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        Age of Encounter | Explorers and Navigators

        By the late 15th century Europe was in the midst of the Renaissance, the cultural rebirth that had followed the Middle Ages. This same period was also the Age of Encounter, a time when explorers from Italy, Spain, Portugal, and England set out to find easier trade routes to China and India. This time of exploration was led by such navigators as Christopher Columbus, John Cabot, Vasco de Gama, Amerigo Vespucci, Ferdinand Magellan, and Francis Drake. These men believed they were the first Europeans to encounter the New World, though historians have since shown that the Vikings reached the continent nearly 500 years earlier. These voyages during the Age of Encounter produced contact with native peoples that would prove to have devastating effects on these populations, and connected various countries in ways that would transform the world.

        Lesson Summary

        In this lesson, students will explore the travels and discoveries of important Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, and English explorers during the 15th and 16th centuries. After viewing short videos about Christopher Columbus, John Cabot, Vasco da Gama, Amerigo Vespucci, Ferdinand Magellan, and Francis Drake, students will examine two paintings that depict Columbus landing in the New World and read excerpts from a letter recounting some of John Cabot’s adventures. Students will consider what the letter might foretell about the opportunities in the New World. The lesson will conclude with students writing a dialogue between three of the explorers debating important issues of their day.

        Time Allotment

        • Introduction – 5 minutes
        • Video and Class Discussion – 10 minutes per explorer
        • Visual Primary Source Activity – 10 minutes
        • Written Primary Source Activity – 10 minutes
        • Geography Activity – 20 minutes
        • Culminating Activity – 30 minutes
        • Culminating Activity extension – 1 to 2 hours




        • armada – a fleet of warships
        • cartographer – a person who draws or produces maps
        • circumnavigate – to sail or travel all the way around something, especially the world
        • expedition – a journey or voyage undertaken by a person or group with a particular purpose, such as for exploration
        • navigator – a person who directs the route or course of a ship or other form of transportation, especially by using instruments and maps
        • strait – a narrow passage of water connecting two seas or two large areas of water


        Columbian Exchange: The term used to describe the widespread transfer of plants, animals, culture, populations, technology, and ideas between the Old World and the New that started with Christopher Columbus's 1492 voyage and continued through the 16th century. The Columbian Exchange had both positive and negative lasting effects on the world, as new crops, livestock, and farming methods were exchanged between cultures, but the new diseases introduced to the Americas devastated the populations there.

        Strait of Magellan: A channel at the southern tip of South America that links the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean. Ferdinand Magellan was the first European to navigate this channel in 1520, and it was named after him.

        Spice Islands: A group of islands in eastern Indonesia that were the center of the European spice trade in the early 16th century; also known as the Moluccas.

        Background on The Age of Encounter | Explorers and Navigators

        Christopher Columbus

        Italian navigator and explorer Cristoforo Colombo (Christopher Columbus) is probably the most well-known explorer in history. He opened up the Americas to European exploration, and is also responsible for helping decimate American Indian populations in the regions he explored. In 1492, Columbus, whose voyages were financed by the king and queen of Spain, first set out to find a new route to Asia. His four expeditions to islands in the Caribbean and to Central America set in motion what became a transfer of people, plants, animals, and diseases between the Old World and the New, which is now known as the Columbian Exchange. His voyages marked a turning point in global expansion.

        John Cabot

        Italian navigator and explorer Giovanni Caboto changed his named to John Cabot when he sought financing for his voyages from King Henry VII of England. Like Columbus, Cabot sought a route to Asia in the late 1400s. In 1497, on a more northerly route than the one Columbus had taken, Cabot’s ship reached Newfoundland in Canada, which he claimed for England. Though we now know the Vikings had reached North America 500 years earlier, Cabot was long thought to be the first European to reach the mainland. Cabot’s final days are a mystery; he never returned from a third voyage to North America in 1498. However, by claiming part of North America for England he helped set a course for England’s rise to power by the 16th century.

        Vasco da Gama

        Unlike Columbus and Cabot, Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama actually reached Asia by sea, becoming the first European to do so, landing in Calicut, India in 1498. Thousands of sailors had lost their lives in attacks and shipwrecks while previously attempting the same expedition. Da Gama’s success in finding this direct sea route around Africa became one of the most important moments in navigational history, finally linking the East to the West by water. Da Gama’s discovery enabled Portugal to become extremely wealthy due to its subsequent European monopoly in the Asian spice trade, which ultimately resulted in Portugal’s rise as a dominant colonial power.

