World History For Us All Logo Teaching
at a Glance
of This Curriculum
Questions and
Glossary Teachers'
This Site
World History For Us All Spacer Image
History, Geography, and Time Big Eras 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 Past and Future
Home >

Big Era Six: Landscape Unit 6.1


Complete Teaching Unit
Download Options:


Oceanic Ventures and the Joining of the Continents
1400 - 1550 CE

Why This Unit?

Long-distance maritime travel had a long history before the pioneering voyages that began in the late fifteenth century. The oceanic voyages of the 1400 to 1550 period, however, produced radically new information. First, mariners proved that there was open water to the south of Africa and that Europe could be linked to Asia by sailing east. Second, by sailing west to try to reach Asia, they discovered the Americas, two continents that peoples of Afroeurasia had previously not known about. And third, they demonstrated that the western Atlantic was not land-locked, that there was open water to the south of the Americas leading to the Pacific, and that Asia could indeed be reached directly from Europe as well as from the Americas by sailing west.

The new sea routes discovered became increasingly busy channels of communication between continents and countries. Across these routes passed, by conscious intent or not, people, goods, plants, animals, technologies, ideas, and diseases. Contacts multiplied over a wider range of ecosystems, involving more and more diverse peoples. The advantages of this situation increasingly became slanted towards Europeans, though the process was gradual and did not become full-fledged until well beyond 1550. 

The development of our contemporary world of international organizations, multinational corporations, globalization, and both the spread of and resistance to European cultural ideas and institutions, was heavily influenced by what happened during this period of long-distance maritime exploration and encounter.

Unit Objectives

Upon completing this unit, students will be able to:

1.) Identify reasons why mariners undertook long-distance oceanic voyages both east and west during the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, and compare the Chinese, Portuguese, and Spanish ventures.

2.) Evaluate what promoted, and what hindered, the novel sea voyages and their achievements during the period 1400 to 1550.

3.) Explain how, and with what results, Spain and Portugal turned the search for new sea routes into a grasp for empire in the sixteenth century.

4.) Analyze ways in which each side viewed the other in the encounters of Africans, Native Americans, and Asians with Iberians (Spanish and Portuguese) during and after the latter’s maritime expeditions of 1400 to 1550.

5.) Develop a toolkit for assessing the reliability of historical documents as evidence, and gain practice in its use.


Time and Materials

This unit is versatile. The variety and number of student readings, discussion questions, and activities provided are meant to give teachers choices in using materials most suited to their students, interests, and circumstances.

Time taken for the unit will vary depending on teachers’ selections and on whether the Student Handouts and some of the activities are assigned as homework.

Each of the three lessons in the unit may be used alone. Lesson 1 is likely to take the least time, and Lesson 3 the most. If the time available is severely limited, Lesson 2, which is the core of the unit, could be minimally covered in two class periods. Each of the other lessons would take an additional one to three class periods.

No materials are needed other than pencil, paper, and Student Handouts.

Table of Contents

Why this unit?


Time and materials


Unit objectives




The historical context


This unit in the Big Era time line


Lesson 1: What Was Needed to Link Continents?

Lesson 2: Conquest of the Oceans: Where, How, and Why?
Lesson 3: Routes to Empire
Appendices: Maps of Atlantic and Indian Oceans
This unit and the Three Essential Questions
This unit and the Seven Key Themes
This unit and the Standards in Historical Thinking
Correlations to National and State Standards
Conceptual links to other lessons

Complete Teaching Unit in PDF format

Complete Teaching Unit in DOCX format

Note: documents in Portable Document Format (PDF) require Adobe Acrobat Reader 5.0 or higher to view, download Adobe Acrobat Reader.