When Portuguese sea captain Vasco da Gama arrived at Calicut (Kozhikode, Kerala) in India after rounding the southern tip of Africa, he wondered why the great European powers such as Venice, France and Castile had not been able to. This was 1498, and Portugal was a small, impoverished nation on the fringe of Europe.
The reason was that Portugal had spent decades implementing a methodology of knowledge acquisition to achieve the commercial objective of getting into and controlling the European end of the lucrative Indian spice trade. The trade was at that time controlled by Venice which obtained spices via the Egyptians and then charged monopoly prices, enriching the city-state. The Portuguese plan was to discover the route around Africa to India, and miss out the middlemen.
The Portuguese gathered together geographers, map-makers, sailors, boat-builders and astronomers, mostly refugees from more repressive European regimes. They then set out to gather information on winds, currents, geography, cultures and languages such that knowledge acquisition was a national policy.
After years of voyages, testing ideas and learning lessons by Portuguese mariners, Da Gama became the first European to reach India by going round the Cape of Good Hope. Da Gama’s initial small cargo of spices from his first trip paid for the expedition sixty times over. Soon the Portuguese had taken control of the spice trade from India to Europe, and Lisbon became a wealthy, vibrant city.
The Portuguese also established outposts in Africa, India, Malaya, China and Japan, and their colonial presence in India (for good or ill) lasted 400 years. Whilst trying to get to India early on, they accidentally “discovered” Brazil. The process ushered in globalisation and led to 500 years of Western dominance that has only relatively recently started to reverse.
Acquisition of knowledge and careful management of risk were key to the Portuguese success. Hundreds of years later, NASA acknowledged their debt to the Portuguese approach to exploration as they adapted it to Space.
Sources: “Conquerors: How Portugal Forged the First Global Empire”- Roger Crowley; El País newspaper