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Luís Vaz de Camões (Camoens) - The Shakespeare of Portugal

Posted by Maddy Labels: , ,

Sometimes you wonder at the miseries that befall certain remarkably adventurous people. Look at this man Camoens, he accompanied some of the earliest Portuguese mariners to uncharted waters, lived in alien lands like Goa and Macau and wrote the greatest of Portuguese poems – The Lusiad. Today he is known as a national hero and the poetic genius of Portugal, but how was he treated during his lifetime? Not many will remember him or his times, or his love for a slave girl from India, or deep affection for his man Friday, the Javanese Antonio, for they were the only people who stood by him. Suffice to say that Camoens was an enigma, and little was he to know what the stars were to tell about his future, or how star crossed his affair with a gorgeous blond would turn out to be and how sad and forlorn  his last days wood be, instead of basking his fame and spending a substantial pension.

Luiz De Cameos (Cameos in Portuguese) somewhat related to Vasco Da Gama and hailing (according to historian Manuel Correia) from Lisbon was born around 1524, first endured misery when Lisbon was struck by an earthquake in 1526 (and later plague) and the family moved to Coimbra. He later studied in the Santa Cruz monastery until 1537 as an honorable poor student (now note here that his uncle was the university chancellor – so all it meant was that Camoens was on a scholarship). It is read that due to some problems with the university, he left and went back to Lisbon, to join the royal courts.

Soon he was involved in a romance with lovely blonde Catarina Ataide with golden tresses, a 13 year old lady in waiting to the Queen Catarina of Austria. Unfortunately another court hand by name Caminha had his own eyes on Catharina and as matters would have it, Caminha had a higher degree of influence on Catharina’s father (As you may observe, it is sounding like an Indian movie now). It appears that Camoens made lovely poetry for his beloved and passed it on (‘burning lines of passion’ as records put it)  it to her directly in contradiction to the strict rule that it had to be passed  through an intermediary, namely the court chamberlain, who by the way was De Lima – Catharina’s father. Well, as matters would have it, he was soon banished from the court for that and other reasons. He was next heard of in Ceuta were in a naval engagement alongside his father, against the moors, he loses his right eye to a flying splinter and returns to Lisbon in 1542 where he soon reignites his romance with Catarina.

The next three years were spent as a vagabond with disreputable company and known as a ‘face with no eyes’ , he composed satirical poems that alluded to the love the king had for his step mother. This was to raise eyebrows and more and in 1552 he was arrested and imprisoned (actually as it turns out, he was helping his low-class friends and injured an assailant who belonged to the king’s cavalry). But he agreed to be sent off to India for 5 mandatory years in return for a pardon and after first serving 8 months in jail in Tronco Goa. Another reason for his going to Goa was in search of his father who had departed in command of a ship destined to Goa (it appears the father was shipwrecked and died later in Goa). The bitter and not so young man sails out to the East in the mail boat San Bento, stating “Ungrateful country though shalt not possess my bones”.  At a parting meeting, Catarina tearfully promises to wait for him.

His is the lone ship that reached Goa the following year (the others catch up much later after surviving the storm), the place where his father is buried. Cameons now 29, soon gets disgusted and upset with the immorality in Goa and writes about all this while spending the next few months fighting in the West coast and the waters against the armies and navies of Malabar and Bijapur. He writes about Portuguese Goa “Of this land I can tell you that it is the mother of despicable villains, and stepmother of honest men. Because those who are here to get rich, always float on water as bladders”.

During this period, Camoens continued writing his style of poetry, which was saved for posterity by Correia. One of them which detailed the debauchery in Goa was soon to prove the reason for his expulsion from Goa to far away Macau by 1556. This part is certainly an unproven phase of his life though many historians continue to attest to the period in Macau. CR Boxer’s studies allude that the dates and events are quite wrong and grossly exaggerated. Anyway let us follow the popular tale for now.

