Onesimo Almeida - Camões's The Lusiads: On the Early Modern Side of a Renaissance Epic Poem
Summary by Ms. Erika Trujillo

The fifth speaker of the Spring 2013 Distinguished Speaker Series was Professor Onésimo Almeida.  Professor Almeida is a professor of Portuguese and Brazilian studies at Brown University.  One of America’s leading scholars on Portuguese literature and culture, Professor Almeida has published extensively on the subject of Portuguese-American culture. He founded and continues to serve as director of the Gávea-Brown Publications, which publishes English translations of Portuguese literary works and of studies in Portuguese culture. Since 1979 he has been the host of a bi-monthly socio-cultural talk show (Daqui e da Gente) on the Portuguese Channel, in New Bedford, Massachusetts.  He will be presenting a speech entitled "Camões's The Lusiads: On the Early Modern Side of a Renaissance Epic Poem."

Professor Almeida was very excited to be visiting the Jefferson society, and Monticello specifically. A Portuguese man came to America and became friends with Thomas Jefferson. He was a regular visitor at Monticello and even had a standing room in the house. He was appointed the ambassador from Portugal to the United States. Professor Almeida was planning to visit Monticello to inquire about this individual and his relationship with Monticello.

The main component of Professor Almeida’s presentation was focused on the Portuguese epic poem The Lusiads, by Camoes, and the aspects of this poem that conveyed modernity. First, to frame the context of the epic poem and the significance of his selected passages in particular, Professor Almeida set the historical stage of Portuguese exploration.

He first dispelled the common myth that the Portuguese thought that the world was flat when Columbus made his voyage. Although the average Portuguese citizen at the time may have still thought that the world was flat, certain discoveries allowed the elite to have a much more realistic perspective of the world.

The main goal of the Portuguese at the time was to create another route to engage in trade with India. They looked to Ethiopia and the idea of going through Africa to reach India; however, the Indian Ocean was gaining ground for consideration as an ocean, and not a lake as previously thought. Thus, they attempted to round the Cape of Good Hope to sail to India.  In 1487 Vasco de Gama bent the Cape of Good Hope but could not continue to India due to famine and disease issues on the ship. When the ship arrived from Mozambique, the Portuguese recognized that this was not be a desirable alternative route to India, as it would be too expensive and take far to long to make the journey.

By 1492 there had been two particularly important discoveries that effected Columbus’ perspective on the world. First, they had realized that ships gained a day in travel. It was well practiced for ships to keep impeccable logs noting each day of their journey. Yet, when they would arrive at port those at the destination would report that it was the following day. Eventually it became a common phenomena, for ships to either gain or lose a day in travel. A second major contribution to their growing knowledge of the world was that they had received exact measurements of the globe. Although they had not mapped the entirety of the world, they knew its size. Their approach was “do not draw something you have not seen.” Their maps were thus somewhat limited in terms of drawn geography, but this should not be mistaken as suggesting they thought the world was flat.  

Another major influence on Columbus was the knowledge of wind currents. The way the currents moved, a ship would have to go south towards Africa then curve west and back up to reach Portugal. When following the path of these currents, the loop actually put ships relatively close to the coast of North America. Although they did not know that the continent of North America rested between Portugal and India, it was unavoidable that Columbus would hit land in choosing to sail west.

At this time it was common that explorers would set out looking for a particular island, and when they would find land they would name it after the place they were seeking. Professor Almeida gave the example of particular Mediterranean islands that were named after fictional lands. When Columbus found America, he just assumed that it was India since that was what he was looking for.

This historical context suggests that the Portuguese had some knowledge of the world beyond the typical myth that the world was flat, and that this modern concept was a very rapidly expanding perspective.

Set in this context, the epic poem by Camoes, The Lusiads, is a fictional story of a Portuguese journey to India, as explained to the king of India by the explorers.  This poem is in verse and honest to Virgil in its Greco-Roman style. The poem is comprised of ten books and incorporates a mix of mythology and Christianity.

Professor Almeida directed our attention specifically to the fifth book, as it deviates from the tone and contributions of the other books. The fifth book is unique in that it is comprised of first-hand observations. The text of this poem describes sights from the ship and concepts of exploration that were contemporary.  These thoughts were incredibly modern, given that such knowledge as set in the context was not commonplace outside of the elite. One of the concepts that Professor Almeida drew attention to was that “you can’t be sure about the things that you know.”
This passage of book V, I thought was particularly insightful.

"O thou, whom worlds to Europe yet unknown,
Are doom'd to yield, and dignify thy crown;

To thee our golden shores the Fates decree;

Our necks, unbow'd before, shall bend to thee.

Wide thro' the world resounds our wealthy fame;

Haste, speed thy prows, that fated wealth to claim.

From Paradise my hallow'd waters spring;

The sacred Ganges I, my brother king

Th' illustrious author[324] of the Indian name:

Yet, toil shall languish, and the fight shall flame;

Our fairest lawns with streaming gore shall smoke,

Ere yet our shoulders bend beneath the yoke;
But, thou shalt conquer: all thine eyes survey,

With all our various tribes, shall own thy sway."