Adventures of a Portuguese Poet

Wild-hearted Luis Vaz de Camoes’ years abroad are not well-known, but that hasn’t lessened his legend

Cameos Fernão Gomes (1548-1612)

Poets have always been a little crazy. They admit it themselves: "The lunatic, the lover and the poet / Are of imagination all compact," William Shakespeare wrote in the 1590s.

A few decades before those words were penned, they were embodied in the life of a young man named Luis Vaz de Camoes, now revered as one of Portugal's greatest poets and celebrated both there and in Macau, where he may have spent a few years.

Though time has obscured the details of Camoes' biography, glimpses of a crazy romantic still wink through the heavy dust of history. His personal plotline swings from royal favor to banishment and back again—spanning several countries and including a street brawl, a shipwreck, and several scandalous love affairs.

Camoes was born to an aristocratic family in Lisbon around 1524, and his youth was apparently "less than subdued," as Britannica's online encyclopedia dryly notes. The historian Edmond Taylor was less cautious in his 1972 description: "He was brilliant, wild, and handsome… he became a gay though penniless young roisterer-at-large in the capital."

After banishment from Lisbon in his twenties—it's not clear why, although there were rumors of an indecorous romance with a princess or lady-in-waiting, or both—Camoes set sail with the Portuguese navy to defend colonial territory. He was blinded in one eye during a skirmish with Moors somewhere along the North African coast, a detail that adds to his mystique in later portraits.

Camoes returned to Lisbon around 1551 and soon tangled with trouble again, this time landing in prison for injuring a royal officer during a street fight. His sentence was reduced to three years of forced military service, and in 1553 he was shipped off to Goa, India. When his service there was over, he reportedly sailed for Macau and took up a post with the colonial administration.

Perhaps it was all this time at sea that inspired Camoes to write Os Lusiadas (The Lusiads), an epic poem about the voyages of Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama to the East. (Camoes and da Gama were also distantly related.) Many people believe Camoes began composing the poem while in Macau, though probably not in the exact grotto that now bears his name there.

The paucity of firm facts about Camoes' years abroad hasn't stopped biographers from casting him in plenty of misadventures. Some say the poet's stay in Macau ended when he was charged with corruption and sent to Goa for trial, suffering a shipwreck in the Mekong Delta en route. Others add an extra touch of drama to the tale, claiming that Camoes carried his manuscript to shore on his head but lost his latest girlfriend in the disaster.

The wild-hearted, one-eyed poet finally seemed to settle down in his last decade, after a friend paid for his passage back to Lisbon from Mozambique (it's unclear what Camoes was doing there). When Os Lusiadas was published in 1572, the poet dedicated it to King Sebastian, who apparently liked it enough to grant him a modest pension.

Camoes died in 1580, around age 56. As with many poets, death seemed to be a good career move—his popularity has surged posthumously, and most sources now refer to him as the "national poet" of Portugal.

But perhaps he would not even have cared, judging from this line of his most famous work:

"O Glory of Commanding! O vain thirst / Of that same empty nothing, we call fame!"

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