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History of Portuguese Literature Origins of Portuguese Literature The Portuguese Language Oral Literature Fiction Lyricism
Travel Literature Cantigas de amigo Historiography Doctrinal Prose


Travel Literature

Page from the Log-Book/Report of Vasco da Gama’a First Voyage to India, attributed to Álvaro Velho, 1497-1499. Copy from the mid-sixteenth century.

Page from Carta de Pero Vaz de Caminha a D. Manuel sobre a Descoberta do Brasil (Letter from Pero Vaz de Caminha to King Manuel I on the Discovery of Brazil), 1500, National Archives/Torre do Tombo

Verdadeira Informação das Terras do Preste João (Genuine Information from the Land of Prester John), printed in 1540

Fernão Mendes Pinto [1514-1583], Peregrinação

Portuguese travel literature is deeply rooted in its maritime discoveries and the pragmatic need to record the different routes, atmospheric conditions, coastal irregularities and all the other features that might help seafarers to repeat and continue along paths that had already been travelled.

So, sailing directions and ships’ log-books were born, technical documents that aided navigational orientation, and these were the direct ancestors of this form of literature. In fact, such literature had already begun to emerge in these same texts in the form of comments that expanded the purely descriptive notes into picturesque embellishments of the voyagers’ surprise and admiration, or narrative segments that provided an account of their engagement in the relationship between the perceptive subject and the world being revealed thereto.

Livro das Armadas (Fleet Book)
Packet Boat to India


Examples of such texts in the sixteenth century were Esmeraldo de Situ Orbis, by Duarte Pacheco Pereira  and Roteiro do Mar Roxo by D. João de Castro. The first important work of major interest in this area was, however, Roteiro da Primeira Viagem de Vasco da Gama (Report of Vasco da Gama’s First Voyage to India), attributed to Álvaro Velho, which has remained as one of the fundamental texts of all travel literature, followed by Carta a D. Manuel sobre o Descobrimento do Brasil (Letter to King Manuel I on the discovery of Brazil) by Pero Vaz de Caminha.

As a result of these works, or, perhaps better, as a result of the regular and multiple nature of voyages (given that these works had a limited audience and frequently, as appears to have been the case with Caminha’s text, actually became confidential because of the policy of secrecy in relation to the discoveries) genuine reports were to appear of itineraries and routes, by sea or overland, born out of overseas voyages and sometimes combining documentary interest with narrative processes that, particularly for today’s reader, already smacked of literature.
Amongst such a vast series of works, many examples abound: A Verdadeira Informação do Preste João das Índias (1540), by Padre Francisco Álvares, Tratado das Cousas da China (1570), by Frei Gaspar da Cruz, Itinerário da Terra Santa (1593), by Frei Pantaleão de Aveiro, Etiópia Oriental (1609), by Frei João dos Santos, or Itinerário da Índia por Terra (1611), by Frei Gaspar de São Bernardino.

On the other hand, the “canonical” writers (those writing with a decidedly literary intention) centred many of their works on the problematics of the voyages of the discoveries. This is the case, for example with Gil Vicente’s Auto da Índia and, in particular, with Luís de Camões, who made such a voyage the basic plot of his epic poem Os Lusíadas. Nor could the chroniclers avoid reworking this material, sometimes in works that are amongst the most important in this area, even from the aesthetic point of view: Gomes Eanes de Zurara in Crónica da Guiné and João de Barros in Ásia.

A particularly interesting feature of this literature is the proliferation of what was to become a specific Portuguese genre during the second half of the sixteenth century and would in fact continue until much later: the reports of shipwrecks. These consisted of a specific narrative that was exclusive to the ships that were wrecked, with a detailed description of the human reactions caused by the shipwreck and the tragic and sometimes vain efforts to survive. The oldest known work of this nature is that of the Galeão Grande São João, from 1554, which is known as the Naufrágio de Sepúlveda, written by an anonymous author. Others, however, are equally worthy of the attention of literary analysts in view of their extremely rare capacity for writing about the pathetic, for their parallel descriptions of physical and psychological movements, as well as for the way in which they combine an unshakeable belief in the military and religious mission of the spirit of conquest with an air of pessimism and disillusion that suggests a clear reaction to the Lusiad epic adventure: Relação do Naufrágio da Nau Santiago, by Manuel Godinho Cardoso, Relação do Naufrágio da Nau São Bento, by Manuel de Mesquita Perestrelo, Relação do Naufrágio da Nau Conceição, by Manuel Rangel. Published in loose, unbound form, they were collected together in the eighteenth century by Bernardo Gomes de Brito in his two volumes of História Trágico-Marítima (1735-36).

Amongst all of this literature, however, there is one truly exceptional work, Peregrinação by Fernão Mendes Pinto, published in 1614, although it was actually written earlier in 1580.

And nor must we forget the great influence of this literature on later Portuguese literary works, both in the establishment of sundry “topoi” (as is the case with the “maritime novel”, first begun amongst us by Francisco Maria Bordalo, with Eugénio, written in 1846, and a fairly popular formula in the second half of the nineteenth century) and in thematic developments that cut across the various genres. There were also the particular developments that had to do not only with the individual choices made by authors, but also with specific periods of culture, either paying homage to, or deploring, the period of the discoveries. These were the reports of the travels of nineteenth-century explorers or of writers from all periods, or else reworkings of ideas, now written from the point of view of ideological congruity (Afonso Lopes Vieira, Onde a Terra se Acaba e o Mar Começa, 1940), with a nostalgic feeling (Sophia de Mello Breyner Andresen, Navegações, 1988) or as parodies (António Lobo Antunes, As Naus, 1988).



© Instituto Camões, 2001