European expansion in world history

One of the most significant episodes in world history was the expansion of Europe from the 15th century onwards. This lesson asks students to look at and think about this multi-faceted process: its complex chronology, varied motivations, diverse nature and contrasting impacts.


Divide the class into eight groups. Each group takes one (or in one case, two) of the regions of the world: North America, South America, Africa, The Middle East, South Asia, East Asia, South East Asia, Australasia and Oceania.

In each case, start at the date 1453. Follow the history of the region through to 2005.

Note when Europeans became involved in that region.

What was the nature of that involvement?

Did this nature change over time?

What impact did European involvement have on indigenous peoples and cultures?


You might like to answer the above questions by placing a tick in the appropriate rows below, at the appropriate date. In some cases there may be entries in more than one row.

Untouched by European contact
Trade and/or investment
Depopulation of indigenous peoples
Destabilization of indigenous societies
Conquest of indigenous states
Settlement of indigenous peoples’ lands
End of domination by European powers


Wrap up 

Each group presents their findings.

They should say clearly which European countries were involved, when, and in what ways. They should make sure the class knows where these countries are located on the map of Europe, so that the class understands that the European countries most involved were along the Atlantic coast of the continent.

(Note for teachers: There’s an obvious quandary in dealing with some regions. Europeans came to the region, settled it, and then became independent from their European homelands. Does this independence mark the end of domination by Europeans in these regions? The answer to this largely depends on the definition of “Europeans” – are they citizens of a European state? Or are they people of European origin? In which case, what about creoles, mestizos, mulattoes?

Hopefully this issue will spark debate, with the class finding its own answer.)

At the end, discuss:

Were the European countries friendly collaborators or belligerent rivals with each other in their expansion overseas?

Were there different phases in the European worldwide expansion?

Which regions of the world were most affected by European expansion? – in what ways? Why?

Which least? – why?

Thinking outside the box: what would the world today look like if Europe hadn’t existed?

(Note to teacher: you might be tempted to pose the question – would this have been a good thing or a bad thing? Personally, I’m not sure that this is a valid question for historians to ask, qua historians; it’s too value-laden and philosophical. However, if the class drags you into these murky waters, it might be interesting to see where the discussion goes.)


Discuss the ways European overseas expansion shaped the world.

(Note to teachers: as a check list, some effects of the expansion of Europe were:

the collapse of indigenous populations;

the spread of people of African and Asian descent throughout the world;

the spread of Christianity;

the spread of European languages;

the spread of European-style government, including democracy;

the spread of industrialisation;

the spread of western science and medicine;

the rise of a global economy

…anything else?)

Back to AP world history page


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