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What Was the Triangular Trade?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 23, 2024
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While the term Triangular Trade is used generically to refer to trade between any three nations or ports, it is usually used in specific reference to the slave trade, the “peculiar institution” which was used to develop the Americas. The trade was extremely risky for investors, but it also had the potential to create a sizable profit. Many influential members of European society built their fortunes this way, a form of investment that relied on the enslavement of people to be profitable.

The first leg of the Triangle Trade went from Europe to Africa. In England, a ship would be loaded with trade goods such as textiles; manufactured products, like cooking utensils, beads; and other objects that could be used to negotiate with slave dealers in Africa. Once the ship arrived off the coast of Africa, it would typically initiate trading with several groups, ensuring that the ship could be quickly loaded with slaves. Many of the slave dealers in Africa were Africans themselves, selling people who were captured in war or feuds. The slave ship would be packed as tightly as possible for the next stage, the notorious “middle passage.”

The middle passage ran from Africa to the Americas. The people on board were fed a minimal amount of food and subjected to horrendous conditions. Since slaves fetched a large sum of money, a few deaths along the way were not considered catastrophic. Slave ships would sail to ports in the West Indies or the American south to sell their cargo.

With the profits from the sale of the slaves, the ship would load up with tobacco, sugar, cotton, and other agricultural commodities from the Americas for the final stretch of the trip. Loaded with raw goods, the ships would travel back to their home ports in Europe, there to pick up another load of finished consumer goods to trade in Africa. Many of the people involved in the Triangular Trade were based in Britain, bringing significant wealth and influence to their home nation.

Modern historians heavily condemn the trade, along with slavery in general. Given the brutal conditions that existed on ships involved in the process, many people also wonder why slavery persisted as long as it did. Primarily, slavery continued to be socially accepted because of its perceived economic value. Europeans were also separated from Africans culturally and physically, distancing themselves from the trade by writing Africans off as inhuman.

The ships themselves were staffed by gang pressed men and disreputable sailors who could not find employment anywhere else, meaning that reports of the conditions on board were frequently dismissed because the source was considered unreliable. Fortunately, the efforts of abolitionist organizations to ban slavery ultimately succeeded, although the damage had already been done for millions of Africans.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a Historical Index researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By anon940192 — On Mar 17, 2014

Slavery is horrible!

By anon334115 — On May 09, 2013

In Africa, slavery practiced at the time was not nearly the same as the Europeans practiced. In Africa, it was more like a day job that you can come home to. Also in Africa, if you married someone higher in class, you marry your way out of slavery.

By stolaf23 — On Nov 06, 2010

Even after the slave trade ended, Exploitation of Africa continued. Slavery was entirely abolished in the UK in 1833, and in the US in 1865; however, it was followed by many Britons traveling to the "dark continent" to profit on its natural resources. These colonists then proceeded to change the entire structure of much of the continent, under the defense that they were trying to "civilize", and even more importantly "Christianize" the natives.

By aaaCookie — On Nov 06, 2010

Referring to the slave trade as the triangular trade route helps remind us that slavery had in fact been a practice in Africa long before Europeans went there to cash in. In modern times we are often very condemning of the white people who practiced slavery, but really, in the United States and Britain, slavery was about money, not race. The trade came first, and the racism later.

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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