Adamastor: The Monster of Good Hope
Who is Adamastor? The first dinosaur found in Angola? Or is he the frightening being that you can see at the Santa Catarina lookout in Lisboa:
Thus described by eye witnesses -Even as I spoke, an immense shape
Materialized in the night air,
Grotesque and of enormous stature
With heavy jowls, and an unkempt beard
Scowling from shrunken, hollow eyes
Its complexion earthy and pale,
Its hair grizzled and matted with clay,
Its mouth coal black, teeth yellow with decay So towered its thick limbs, I swear
You could believe it a second
Colossus of Rhodes, that giant
Of the ancient world’s seven wonders.
It spoke with a coarse, gravelly voice
Booming from the ocean’s depths;
Our hair was on end, our flesh shuddering,
Mine and everyone’s, to hear and behold the thing.
To the terrified sailors of Vasco da Gama, he introduced himself -“I am that vast, secret promontory
You Portuguese call the Cape of Storms,
Which neither Ptolomy, Pompey, Strabo,
Pliny, nor any authors knew of.
Here Africa ends. Here its coast
Concludes in this, my vast inviolate
Plateau, extending southwards to the Pole
And, by your daring, struck my very soul”.
He is Adamastor of the great poem Os Lusiadas by Luis de Camões.
This is how he personified the terrors of the unknown seas in the Southern tip of Africa, that the Portuguese king would later call “The Cape of Good Hope”: the good hope of having finally found the sea route to India and its riches, its spices and its fabled Christians.
The aim of the Portuguese during the 15th century was to outflank the Ottoman empire and divert their trade in spices. For that, they counted on the help of the fabled Prester John whose Christian kingdom was placed somewhere around the Horn of Africa. Secret envoys were sent by land, and one managed to reach Ethiopia and send messages back to the King, but the Ethiopian King kept him under house arrest and he was never allowed to return to Portugal.
His information supported the resolve of King John II to continue the missions. King John had inherited the vision of his uncle Henry the Navigator, the Great Master of the Order of Christ, who for four decades sent ship after ship down the Western coast of Africa in the hope that Ptolomy’s vision of the world with the great land mass of Africa joined to Antartica, would be wrong.
Bartolomeu Dias was the first to clash with the Monster of Good Hope. When he realised he had rounded the southern tip of Africa, he wanted to go further but his crew mutinied and he had to turn back. His second encounter with the Monster would be fatal – on the return trip from the discovery of Brazil.
Three generations before, a squire of Henry the Navigator, Gil Eanes, had passed a major psychological barrier by passing an obscure cape on the Sahara coast, Cape Bojador. According to the tales of sailors, down there the sea was inhabited by monsters that lived in its boiling waters, and even if men could survive the heat, their ships would soon drop out of the edge of the Earth. It is said that Gil Eanes brought back to his master some flowers that also grew in Portugal, as proof that the land he reached could sustain life. There was no return until Gil Eanes returned.
As the 20th century poet Fernando Pessoa would say:Valeu a pena? Tudo vale a pena
Se a alma não é pequena
Quem quer passar além do Bojador
Tem de passar além da dor.
Deus ao mar o perigo e o abismo deu
Mas nele é que espelhou o céu. Was it worth it? Everything is worth it
If the soul is great.
If you want to pass the Bojador
You have to go past the pain.
God gave the sea peril and the abyss
But in it He also mirrored heaven.
Camões took his inspiration for the creature from Greek mythology and the story of The Giants‘ battle with Heracles. Thus the depictions we have of Adamastor are of a terrifying colossus with curling fishy legs and wild hair. Threatening monsters in the Atlantic Ocean not only exist in Portuguese literature: take the 19th century Kraken, who were also said to be living in the waters off Angola.
Still, five hundred years later, a woman putting her foot in African soil for the first time, straight from her village in the Portuguese mountains, would be reassured by the sight of a cat snoozing by the road: “At least cats look the same in these parts…”
Translation of the Lusiadas by Landeg White