Janice Rodrigues| NT BUZZ
Luis Vaz de Camoes is a name that might ring a bell in many Goan minds, especially with a language institute named after him. However it is fairly rare to find a person who knows the magnanimity of his works. Having spent approximately 15 years in Goa, linguists say that his exile here was what made him the great poet he is. Shedding some light on the making of Camoes, writer, professor and poet Landeg White, will host a presentation on ‘Camoes: Made in Goa’, highlighting the Portuguese bard’s journey to greatness.
Speaking about the presentation, White says: “The title of the talk is Camoes: Made in India. He truly became the great poet he is considered today because of the influences he had in Goa.” Camoes was one of the few European poets who moved out of Europe and that is what made him explore more through his literary works. “What struck me about him is that he was the first major European poet to cross the equator and basically focused on how to write about it, using European language and forms of European poetry he wanted to write about people in Africa first of all, and then about people in India.” says White.
White says he found the life of Camoes fascinating because he could draw parallels to his own life, especially through the epic poem of ‘The Lusiads’ (considered one of the best poems in the Portuguese language). “I am myself someone who tries to be a poet, and I practiced as a poet in the West Indies and in three different African countries. I live in retirement in Portugal but my poetry is in the English language. The question that arises in the mind of one who reads Camoes is that how could you write about a foreign land in a European language, keeping the elements of that land intact. The vision of Camoes is probing this question, and I’ve been hoping to find the answer to this question ever since I encountered him in the 1980s,” said White.
White’s first encounter with Camoes, was purely incidental. While in West Indies around 1969, he met a girl from Mozambique who would later become his wife. On a trip to Mozambique, he picked up a copy of ‘The Lusiads’, in English. “The pages were uncut. We sat in a cafe and I started cutting the pages, and while doing that I went through it, and I was amazed to see that the epic begins just offshore from where I was sitting. It begins in the oceanic channel to India, with the fleet already there between Mozambique and Madagascar.”
When asked about Camoes’ exile, White says that being born into the lower ranks of the nobility, getting himself a position in the court was a challenge. When he did manage to do that he seemed to find it hard to hold on to the position. “Though we know that he was exiled once before, what got him to Goa was a brawl on the celebration of Corpus Christi with one of the officials who he wounded with a sword, and he was sentenced for three years initially. He spent the first few years, fighting various campaigns, in the red sea, the Malabar Coast,” says White.
Only later did Camoes live in Goa and spent in totality a period of 15 years on the land. The influences here were great and made his rethink his craft. “In my perspective Camoes was a very accomplished but sensibly conventional court poet until his exile to Goa. The exile in Goa made him rethink his art, the way he was writing, what he was writing about and forced him into becoming one of the greatest poets of Europe,” says White.
The condition of living in Goa was rendered difficult because of the inquisition where people were denied their rights. “One of his friends was Garcia de Orta, a physician who took interest in Indian medicine. He got into trouble when he published a book about Indian medicine in 1563. It contained a poem by Camoes, one of his first published poems. The inquisition officials didn’t like this, they targeted Garcia who died in 1568 before they could do anything to him, but instead they arrested his sister Catarina who was burned at the stake, then they dug up his remains and burned them too. I think it was because of this that Camoes left Goa in a great hurry. They didn’t manage to get home, they only to Mozambique, he was stranded there for about 18 months, and then headed to Lisbon,” says White.
While in Goa Camoes was faced with a dilemma that since he could no longer be a court poet, the question arose why did he write poetry? “In those days people didn’t publish poetry. They wrote them and circulated it among friends. The idea of publishing a book was not yet in the culture. Then the question was if he wasn’t writing for the court then who was he writing for? That question forced him into himself and then he began writing purely to self expression. It’s a very modern idea, but in the 16th century this was something new.”
Most important of his works was ‘Os Lusiads’, which is an epic poem describing the voyage of Vasco da Gama to India, in all its various ramifications. “Camoes loved the way in which in his age the world just opened up. For the Europeans the world was just the Mediterranean but suddenly it all opened up. The discovery that the sun and the earth were not the centre of the universe was devastating. It upset everything that was previously thought, that’s why the Catholic Church tried to stop the publishing of these discoveries. All this led to the forming of ‘The Lusiads’. But he also wrote a large body of lyrical poems in the form of sonnets and folk songs, hymns, elegies all lyrical varieties, in Portuguese and Spanish too.”
Camoes is said to have termed Goa as ‘the stepmother to all honest men’, when asked to comment about this, White said: “You must remember he was talking about the Portuguese society in Goa not about Goa. He hated it, when he came to Goa he expected to find all the best in Portugal, but what he found was reflected all the worst in Portugal and Portuguese society, he hated it.” This dislike for the happenings in Goa led him not to take an interest in the place and its culture; however White says that Camoes may have felt a pang of regret with this. “When he got back to Portugal he wrote one long poem towards the end of his life in which he seems to have regretted that he did not make the best of his stay in Goa, getting to know people and the language,” he concluded.