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  • Spencer Low

Luís de Camões in Asia

Luís Vaz de Camões, the 16th century poet, is such a towering figure in Portuguese literature that the Portuguese language itself is referred to as "a língua de Camões" or "the language of Camões". A contemporary of England's William Shakespeare and Spain's Miguel de Cervantes, with whom he is often compared, Camões gave Portugal and the world the epic poem Os Lusíadas (The Lusiads). The work extols the bravery and heroism of the Portuguese voyages of discovery, in particular Vasco da Gama's groundbreaking mission to India. Unlike Shakespeare, who some say never left England, and more so than Cervantes who visited different parts of the Mediterranean, Camões was possibly the most traveled man of letters of the European Renaissance. He knew of what he wrote.

Camões enlisted to travel to India, and he not only braved the six to eight month long journey to Goa from Lisbon, he even sailed all the way to Macau and stayed there for two years as a government official in the 1560s. The Portuguese only started a permanent settlement in Macau in 1557 after the court of the Chinese Ming Dynasty agreed to an official Portuguese trading base there, so life in Macau would have been very basic for Camões. Yet it is in Macau that Camões wrote parts of Os Lusíadas, and in a cave no less (at least according to tradition). On his way back to Goa, he was said to have been shipwrecked somewhere near the mouth of the Mekong River in the south of Vietnam, and he almost lost the manuscript of the epic poem. After being rescued a few months later, Camões was first taken to Malacca where he spent some time. The poet later traveled from Goa to Mozambique and then returned to Portugal in 1570 where he completed Os Lusíadas. He would pass away ten years later, just months before Portugal fell under the control of the Spanish king Philip II, marking the start of the 60-year Iberian Union. The day of Camões' death, 10 June, is today a Portuguese national holiday and celebrated by Portuguese communities around the world.

Next year, 2024, is the start of extensive programs to commemorate the 500th anniversary of Camões' birth. These will last until 2025, likely to take into account the fact that he might have been born in 1525 instead (definitive records have not survived). 2024 will also be celebrated as the 460th anniversary of Camões' stay in Macau. The Rede Camões na Ásia & África (Camões Network in Asia & Africa) will be organizing a Congresso do Meio Milénio (Half Millennium Congress) on February 24th (in Macau) and 25th (virtual) on the Portuguese presence in Asia. For more information, check out: https://www.macau.com.pt/chamada


Here's a video (in Cantonese, the Chinese dialect spoken in Macau, with English subtitles) that introduces the Jardim de Luís de Camões (Luís de Camões Garden) in Macau. This is known in Chinese oddly enough as the 白鴿巢公園 (Pigeon Nest Garden) thanks to the pigeon-loving owner of the property, Lourenço Caetano Marques. A descendent of wealthy 18th century Portuguese trader Manuel Pereira, Marques was said to have had a high appreciation for Camões:


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