A History of Water

by Edward Wilson-Lee

Hardcover, 2022



Call number



From award-winning writer Edward Wilson-Lee, this is a thrilling true historical detective story set in sixteenth-century Portugal. A History of Water follows the interconnected lives of two men across the Renaissance globe. One of them, an aficionado of mermen and Ethiopian culture, an art collector, historian and expert on water-music, returns home from witnessing the birth of the modern age to die in a mysterious incident, apparently the victim of a grisly and curious murder. The other, a ruffian, vagabond and braggart, chased across the globe from Mozambique to Japan, ends up as the national poet of Portugal. The stories of Damiao de Gois and Luis de Camoes capture the extraordinary wonders that awaited Europeans on their arrival in India and China, the challenges these marvels presented to longstanding beliefs, and the vast conspiracy to silence the questions these posed about the nature of history and of human life. Like all good mysteries, everyone has their own version of events.… (more)

Media reviews

'A History of Water' is an oddly named book – presumably the water refers to the endless seas and inland rivers that carried bodies, goods, ideas and quarrels around the world in the 16th century – but it is a delightful one. It can be dense at times. You will need to keep your wits about you.
Show More
But that, perhaps, is the whole point of Wilson-Lee's argument: truth is tricky and experience slippery. The greatest sin is not to stumble or even fall but to insist, against all evidence to the contrary, that you are certain about what it all means.
Show Less

User reviews

LibraryThing member thorold
Contrary to what you might expect from the title, this is in effect a parallel biography of two Portuguese 16th century figures, the poet Luís Vaz de Camões and the humanist scholar Damião de Góis.

Damião had a high-profile career as a trade envoy in the Low Countries and the Baltic before
Show More
returning to Lisbon to work as archivist and official historian in the Torre do Tombo. During his travels around Europe he spent time in the universities of Louvain and Padua, and seems to have formed close ties with many of the leading figures of the age, including Erasmus and Luther, as well as with the founders of the Jesuit order. He also developed a fascination with other cultures, especially the non-Christian traditions of Lapland and the non-Western Christianity of Ethiopia, which he extended during his work as historian into a tendency to look at what colonised people said about the Portuguese as well as what the colonisers said to justify themselves. And, of course, it wasn't long before he had the Inquisition knocking on his door.

Wilson-Lee sees Damião's Chronicle as a kind of last-ditch attempt by humanism to present a view of the world in which Western European Christianity is merely one of many cultural traditions, with much to learn from the advanced cultures of places like India and China, and he contrasts it to the assertive, Eurocentric and imperialist neoclassical view projected by Camões in The Lusiads.

It's a cleverly-written book, that manages to turn a fairly abstract literary and historical debate into something very like a murder mystery, full of entertaining glimpses at Camões's experiences in the Lisbon underworld and at the sharp end of colonialism, mirrored by Damião's semi-clandestine encounters with forbidden knowledge (among the things that got him into trouble were his passions for the polyphony of Josquin and the paintings of Hieronymous Bosch...). Necessarily there's a little bit of oversimplification along the way, but it's an interesting glimpse into a period when it wasn't entirely obvious that Europe would be forcibly split between Catholics and Protestants or that Europeans would see it as their mission to finance our culture by robbing the rest of the world for the next few centuries.
Show Less


Original language


Original publication date


Physical description

9.45 inches


0008358222 / 9780008358228
Page: 0.4144 seconds