        Amerigo Vespucci

        Amerigo Vespucci, Italian navigator and cartographer, is most famous for giving his name to the continent he explored in the New World. During his most successful voyage, in 1501, Vespucci sailed along the coast of South America and arrived at what is now Rio de Janeiro and Rio de la Plata. He believed that what he had encountered was not Asia at all, but an entirely new continent between Europe and Asia, which he called the New World. In 1507, a German cartographer proposed the name America for this continent to honor Amerigo Vespucci's discovery.

        Ferdinand Magellan

        In 1519, Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan, with the support of Spain, led the first European voyage to circumnavigate the globe. He had heard of a passage that enabled ships to cross South America without having to travel around Cape Horn, the southern tip of South America. In 1520, he found it: a winding narrow channel that cut through the lower part of South America. This passage was eventually named the Strait of Magellan in his honor. In 1520, after more than a month navigating their way through the strait, Magellan’s ships emerged and became the first known Europeans to see what Magellan called the Mar Pacifico, or the Pacific Ocean. Although this passage was too long and dangerous to be considered a practical route to the Spice Islands, Magellan’s expedition was significant because it expanded Europeans’ knowledge of geography and their understanding of the size of the world.

        Sir Francis Drake

        Some 50 years after Magellan’s expedition, an English admiral, Sir Francis Drake, became the second European to circumnavigate the globe. Drake was a naval commander known for raiding foreign ships and ports and for engaging in the slave trade, trading enslaved Africans. In 1577, Queen Elizabeth I of England chose him to lead an expedition around South America, through the Strait of Magellan. During this mission, Drake and his crew sailed across the globe, bringing with them treasures from their travels. Drake was knighted by Queen Elizabeth I in 1581 and became the most celebrated sailor of his time. In 1588, he helped defeat the great Spanish Armada, a victory that won the English domination over the seas of Europe. As a result, the British Empire grew to become the most powerful empire in the world.

        Introductory Activity

        (5 minutes)

        • Each of our explorers had to ask the king and queen of a country to support his explorations. Many times, the king and queen said no, forcing explorers to ask again or go to another country. When they said yes, the monarchs provided money, ships, personnel, supplies, and documents granting the explorer certain rights and privileges.

          Ask students: Give an example of something you wanted badly and explain how you convinced, or failed to convince, someone to provide the means for you to get that special thing. Did you talk to multiple people? How did their responses differ, and why?

        • Introduce Christopher Columbus, John Cabot (Giovanni Caboto), Vasco da Gama, Amerigo Vespucci, Ferdinand Magellan, and Sir Francis Drake.

          The six explorers featured in this lesson sailed the oceans of the world from the end of the 15th century until nearly the end of the 16th century. Their discoveries dramatically altered Europe’s map of the Earth, revealing new continents, peoples, plants, and animals, and an enormous new ocean. Their achievements also laid the groundwork for global domination by Spain, Portugal, and France and later on, by England and the Dutch.

        Learning Activities

        Video and Class Discussion (10 minutes per explorer)

        Distribute the Age of Encounter Video Graphic Organizer for students to fill out while viewing the video.

        Download the Graphic Organizer [PDF]

        Play the video, Christopher Columbus | PBS World Explorers

        Discussion questions after viewing:

        1. The video on Christopher Columbus mentions that almost 90% of the indigenous people Columbus encountered, who were subsequently visited by many more ships full of Europeans, died from European diseases. What else happened to the indigenous people at the hands of the Europeans?

        Play the video, John Cabot | PBS World Explorers

        1. In the video about John Cabot, the narrator notes that Cabot’s northerly route to the New World gave the English the opportunity to eventually dominate North America while also making the country incredibly wealthy. What did Cabot discover that helped make England very wealthy? Why do you think this commodity (a product that people buy and sell) was so valuable?

        Play the video, Vasco da Gama | PBS World Explorers

        1. On his second voyage, Vasco da Gama commanded a fleet of Portuguese ships, and used them to subdue Arab trading ships and port cities in Africa and India. Do you agree that the Portuguese had the right to use force to establish colonies and become an important player in trade between Europe and Asia? Why or why not?

        Play the video, Amerigo Vespucci | PBS World Explorers

        1. Unlike the other explorers in this series, Amerigo Vespucci did not command a ship. But his contributions to Europeans understanding of geography, cartography, and navigation were considerable. What was the evidence that he used from biology, anthropology (the study of humankind and human cultures), and astronomy that convinced him that the land on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean was not part of Asia?

        Play the video, Ferdinand Magellan | PBS World Explorers

        1. What was Ferdinand Magellan’s most significant contribution as an explorer?

        Play the video, Francis Drake | PBS World Explorers

        1. Why was Francis Drake considered a hero in England, but was seen as a villain by the Spanish?

        The following questions consider the set of videos as a whole:

        1. How did Europe’s influence in the world change between Columbus’s expedition in 1492 and Drake’s voyages around 1580?
        1. Explorers to the New World met indigenous people wherever they went and brought change to their lives. List two ways life changed for the indigenous people.

