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Unit 4: Transoceanic Encounters (1450 – 1750 CE)

In AP® World History: Modern, unit 4 spans from 1450 CE to 1750 CE and accounts for 12-15% of the material on the exam.

This guide was updated to align with the new course!

👉 Check the Fiveable calendar for this week’s free AP World live stream!



STUDY TIP: You will never be asked specifically to identify a date. However, knowing the order of events will help immensely with cause and effect. For this reason, we have identified the most important dates to know.

1453 CE – Ottomans seized Constantinople
1492 CE – Columbus sailed to Americas… then committed genocide
1502 CE – First slaves to the Americas
1517 CE – Martin Luther/95 Theses
1521 CE – Cortez conquered the Aztecs
1526 CE: Mughal Empire begins
1533 CE – Pizarro conquered the Incas
1600 CE: Tokugawa Shogunate in Japan begins
1602 CE: Dutch East India Company established (first joint-stock company)
1618 – 1648 CE – 30 Years War
1624 CE: Queen Nzinga becomes ruler of Ndongo
1689 CE – Glorious Revolution
1697 CE: Peter the Great travels to Europe to study technology


STUDY TIP: Use the following essential questions to guide your review of this entire unit. Keep in mind, these are not meant to be practice essay questions. Each question was written to help you summarize the key concept.

  1. How did new technology lead to changes in trade & travel?
  2. What were the motivations and consequences of exploration?
  3. What were the causes and impacts of the Columbian Exchange?
  4. How did Maritime Empires exert their power?
  5. How did Maritime Empires expand their power?
  6. What were the challenges to state expansion?
  7. How did social hierarchies change in this time?

Past Essay Questions from Unit 4

STUDY TIP: Content from the early-modern era has appeared on the essays eleven times. Take a look at a few of these questions before you review the key concepts & vocabulary below to get a sense of how you will be assessed. Then, come back to these later and practice writing as many as you can!

**The AP World History exam was revised in 2017, so any questions from before then are not representative of the current exam format or rubric. You can still use prior questions to practice, however DBQs will have more than 7 documents, the LEQ prompts are worded differently, and the rubrics are completely different. Use questions from 2002-2016 with caution.

2019 – DBQ: 16th Century Portuguese Transformation of Indian Ocean Trade
2018 – SAQ 4: Agricultural developments
2018 – LEQ 2: Columbian Exchange
2017 – SAQ 2: Intensification of human land use
2017 – LEQ 2: CCOT in labor migrations
2015 – LEQ: CCOT in labor systems 1450-1900
2014 – LEQ: CCOT participation in interregional trade
2012 – LEQ: Compare effects of the Columbian Exchange
2007 – LEQ: Compare processes of empire-building
2006 – DBQ: Global flow of silver
2005 – LEQ: CCOT Columbian Exchange
2003 – LEQ: CCOT Impact of Islam

👉 Watch AP World teacher Patrick Lasseter run through the silver DBQ from 2006 


*The following outline was adapted from the AP® World History Course Description as published by College Board in 2019 found here. This outline reflects the most recent revisions to the course.

👉 Understand the context of unit 4 as AP World teacher Allie Thiessen explains what was happening

4.1 Technological Innovations

4.2 Exploration: Causes and Events

  • Europeans motivated by money, religion, rivalry, and conquest.
  • Mercantilism ruled economic thinking at the time. 
  • The Portuguese led the way, followed by the Spanish, French, English, and Dutch
Comparing Explorers
Zheng HeChina
  • India
  • Middle East
  • Africa
Open trade networks and spread cultureChina stopped exploring
John CabotEngland
  • North America
Get to AsiaEstablished English land in Canada
Vasco de GamaPortugal
  • West coast of Africa
  • India
Get to India & ChinaEstablished power in Indian Ocean
Christopher ColumbusSpain
  • Caribbean islands
  • Central America
Get to India & ChinaEuropean colonization of the Americas
Ferdinand MagellanSpain
  • South America
  • Philippines
Get to AsiaEstablished Spanish links to Americas and Asia

4.3 Columbian Exchange

  • Before 1492, the Americas were isolated from Africa, Europe, and Asia
  • After Columbus, the hemispheres were linked 
  • Disease ravaged the Americas and killed up to 90% of Native Americans
  • Crops and livestock changed eating habits, which largely increased populations
  • African slave trade began immediately & African diaspora changed the culture of the Americas
  • Colonists harmed the environment – deforestation, soil depletion, water strain
  • 👉 Watch former AP World student Charly Castillo discuss what to know about the Columbian Exchange

