burn, for long had I aspired to this work. Me the king singled out, to me the dread toil he gave of seeking unknown seas. Such zeal felt I and my youths as inspired the Mynian youths when they ventured into unknown seas in the Argo, in search of the golden fleece.

“On the shore was reared a sacred fane, and there at the holy shrine my comrades and I knelt and joined in the solemn rites. Prostrate we lay before the shrine until morning dawned; then, accompanied by the ‘woeful, weeping, melancholy throng’ that came pressing from the gates of the city, we sought our ships.

“Then began the tears to flow; then the shrieks of mothers, sisters, and wives rent the air, and as we waved farewell an ancient man cried out to us on the thirst for honor and for fame that led us to undertake such a voyage.

“Soon our native mountains mingled with the skies, and the last dim speck of land having faded, we set our eyes to scan the waste of sea before us. From Madeira’s fair groves we passed barren Masilia, the Cape of Green, the Happy Isles, Jago, Jalofo, and vast Mandinga, the hated shore of the Gorgades, the jutting cape called by us the Cape of Palms, and southward sailed through the wild waves until the stars changed and we saw Callisto’s star no longer, but fixed our eyes on another pole star that rises nightly over the waves. The shining cross we beheld each night in the heavens was to us a good omen.

“While thus struggling through the untried waves, and battling with the tempests, now viewing with terror the waterspouts, and the frightful lightnings, now comforted by the sight of mysterious fire upon our masts, we came in sight of land, and gave to the trembling negro who came to us some brass and bells. Five days after this event, as we sailed through the unknown seas, a sudden darkness o’erspread the sky, unlighted by moon or star. Questioning what this portent might mean, I saw a mighty phantom rise through the air. His aspect was sullen, his cheeks were pale, his withered hair stood erect, his yellow teeth gnashed; his whole aspect spoke of revenge and horror.

“‘Bold are you,’ cried he, ‘to venture hither, but you shall suffer for it. The next proud fleet that comes this way shall perish on my coast, and he who first beheld me shall float on the tide a corpse. Often, O Lusus, shall your children mourn because of me!’ ‘Who art thou?’ I cried. ‘The Spirit of the Cape,’ he replied, ‘oft called the Cape of Tempests.'”

The king of Melinda interrupted Gama. He had often heard traditions among his people of the Spirit of the Cape. He was one of the race of Titans who loved Thetis, and was punished by Jove by being transformed into this promontory.

Gama continued: “Again we set forth, and stopped at a pleasant coast to clean our barks of the shell-fish. At this place we left behind many victims of the scurvy in their lonely graves. Of the treason we met with at Mozambique and the miracle that saved us at Quiloa and Mombas, you know already, as well as of your own bounty.”

Charmed with the recital of Gama, the King of Melinda had forgotten how the hours passed away. After the story was told the company whiled away the hours with dance, song, the chase, and the banquet, until Gama declared that he must go on to India, and was furnished with a pilot by the friendly king.

Bacchus, enraged at seeing the voyage so nearly completed, descended to the palace of Neptune, with crystal towers, lofty turrets, roofs of gold, and beautiful pillars inwrought with pearls. The sculptured walls were adorned with old Chaos’s troubled face, the four fair elements, and many scenes in the history of the earth. Roused by Bacchus, the gods of the sea consented to let loose the winds and the waves against the Portuguese.

During the night, the Lusians spent the time in relating stories of their country. As they talked, the storm came upon them, and the vessels rose upon the giant waves, so that the sailors saw the bottom of the sea swept almost bare by the violence of the storm. But the watchful Venus perceived the peril of her Lusians, and calling her nymphs together, beguiled the storm gods until the storm ceased. While the sailors congratulated themselves on the returning calm, the cry of “Land!” was heard, and the pilot announced to Gama that Calicut was near.

Hail to the Lusian heroes who have won such honors, who have forced their way through untraveled seas to the shores of India! Other nations of Europe have wasted their time in a vain search for luxury and fame instead of reclaiming to the faith its enemies! Italy, how fallen, how lost art thou! and England and Gaul, miscalled “most Christian!” While ye have slept, the Lusians, though their realms are small, have crushed the Moslems and made their name resound throughout Africa, even to the shores of Asia.

At dawn Gama sent a herald to the monarch; in the meantime, a friendly Moor, Monçaide, boarded the vessel, delighted to hear his own tongue once more. Born at Tangiers, he considered himself a neighbor of the Lusians; well he knew their valorous deeds, and although a Moor, he now allied himself to them as a friend. He described India to the eager Gama: its religions, its idolaters, the Mohammedans, the Buddhists, the Brahmins. At Calicut, queen of India, lived the Zamorin, lord of India, to whom all subject kings paid their tribute.

