Timeline United States

Exploration Turns to Imperialism

Europeans first set sail for new lands in hopes of finding a faster way to Asia. They wanted better access to fine luxury goods and also profit from trade. 

However, as they searched and searched for these faster routes to Asia, they actually became less interested in them. Instead, they became more and more focused on establishing colonies and creating empires that would make them lavishly rich.

This transition had a lasting impact on the history of the world. Relatively small European nations were able to exert their authority over vast territories of lands thousands and thousands of miles away from their borders. 

This happened for two main reasons.

Magellan’s Trip Around the World

The first is that Magellan, a Portuguese sailor financed by the Spanish successfully sailed around the world. He went west from Europe, and then south around South America. 

He thought India was just around the corner. But it took him 16 weeks to reach Guam, which is only a little more than halfway to India. 

This proved to the Europeans that the world was much larger than they had ever thought. Sailing west to India might not be a practical reality after all.

Spanish conquered Aztecs and Incas

New Spain

The second was that the Spanish conquered two major American empires, the Aztecs of Central Mexico and the Incas of Peru. They did this with relatively few men and quite a bit of luck.

This gave them control over wide-reaching trade networks that could provide them with untold wealth. They named this new territory Nueva Espana, or New Spain. 

Almost right away, New Spain became a huge source of income for the Spanish crown. Migration between the two lands grew, and so did Spanish power. Word reached Spain’s top competitors — England, France, Portugal, and the Netherlands — and they wanted a piece of the pie. The race for America, and the world, was on.

The European Takeover of the World

By the turn of the 17th century, the primary European powers were all working hard to establish colonies on the American continent. 

The Spanish continued expanding their presence in Central and South America and also worked to establish more colonies throughout the Caribbean, setting up settlements in places such as Cuba and Puerto Rico. 

The Portuguese were settling in what is now Brazil, and the French were exploring and settling the Caribbean and what is now Canada. They established what is now Quebec in 1609 AD. 

The English explored and colonized the North American coast. They also settled and colonized lands throughout the Caribbean. 

Profit, Religion, and Disease

What this means is that by the end of the 17th century, France, England, Portugal, and Spain had all established permanent settlements in America. Other European powers had much smaller holdings, had ceded lands to one of these three, or had focused efforts elsewhere.

Much like seeds, these settlements would grow up with time. Eventually, they became colonies, Later, they were part of the foundation of vast global empires which stretched across the entire globe. These empires were far richer and far more powerful than any empire previously seen in history. 

Fueling all this expansion and imperialism were three things: profit, religion, and disease. Understanding these helps explain so much of our world today.


Initial European expansion was driven by the search for a new trade route to Asia. 

However, as this dream died and colonization became more important, this hunger for new sources of wealth did not go away. Many Europeans saw these newly discovered lands prime investment opportunities, and the desire to settle them was directly linked to the profit they thought they could produce.

Initially, gold and silver were the ultimate prize. But over time, fertile land where cash crops such as tobacco, cotton, sugar, and coffee could thrive became just as desirable. 

By bringing new lands into their empires, Europeans were able to improve their access to resources that were desired all over the world while also opening up new markets where they could sell these resources. This was an enormously profitable venture, and as expansion helped bring prosperity, it only brought more expansion. 

The promise of extreme wealth was enough for people in Europe to give up everything and join expeditions to the Americas, which were dangerous and often led to death. 

However, many people did not go in search of “extreme” wealth but rather just “more” wealth. Life in European cities  at the time was hard, and opportunities to improve your life were few and far between. Traveling to America promised a new path forward, and was a powerful driver of European expansion and colonialism. 

This helped turn small profit-oriented settlements into full-fledged colonies, which dramatically expanded Europe’s presence in North America and the rest of the world.


Next to profit, religion was one of the key drivers of European expansion and imperialism.

Most Europeans saw the indigenous groups living in the Americas as “barbarians” or “savages” who needed to be saved by Christianity. A great many transatlantic voyages were financed with at least the partial purpose of spreading European religions.

By the time Europe started exploring America, Christianity had been split into countless different denominations. There were the Catholics, those who still followed the Pope in Italy, and the many different Protestants groups. These had formed in “protest” of the Catholic church during the 14th and 15th century. 

Across Europe, this split created conflicts that often led to war. And the losing groups were often persecuted and their religious beliefs were oppressed.

One of the groups, the Puritans from England, eventually bailed out on Europe altogether and secured a land grant from the King of England to settle in what is now Massachusetts. 

When this happened, the “New World” became a bit of a promised land where people could go to live and practice their faith in peace. This turned out to be a major draw, especially in North America, and helped the colonial population grow and become more of a player on the global scene.


It’s a common myth that the Europeans landed on America and it was an untouched wilderness waiting to be explored. 

However much of the land suitable for agriculture and human settlement had already been cleared and turned into communities. As Europeans and Americans came into contact with one another, Native Americans started dying in large numbers, often with little explanation. 

Today, we have an explanation: disease.

As Europeans traveled the world, they carried with them diseases that were unknown to indigenous populations. They therefore had no immunity and began getting sick in masses. And without modern medicine, a great number of those who got sick died.

In America, entire populations of people were wiped out without a single gunshot.

Empires are Born

While it took a few tries, Europeans, mainly the French, Spanish, and English, were eventually able to establish permanent, successful settlements across the Americas and the world. These small settlements eventually turned into much larger colonies, and all of these colonies combined to turn these nations into massive empires. 

A great many of the world’s modern nations have some sort of connection to European empires. So while we are long past the height of European imperialism, its impact is still very much felt today.

Written by Matthew Jones

Illustrated by Jean Galvao