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What is the Triangle Trade?

By Adam Hill
Updated May 16, 2024
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The triangle trade, also called the triangular trade, was a system of Atlantic trade routes from the 17th century to the early 19th century. The triangle trade is so called because it took place between three different regions on all sides of the Atlantic Ocean. Ships that traveled these trade routes carried African slaves, manufactured goods, and cash crops between West Africa, North America, and Europe.

Enslaved Africans were an elementary part of the economy of the American continent, as well as the islands of the Caribbean. Cash crops like tobacco, hemp, and sugar, were grown and harvested by slaves in the Americas, and then shipped to Europe. Sugar, for example, often in its liquid form called molasses, was distilled into rum in Europe. Some of the rum was taken and sold in West Africa, or traded for slaves. The third leg of the triangle, the one by which slaves were carried across the Atlantic, was the infamous "middle passage."

The infamy of this particular trade route came from the conditions aboard the slave ships. In order to maximize profits, Africans were packed in as tightly as possible, in the same way as any other cargo. Lack of sanitation was a big problem, which led to disease and the death of many people before they ever reached the Americas. Even so, the slaves which did survive could be sold at auction for very high prices, meaning large profits for those who traded in human cargo. For these reasons, the triangle trade is often thought of as being synonymous with the slave trade.

It is important to note that most ships did not travel from one port to another in a triangle, completing the whole route. Each leg of the triangle trade had separate companies and fleets of ships that specialized in the transportation of certain goods to and from certain places. Indeed, it is almost impossible to find records of any ship which traveled the entire route in succession. Not only did it make more sense in terms of economics to specialize in this way, but ships were relatively slow-moving vessels, and traveling the entire length of the three routes could take a year or more. Thus, the triangle trade is, more than anything else, a historical trade model to aid in understanding the maritime commerce of the era.

The American Revolution disrupted the trade of goods and slaves for a time. Additionally, Great Britain outlawed the slave trade in 1807, and the United States did so shortly afterward in 1808. Without its main profit center, the triangle trade was on its way out, though it continued in a more clandestine form until the American Civil War of the 1860s.

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Discussion Comments
By Contentum — On Jan 01, 2014

Makes you wonder if the ones who actually made the journey over and over again ever got tired of that triangular route.

By Grinderry — On Jan 01, 2014
It is interesting that they had fleets that were moving people from place to place just like the airlines do today. As for the slave trade itself, it seems that this was as much of a profitable venture as the sugar and rum that were prevalent in that day and age. It would appear that there wasn't very much in regards to industrial or trade opportunities back then. It truly is amazing to see a country evolve from a trading and barter system to nationwide industrial automation from coast to coast.
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