Colonial empires first emerged with a race of exploration between the then most advanced European maritime powers, Portugal and Spain, during the 15th century. The initial impulse behind these dispersed maritime empires and those that followed was trade, driven by the new ideas and the capitalism that grew out of the European Renaissance. Agreements were also made to divide the world up between them in 1479, 1493, and 1494. European imperialism was born out of competition between European Christians and Ottoman Muslims, the latter of which rose up quickly in the 14th century and forced the Spanish and Portuguese to seek new trade routes to India, and to a lesser extent, China.
Although colonies existed in classical antiquity, especially amongst the Phoenicians and the Ancient Greeks who settled many islands and coasts of the Mediterranean Sea, these colonies were politically independent from the city-states they originated from, and thus did not constitute a colonial empire.
Portugal began establishing the first global trade network and empire under the leadership of Henry the Navigator. The empire spread throughout a vast number of territories distributed across the globe (especially at one time in the 16th century) that are now parts of 60 different sovereign states. Portugal would eventually control Brazil, territories such as what is now Uruguay and some fishing ports in north, in the Americas; Angola, Mozambique, Portuguese Guinea, and São Tomé and Príncipe (among other territories and bases) in the North and the Subsaharan Africa; cities, forts or territories in all the Asian Subcontinents, as Muscat, Ormus and Bahrain (amongst other bases) in the Persian Gulf; Goa, Bombay and Daman and Diu (amongst other coastal cities) in India; Portuguese Ceylon; Malacca, bases in Southeast Asia and Oceania, as Makassar, Solor, Banda, Ambon and others in the Moluccas, Portuguese Timor; and the granted entrepôt-base of Macau and the entrepôt-enclave of Dejima (Nagasaki) in East Asia, amongst other smaller or short-lived possessions.
During its Siglo de Oro, the Spanish Empire had possession of the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Belgium, most of Italy, parts of Germany, parts of France, and many colonies in the Americas, Africa, and Asia. With the conquest of inland Mexico, Peru, and the Philippines in the 16th century, Spain established overseas dominions on a scale that had never been approached by its predecessors (the Mongol Empire had been larger but was restricted to Eurasia), and with the Iberian Union (1580), reached the widest scale in history until then in world distribution. Possessions in Europe, Africa, the Atlantic Ocean, the Americas, the Pacific Ocean, and East Asia qualified the Spanish Empire as attaining a global presence.
From 1580 to 1640 the Portuguese Empire and the Spanish Empire were conjoined in a personal union of its Habsburg monarchs during the period of the Iberian Union, but beneath the highest level of government, their separate administrations were maintained.
Subsequent colonial empires included the French, English, Dutch and Japanese empires. By the mid-17th century, the Tsardom of Russia, continued later as the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union, became the largest contiguous state in the world, and the modern Russian Federation continues to be so to this day. Russia today has nine time zones, stretching across about half of the world's longitude.
The British Empire, consolidated during the period of British maritime hegemony in the 19th century, became the largest empire in history by virtue of the improved transportation technologies of the time. At its height, the British Empire covered a quarter of the Earth's land area and comprised a quarter of its population. During the New Imperialism, Italy and Germany also built their colonial empires in Africa.
After the Boxer Rebellion in 1901, Imperial China made concessions to the Eight-Nation Alliance (all the Great Powers of the time). By the end of the 20th century most of the previous colonial empires had been decolonized.
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The chart below shows the span of European colonial empires.
Other colonial nations and controversial empires:
Norwegian Empire, with Greenland not visible
Couronian settlements in Americas (New Courland on Tobago)