4.4 Maritime Empires Link Regions

Comparing Labor Systems
SlaveAmericas & AfricaHarvested cash crops, worked plantations, maintained homes
  • Treated as property
  • Few or no rights
SerfEurope & AsiaWorked the farms of Lords
  • Tied to land
  • No legal protections
Indentured ServantGlobalField work, maintained homes
  • Transport paid in exchange for 7 years of unpaid labor
Free PeasantEurope & AsiaBlacksmith, weaving, farming
  • Worked own land
  • Paid taxes to Lord
  • Paid tithes to Church
NomadEurope, Asia, & AfricaHerding, pastoralism, breeding
  • Moved often
  • Used land temporarily
Guild MemberEuropeSkilled crafts
  • Apprentice
  • Eventually independent

👉 Watch AP World teacher & YouTuber Patrick Lasster review the labor systems to help you memorize

Where Slaves Went
Portuguese (mostly Brazil)39%
British West Indies (Caribbean)18%
Spanish (Latin America)18%
French (North America)14%
British Mainland (US)6%
Dutch West Indies (Caribbean)2%

4.5 Maritime Empires Develop

  • Wealth was based on the amount of silver/gold an empire physically had, so Mercantilist policies maximized exports and minimized imports
  • Commercial Revolution led to new advances in finances and banking
  • Rivalries in the Indian Ocean continued for Portuguese
  • Atlantic Slave Trade weakened Africa, but population ultimately increased
  • Massive depopulation in the Americas, New elite class formed = creoles (Spanish born in Americas)
  • New syncretic religions emerged that blended native and colonial traditions

4.6 Internal and External Challenges to State Power

4.7 Changing Social Hierarchies

  • New wealth & new oppressions changed social classes across the world
  • Gunpowder Empires practiced religious tolerance, rewarded military status
  • Manchus in China were cultural minority, wanted to suppress Chinese culture
  • European nobility retained power until royal family suppressed them as well
  • Jews migrated and found success in new areas like banking in the Netherlands
  • Russian peasants continued to be oppressed by merchants and boyars
  • Casta System in the Americas created social pyramid based on racial mixes
  • 👉 Watch AP World teacher Donald D’Orto explain the changing social hierarchies



STUDY TIP: These are the concepts and vocabulary from period 4 that most commonly appear on the exam. Create a quizlet deck to make sure you are familiar with these terms!

  • 95 Theses
  • Adam Smith
  • African Diaspora
  • Akbar
  • Anglican Church
  • Atahualpa
  • Atlantic trade system
  • Aurangzeb
  • Aztec Empire
  • Babur
  • cash crop
  • castas
  • coffeehouses
  • colonies
  • Columbian Exchange
  • Commercial Revolution
  • conquistadores
  • cottage industries
  • Council of Trent
  • Counter-Reformation
  • creole
  • devshirme
  • divine right
  • East India Company
  • encomienda
  • English Civil War
  • Enlightenment
  • fur trade
  • galleons
  • Glorious Revolution
  • Great Peace of Montreal
  • Gunpowder Empires
  • Hermit Kingdom
  • Inca Empire
  • indentured servitude
  • indulgences
  • Inquisition
  • John Locke
  • joint-stock companies
  • kabuki theater
  • maritime empires
  • mercantilism
  • mestizos
  • Middle Passage
  • Ming Dynasty
  • miniature paintings
  • mit’a system
  • mulattoes
  • northwest passage
  • Ottoman Empire
  • Peace of Augsburg
  • Peace of Utrecht
  • Peace of Westphalia
  • Peninsulares
  • Protestant Reformation
  • Puritans
  • Qing Dynasty
  • Safavids
  • Santeria
  • Scholasticism
  • sepoys
  • Sikhism
  • steppes
  • Suleiman I
  • Sunni Ali
  • Taj Mahal
  • Thirty Years’ War
  • Tokugawa Shogunate
  • transatlantic slave trade
  • Treaty of Tordesillas
  • triangular trade
  • Versailles
  • viceroys
  • Virgin of Guadalupe
  • Westernization
  • White Lotus Rebellion
  • zamindars
  • Zheng He
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