(Luis de Camões, Os Lusíadas or, The Lusiads, 1572)

“Between the isle and Ethiopia’s land

A narrow current laves each adverse strand;

Close by the margin where the green tide flows,

Full to the bay a lordly city rose;

With fervid blaze the glowing evening pours

Its purple splendours o’er the lofty towers;

The lofty towers with milder lustre gleam,

And gently tremble in the glassy stream.

Here reign’d a hoary king of ancient fame;

Mombas the town, Mombas the island’s name.”

(Book I)

Luís Vaz de Camões (sometimes anglicized as Camoëns) (1525-1580) penned the founding tale of the Portuguese nation, taking as his figurehead the great explorer Vasco da Gama, the explorer who first sailed to India, thus opening up to the Portuguese a direct route to the riches of Asia that avoided the Ottoman Empire. Camões had an adventurous life himself and was posted first to India, then to Macau, where he wrote his epic in Homeric style, taking as his cues founding texts such as the Aeneid and the Iliad. The poet was famously–and apocryphally?–shipwrecked off the coast of Cambodia, but purported to swim ashore with the only copy of his manuscript held aloft… What is truly remarkable in the Lusiads for our context, is the number of references to Ethiopia, starting with a glowing reference to ‘thy son,’ which is of course a homage to Vasco da Gama’s own son, the ill-fated Christopher, who was to meet his end on a mountaintop near Lake Tana. There is also much talk of the River Nilus, and Saint George, and we also know from contemporary commentators that the Portuguese seafarer met Ethiopian Christians both in the port of Mombassa, and, much further south, in Mozambique.