         Answer Key

        1. Some indigenous people were imprisoned and enslaved, taken from their homeland to be sold as property.
        2. Cabot discovered plentiful codfish along the eastern shores of North America. The commodity proved to be so valuable because it is food, and every single person needs to eat (as opposed to the commodities of gold, silver or spices—not everyone needs to have those items).
        3. Answers will vary. Sample Answer: No, I don’t think it was fair for the Portuguese to use force to establish themselves throughout the African/Indian trade routes. Yet Vasco da Gama had already tried to pleasantly and Zamorin of Calicut dismissed him and his crew, so Portugal decided that exerting their power and force was the next step.
        4. Vespucci noticed that the flora, fauna, and cultures found in South America did not match the records of those that live in Asia. Next, he mapped Southern Hemisphere constellations and analyzed celestial calculations regarding the timing of conjunctions of planets with the moon. These astronomical studies helped Vespucci to ultimately determine that the Earth was much larger than previously thought and that there was a fourth continent that turned out to not be Asia.
        5. He discovered the Strait of Magellan around South America as his crew completed the first circumnavigation of Earth.
        6. Sir France Drake was seen as a villain by the Spanish, but a hero by the English because the English hired Drake as a privateer—a pirate to raid and ambush Spanish ships and harbors. Spain was one of the top world powers, and the English were trying to fight back and establish their own dominance
        7. Europe’s influence in the word grew tremendously over this time period, as European countries raced to claim new parts of the world, and establish trade routes. This brought about great changes, including negative ones such as slavery and diseases.
        8. After these New World expeditions, the indigenous peoples’ lives were never the same. Foreigners came in and took charge, assuming claim for their countries. The indigenous people were essentially assigned a new government without any say. They also experienced a lot of hardship because the explorers brought diseases that wiped out many of the indigenous populations.

        Examining Primary Sources (10 minutes each)

        Visual Primary Source Activity 

        Project or make copies of the following images.

        [Source: Public Domain, US Government work]

        [Source: Public Domain by date (1862)]

        These paintings provide two different perspectives on the meeting of the Old World and the New World. The painting where the ships are visible is called The Landing of Columbus by Albert Bierstadt. It is believed to have been painted in 1893. The painting is owned by the City of Plainfield, New Jersey. Bierstadt (1830–1902) was better known for his epic landscapes of the American West. The other painting is called, Primer desembarco de Cristóbal Colón en América, and was painted in 1862 by Dióscoro Teófilo Puebla Tolín (known as Dióscoro Puebla), a Spanish painter who lived from 1831 to 1901. He was known for his portraits and paintings of historical events. The painting resides in the Museo del Prado in Madrid, Spain.

        Discussion Questions:

        1. Which of the paintings seems more realistic? Why?
        2. In the painting in which Columbus is wearing red and kneeling, why are some of his sailors hugging the ground, and why are others looking up towards the sky? What is the man with the cross doing? The indigenous people are positioned in the shadows, and painted with less color and detail. Why do you think they are represented this way?
        3. Contrast how the indigenous people are portrayed in the two paintings. Consider how many there are in each painting, what they are doing, their posture and body language.

        Answer Key

        1. Answers will vary. Students should pick a painting and support their choice with evidence. Sample: The first painting by Bierstadt seems more realistic than the painting by Puebla. Puebla’s painting seems very dramatic, while the first painting by Bierstadt’s painting looks more like a realistic scene of the expedition arriving on shore.
        2. Answers will vary. Students should pick a position and support it with evidence from the painting. Sample: These men’s poses are most likely religiously based; the men are bowing in the presence of God and looking up at Him in the sky, grateful to have arrived safely on new land. The man is holding the cross up in honor and reverence to God, as well as showing the indigenous people the sign of their Christian God.
          The indigenous people are cast to the side in the shadows because they are not the focus of the painting. The key sight here is the European discovery of the Americas (although at the time they thought it was Asia).
        3. Answers will vary. Students should compare and contrast the indigenous people in both paintings and explain any conclusions they draw. Sample: The indigenous people portrayed in the first painting take on a more stable and active presence. Many of them stand their ground and look out onto the shore. Several of them are out in front, bowing down to the arriving crew. They seem to be actively looking out and attempting to make contact. In the second painting they are crouching, and more clearly secondary to the main action point in the painting.

