AP European History
Key Concept 1.4: Europeans explored and settled overseas territories, encountering and interacting with indigenous populations.


From the 15th through the 17th centuries, Europeans used their mastery of the seas to extend their power in Africa, Asia, and the Americas. In the 15th century, the Portuguese sought direct access by sea to the sources of African gold, ivory, and slaves. At the same time, the rise of Ottoman power in the eastern Mediterranean led to Ottoman control of the Mediterranean trade routes and increased the motivation of Iberians and then northern Europeans to explore possible sea routes to the East. The success and consequences of these explorations, and the maritime expansion that followed them, rested on European adaptation of Muslim and Chinese navigational technology, as well as advances in military technology and cartography. Political, economic, and religious rivalries among Europeans also stimulated maritime expansion. By the 17th century, Europeans had forged a global trade network that gradually edged out earlier Muslim and Chinese dominion in the Indian Ocean and the western Pacific.

In Europe, these successes shifted economic power within Europe from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic states. In Asia, the Portuguese, Spanish, and Dutch competed for control of trade routes and trading stations. In the Americas, the Spanish and Portuguese led in the establishment of colonies, followed by the Dutch, French, and English. The pursuit of colonies was sustained by mercantilist economic theory, which promoted government management of economic imperatives and policies. The creation of maritime empires was also animated by the religious fervor sweeping Europe during the period of the Reformations (Catholic and Protestant). Global European expansion led to the conversion of indigenous populations in South and Central America, to an exchange of commodities and crops that enriched European and other civilizations that became part of the global trading network, and eventually, to migrations that had profound effects on Europe. The expansion also challenged parochial worldviews in Christian Europe. Yet the “Columbian Exchange” also unleashed several ecological disasters – notably the death of vast numbers of the Americas’ population in epidemics of European diseases, such as smallpox and measles, against which the native populations had no defenses. The establishment of the plantation system in the American colonies also led to the vast expansion of the African slave trade, one feature of the new Atlantic trading system.

Supporting Concepts and Examples

European nations were driven by commercial and religious motives to explore overseas territories and establish colonies.

European states sought direct access to gold and spices and luxury goods as a means to enhance personal wealth and state power.

The rise of mercantilism gave the state a new role in promoting commercial development and the acquisition of colonies overseas.

Christianity served as a stimulus for exploration as governments and religious authorities sought to spread the faith and counter Islam, and as a justification for the physical and cultural subjugation of indigenous civilizations.

Advances in navigation, cartography, and military technology allowed Europeans to establish overseas colonies and empires.

Navigational technology
  • Compass
  • Stern-post rudder
  • Portolani
  • Quadrant and astrolabe
  • Lateen rig

Military technology
  • Horses
  • Guns and gunpowder

Europeans established overseas empires and trade networks through coercion and negotiation.

The Portuguese established a commercial network along the African coast, in South and East Asia, and in South America.

The Spanish established colonies across the Americas, the Caribbean, and the Pacific, which made Spain a dominant state in Europe.

The Atlantic nations of France, England, and the Netherlands followed by establishing their own colonies and trading networks to compete with Portuguese and Spanish dominance.

The competition for trade led to conflicts and rivalries among European powers.

Europe’s colonial expansion led to a global exchange of goods, flora, fauna, cultural practices, and diseases, resulting in the destruction of some indigenous civilizations, a shift toward European dominance, and the expansion of the slave trade.

The exchange of goods shifted the center of economic power in Europe from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic states and brought the latter into an expanding world economy.

The exchange of new plants, animals, and diseases — the Columbian Exchange — created economic opportunities for Europeans and facilitated European subjugation and destruction of indigenous peoples, particularly in the Americas.

New plants, animals, and diseases
  • From Europe to the Americas:
    • Wheat
    • Cattle
    • Horses
    • Pigs
    • Sheep
    • Smallpox
    • Measles
  • From the Americas to Europe:
    • Tomatoes
    • Potatoes
    • Squash
    • Corn
    • Tobacco
    • Turkeys
    • Syphilis

Europeans expanded the African slave trade in response to the establishment of a plantation economy in the Americas and demographic catastrophes among indigenous peoples.

Reading Assignments

Reading 1: Pages 403-407

On the Brink of a New World:
  The Motives for Expansion
  The Means for Expansion

Reading 2: Pages 407-410

New Horizons: Portuguese and Spanish Empires:
  The Portuguese Maritime Empire
  Voyages to the New World

Reading 3: Pages 410-416

New Horizons: Portuguese and Spanish Empires:
  Spanish Empire in the New World
  Disease in the New World

Reading 4: Pages 416-419

New Rivals on the World Stage:
  Africa: The Slave Trade

Reading 5: Pages 419-427

New Rivals on the World Stage:
  The West in Southeast Asia
  The French and British in India
  The Americas

Reading 6: Pages 427-433

The Impact of World Expansion:
  The Conquered
  The Conquerors
Toward a World Economy:
  Economic Conditions in the 16th Century
  The Growth of Commercial Capitalism
  Overseas Trade and Colonies: Movement Toward Globalization


Chapter Glossary
Chapter Study Guide
Chapter 14 Outline
Chapter 14 Scan