There in Macau, he sat down to write the first 6 cantos of the famous Lusiads where worked as a chief warrant officer. He was apparently charged with managing the properties of missing and deceased soldiers in the Orient. He was later accused of misappropriations in Macau and was summoned to Goa to respond to the accusations of the tribunal. During his return journey, near the Mekong River along the Cambodian coast, he was shipwrecked, saving his manuscript but losing his Chinese lover. His shipwreck survival in the Mekong Delta was enhanced by the legendary detail that he succeeded in swimming ashore while holding aloft the manuscript of his still-unfinished epic.

Life was to prove even more difficult for the persecuted poet, for he not only heard that his old flame Catarina was dead (heartbroken as one is led to believe and unmarried) but also, upon landing in Goa, was cast into prison. He is released by the incoming governor, only to go in once again, for it was the turn of money lender Coutinho to get Camoens put in jail for a small but unpaid debt.

It was around this time that Camoens met Barbara, the Indian slave in Goa. Of her exact nationality, I have made a guess favoring India, but she is mentioned as Mulatto, African and so on, and one is led towards the Indian Hindu direction by a stray comment by biographer Richard Burton. 

Teófilo Braga , in his “History of Portuguese Literature: Camoens, his Life and Work” describes beautifully the magic spell of Barbara:

“The poet could not remain impassive before the voluptuous flexuosity of those curves which make alive the movements that wrapped him up; neither from the languid looks of a morbidity which magnetizes and breaks the will by desire. Barbara was the type of a native girl, dark skinned; arms and neck such as a bronze sculpture of a complete correction, lewd hips by the habit of hieratical dances. which bestow all movements a feline flexuosity, wholly wrapping, completing the seduction by the maddening brilliancy of black almond shaped eyes which provoke an infinite desire, which illuminate the smile of a small mouth, bordered by extremely white teeth with which she chewed aromatic plants; a light way of walking such as a free gazelle; a primitive grace such as of a submissive animal, which offers itself at the first caress”.

Camoens went bonkers over “this slave which has me enslaved” and wrote a famous poem (Endecha of Barbara) about her. Little was he to know that she would play an even greater part in his life. But life continued to be difficult in Goa and Camoens wanted his poems published. So he finally decided to go back to Lisbon, but he was unable to pay the full amount to his carrier and is abandoned at Sofala. In 1569 he was rescued from this beggarly and miserable plight and taken back to Portugal with nothing but the full Lusiad manuscript. He reaches Lisbon in 1570, after a full 17 years of exile and penniless.

But well, life is always unkind to some, for the plague was sweeping Lisbon as our man and his ship reach its shores. They are not permitted to land for many days. But they disembark finally, and Camoens gets engrossed in getting his manuscript approved for printing by the inquisition tribunal. The royal permission to print the Lusiads is finally obtained in 1572 where it was published, but resulting in no great monetary benefits for the author. Camoens is paid a silly pension and in return asked to remain in Lisbon. The next few years were spent in total misery, where the poet loses his benefactors one by one and finally his pension as well.

Strangely at this point of time, two other characters come back to life in his story. It appears that the slave girl Barbara as well as Antonio have reached Lisbon by now. Barbara is running a small grocery or fish shop and Antonio in the service of his master. Possibly Barbara was living with Camoens as well, for in the visitors book of the church of St. Anne one can read the inventory taken in 1572 of the house of the poet, and making a reference to the concubine, and there appears the following sentence: “Barbara who lives together with a person, who, for just causes, one does not mention”.

Faria e Sousa points out a tradition of an ambulant female seller, who was brokenhearted about the poverty of the poet: “a black woman called Barbara, knowing about his misery, gave him sometimes a dish of food, with the money that she earned from her sales and sometimes the money that she got from her sales”. António too became a beggar, and with the proceeds of his alms, he too took care of Camoens, until António died of the plague. Camoens left the world of the living  on the 10th of June 1580.