His arrival having been announced, Gama, adorned in his most splendid garments, and accompanied by his train, also in bright array, entered the gilded barges and rowed to the shore, where stood the Catual, the Zamorin’s minister. Monçaide acted as an interpreter. The company passed through a temple on their way to the palace, in which the Christians were horrified at the graven images there worshiped. On the palace walls were the most splendid pictures, relating the history of India. One wall, however, bore no sculptures; the Brahmins had foretold that a foreign foe would at some time conquer India, and that space was reserved for scenes from those wars.

Into the splendid hall adorned with tapestries of cloth of gold and carpets of velvet, Gama passed, and stood before the couch on which sat the mighty monarch. The room blazed with gems and gold; the monarch’s mantle was of cloth of gold, and his turban shone with gems. His manner was majestic and dignified; he received Gama in silence, only nodding to him to tell his story.

Gama proclaimed that he came in friendship from a valorous nation that wished to unite its shores with his by commerce. The monarch responded that he and his council would weigh the proposal, and in the meantime Gama should remain and feast with them.

The next day the Indians visited the fleet, and after the banquet Gama displayed to his guests a series of banners on which were told the history of Portugal and her heroes. First came Lusus, the friend of Bacchus, the hero-shepherd Viriatus, the first Alonzo, the self-sacrificing Egas, the valiant Fuaz, every hero who had strengthened Lusitania and driven out her foes, down to the gallant Pedro and the glorious Henry.

Awed and wondering at the deeds of the mighty heroes, the Indians returned home. In the night Bacchus appeared to the king, warning him against the Lusians and urging him to destroy them while in his power. The Moors bought the Catual with their gold. They also told the king that they would leave his city as soon as he allied himself with the odious strangers. When Gama was next summoned before the king he was received with a frown.

“You are a pirate! Your first words were lies. Confess it; then you may stay with me and be my captain.”

“I know the Moors,” replied Gama. “I know their lies that have poisoned your ears. Am I mad that I should voluntarily leave my pleasant home and dare the terrors of an unknown sea? Ah, monarch, you know not the Lusian race! Bold, dauntless, the king commands, and we obey. Past the dread Cape of Storms have I ventured, bearing no gift save friendly peace, and that noblest gift of all, the friendship of my king. I have spoken the truth. Truth is everlasting!”

A day passed and still Gama was detained by the power of the Catual, who ordered him to call his fleets ashore if his voyage was really one of friendship.

“Never!” exclaimed Gama. “My fleet is free, though I am chained, and they shall carry to Lisbon the news of my discovery.”

As he spoke, at a sign from the Catual, hostile ships were seen surrounding the Lusian vessels. “Not one shall tell on Lisbon’s shores your fate.”

Gama smiled scornfully, as the fleet swept on towards his vessels. Loud sounded the drums, shrill the trumpets. The next moment sudden lightning flashed from Gama’s ships and the skies echoed with the thunder of the guns.

No word fell from Gama’s lips as, the battle over, they saw the sea covered with the torn hulks and floating masts; but the populace raged around the palace gates, demanding justice to the strangers.

The troubled king sought to make peace with Gama.

“My orders have been given. To-day, when the sun reaches its meridian, India shall bleed and Calicut shall fall. The time is almost here. I make no terms. You have deceived me once.”

The Moors fell fainting on the floor; the monarch trembled. “What can save us?” he cried.

“Convey me and my train to the fleet. Command at once; it is even now noon.”

Once more safe within his ship, with him the faithful Monçaide, who had kept him informed of the treason of the Moors, his ships laden with cinnamon, cloves, pepper, and gems, proofs of his visit, Gama, rejoicing, set sail for home.

Venus saw the fleet setting out, and planned a resting-place for the weary sailors, a floating isle with golden sands, bowers of laurel and myrtle, beautiful flowers and luscious fruits. Here the sea nymphs gathered, Thetis, the most beautiful, being reserved for Gama, and here days were spent in joyance.

At the banquet the nymphs sang the future glories of the Lusians, and taking Gama by the hand, led him and his men to a mountain height, whence they could look upon a wondrous globe, the universe. The crystal spheres whirled swiftly, making sweet music, and as they listened to this, they saw the sun go by, the stars, Apollo, the Queen of Love, Diana, and the “yellow earth, the centre of the whole.” Asia and Africa were unrolled to their sight, and the future of India, conquered by the Lusians, Cochin China, China, Japan, Sumatra,—all these countries given to the world by their voyage around the terrible cape.

“Spread thy sails!” cried the nymphs; “the time has come to go!”

The ships departed on their homeward way, and the heroes were received with the wildest welcome by the dwellers on Tago’s bosom.

The Lusiad (Mickle’s translation) can be read in its entirety here.

Raised in a home filled with books on Western civilization, P.G. Mantel became a lover of history at an early age. An amateur writer of verse, he makes himself useful as an editor for Men of the West.

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