        Written Primary Source Activity

        The discoveries of our six explorers expanded opportunities for countries in Western Europe. They revealed new trade routes to Asia, and learned about foods such as corn, potatoes, and tomatoes, and abundant fishing grounds filled with cod. During the 16th and 17th centuries, the New World to the west quickly became colonized by French, Spanish, Portuguese, and English settlers.

        Distribute the Written Primary Source handout to students. Have them read the excerpts from Fra Soncino’s letter and answer the questions on the handout. 

        Download the Written Primary Source Handout [PDF]

        Answer Key

        1. Fra Soncino referred to Asia because that is what John Cabot and the rest of England thought he had found. Both Columbus and Cabot had sought out to find a trade route to Asia by sea, not realizing that the Americas actually fell in between Asia and Europe. 
        2. Cabot spoke highly of the area he discovered; people desired to see the lands themselves and take advantage of the fertile land and abundant fish. As the fish’s popularity grew, more and more people would come over towards Canada and New England to help harvest it and earn money. Naturally, the English would want to protect this new land and resources for themselves by staking claim and colonizing parts of Canada and New England. 

        Geography Activity (30 minutes)

        Materials Needed 

         This activity can be done in a school computer lab, or as a take-home assignment. 

        Distribute the World Explorer map handout and Comparing Journeys handout, which correspond to the Google Earth Story “Age of Encounter”. In class or independently, have students follow the journeys of Christopher Columbus, John Cabot, Vasco da Gama, Amerigo Vespucci, Ferdinand Magellan, and Francis Drake. Have students make notes on the map; encourage them to include aspects of the journey that they find interesting as well as any questions that arise. 

        Answer Key

        World Explorers Handout

        1. Bahamas (San Salvador) and La Navidad, Haiti
        2. Bristol, England and St. John’s, Newfoundland
        3. Cape of Good Hope, South Africa and Kozhikode (Calicut), India
        4. Amazon River, Brazil and Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
        5. Strait of Magellan, Chile and Moluccas Islands, Indonesia
        6. Nombre de los Dios, Panama and San Francisco, California

        Comparing Journeys Handout





        Da Gama











        Sailed for




        Spain and Portugal



        Significant encounter

        Indigenous tribes; enslavement and death

        Cod; got England in the race for colonization; fed Europe

        Zamorin; sparked da Gama and Portugal to take the Indian Ocean ports by force

        South American coast; studying the people, flora and fauna helped him understand that he wasn’t in India

        Leader of Cebu; an attempt at an alliance led to his death from fighting in another’s war

        Sacking Nombre de los Dios and looting the Spanish Silver Train in Panama; convinced Queen Elizabeth to use him to attack and beat Spain.

        History-changing accomplishment

        First European to find land on western side of the Atlantic in recorded history.

        First European (since Vikings) to reach North American continent; opened up Canada’s fisheries to immense trade.

        Opened up trade through and in the Indian Ocean for Europeans, especially Portugal.

        Realization that land on other side of Atlantic was not Asia, but instead another continent; gave Portugal the world’s first global empire.

        First global circumna-vigation;

        Attacked Spanish ships and ports, weakening its empire and strengthening England’s

        Culminating Activity

        (30 minutes)

        This can be done as an in-class follow-up to the lesson, as a homework assignment or as a multi-day in-class project.

        To be completed using the Age of Encounter video graphic organizers.

        Read the next paragraph to your students. It sets a scene and provides instructions for this final activity. Have your students write out the imaginary scene, the explorers they have chosen, the guide question they picked, their three questions, and a dialogue that follows among the guest explorers. The entire activity will take 30 minutes.

        Let’s imagine you can go back in time to the year 1595 and you can bring any technology with you.  Imagine you are the host of a time-travel television talk show, which invites guests to debate important issues of the day. Choose one of the following groups of explorers as your guests, knowing that back in 1595, these explorers were never together at the same time. Prepare three questions to ask the panel of guests to discuss based on any of the following guide questions. Prepare answers from the panel guests or write a dialogue of them answering the questions.

        Guest Explorers

        • Columbus, Vespucci, and Cabot
        • da Gama, Magellan, and Columbus
        • Magellan, Drake, and Vespucci

        Guide Questions

        1. What lies across the Atlantic Ocean? Is it Asia or some place else?
        2. How big is the Earth, really?
        3. The Asian spice trade. Is there enough for all of us?

        Extending the lesson (1-2 hours):

        Alternatively, divide your class into groups of four. Have each group choose a set of explorers and a guide question. Have each quartet prepare questions for the talk show and write a dialogue for the talk show host and the explorers. Then have each group perform a skit lasting 5 to 10 minutes. This activity will take 1 to 2 hours, depending on the length of each skit. 

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