The death is recorded thus

The sad sickness unto death came at last, on the 10th of June, 1580. In a small, cheerless room of a shabby house in the Rua de Santa Ana (No. 52 or 54) Luiz de Camoens died, and he was buried in the neighboring convent of Santa Ana. On the fly-leaf of a copy of the first edition of the Lusiad (said to be in the library of Holland House), and in the handwriting of Fray Just; Indio, a Carmelite monk of Guadalajara, is found the following statement "What thing more grievous than to see so great genius lacking success! I saw him die in a hospital in Lisbon, without a sheet to cover him, after having triumphed in the Indies, and having sailed five thousand five hundred leagues by sea. What warning so great for those, who, by night and day, weary themselves in study without profit, like the spider weaving a web to catch small flies."

Camoens was a sad and miserable man in his last days - When a Ruy Diaz de Camara a noble, came to his poor dwelling to complain of the non-fulfillment of a promise of a translation of the penitential psalms, Camoens replied—" When I wrote verses I was young, had ample food, was a lover, and beloved by many friends and by the ladies; therefore, I felt poetic ardor. Now I have no spirit, no peace of mind; behold there my Javanese who asks me for two coins to purchase fuel, and I have none to give him."
Of the person - He was of middle stature, his face full, and his countenance slightly lowering; his nose long, raised in the middle, and large at the end. He was much disfigured by the loss of his right eye. Whilst young his hair was so yellow as to resemble saffron. Although his appearance was not perhaps prepossessing, his manners and conversation were pleasing and cheerful. He was afterwards a prey to melancholy, was never married, and left no child."

Of the dark skinned raven haired, black eyed beautiful slave girl Barbara or Barbora (as Camoens put it) christened Luisa Barbara , Richard Burton describes as probably a shipwrecked Hindu girl, she is lost from history, but personified eternally by Camoens, just like Baudelaire did in his Malabar girl (in copycat fashion). Experts state that Barbora could not have been Camoes's slave because he couldn't afford one. She was the slave or cook of the governor, Francisco Barreto, which made her subject to ill-treatment, though she was an excellent housekeeper and cook.

Let us take a quick look at the man and his poem on Barbara

Camoens and Malabar
It appears he went to Malabar in late 1553 or early 1554. On his first expedition, he joined a battle along the Malabar Coast. The battle was followed by skirmishes along the trading routes between Egypt and India. The fleet eventually returned to Goa by November 1554

But a  final question remains – If Camoens a Portuguese fidalgo found it so difficult to raise money for his voyage back home, how did the slave girl barabara or Antonio from java manage it? Did she perhaps stowaway to Lisbon? An interesting story lies behind all this and is a fit subject for fertile imagination.


1. Escrava means female slave so Barbara or Barbora Escrava is the slave Barabara. Goa’s slave market of the 16th century provided an abundance of slaves. Slaves were auctioned, and bartered, even at door steps. Domestic help were frequently used or even prostituted by their masters and friends.

2. Endecha is a kind of poem which induces 'emotional correlations by the sound and rhythm of the speech' Endecha is lyrical poem, melancholic and often, built from four lines, each verse with a six syllables.

3. There are experts who also say that Camoens died of malaria and neglect, not plague as reported. BMJ Sept 12th, 1908 reveals - It appears that the poet contracted malaria in the East, and in 1580, when the authorities of Lisbon were in fear of the plague; they appointed an official with large powers for the safeguarding of the public health. There is reason to believe that these powers were exercised for political purposes, being found highly useful for the removal of inconvenient persons, and it is hinted that Camoens, being obnoxious to the party in power, was thus put of the way. He was declared to be suffering from plague, and in March or April ordered to be segregated among the other victims of the disease. 

4.  To the uninitiated, the Lusiads, is a Portuguese epic poem written in Homeric fashion. The poem focuses mainly on a fantastical interpretation of the Portuguese voyages of discovery during the 15th and 16th centuries.

5. To see the Camoens memorial in Lisbon, click here


Memoirs of the life and writings of Luis de Camoens- John Adamson, Thomas Bewick

Camoens: his life and his Lusiads - Sir Richard Francis Burton

Camoes – Seen from Goa

To many, fame cometh too late- Camoens


  1. Minnowonsay

    Thanks, this is very interesting. What an exciting life that man led!