Triangular trade

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Depiction of the classical model of the triangular trade
Depiction of the triangular trade of slaves, sugar, and rum with New England instead of Europe as the third corner

Triangular trade or triangle trade is a historical term indicating trade among three ports or regions. Triangular trade usually evolves when a region has export commodities that are not required in the region from which its major imports come. Triangular trade thus provides a method for rectifying trade imbalances between the above regions.

Historically the particular routes were also shaped by the powerful influence of winds and currents during the age of sail. For example, from the main trading nations of Western Europe, it was much easier to sail westwards after first going south of 30° N latitude and reaching the so-called "trade winds"; thus arriving in the Caribbean rather than going straight west to the North American mainland. Returning from North America, it is easiest to follow the Gulf Stream in a northeasterly direction using the westerlies. A triangle similar to this, called the volta do mar was already being used by the Portuguese, before Christopher Columbus' voyage, to sail to the Canary Islands and the Azores. Columbus simply expanded this triangle outwards, and his route became the main way for Europeans to reach, and return from, the Americas.

Atlantic triangular slave trade[edit]

The most historically significant triangular trade was the transatlantic slave trade which operated between Europe, Africa and the Americas from the 16th to 19th centuries. Slave ships would leave European ports (such as Bristol and Nantes) and sail to African ports loaded with goods manufactured in Europe. There, the slave traders would purchase enslaved Africans by exchanging the goods, then sail to the Americas via the Middle Passage to sell their enslaved cargo in European colonies. Afterwards, the slave ship would sail back to Europe to begin the cycle again. The enslaved Africans were primarily purchased for the purpose of working on plantations to work producing valuable cash crops (such as sugar, cotton and tobacco) which were in high demand in Europe.[1][2][3][4][5] Slave traders from European colonies would occasionally travel to Africa themselves, eliminating the European portion of the voyage.[6][7]

A classic example is the colonial molasses trade. Merchants purchased raw sugar (often in its liquid form, molasses) from plantations in the Caribbean and shipped it to New England and Europe, where it was sold to distillery companies that produced rum. Merchant capitalists used cash from the sale of sugar to purchase rum, furs, and lumber in New England which their crews shipped to Europe. With the profits from the European sales, merchants purchased Europe's manufactured goods, including tools and weapons and on the next leg, shipped those manufactured goods, along with the American sugar and rum, to West Africa where they bartered the goods for slaves seized by local potentates. The crews then transported the slaves to the Caribbean and sold them to sugar plantation owners. The cash from the sale of slaves in Brazil, the Caribbean islands, and the American South used to buy more raw materials, restarting the cycle. The full triangle trip took a calendar year on average, according to historian Clifford Shipton.[8]

The loss of the slave ship Luxborough Galley in 1727 ("I.C. 1760"), lost in the last leg of the triangular trade, between the Caribbean and Britain.

The first leg of the triangle was from a European port to Africa, in which ships carried supplies for sale and trade, such as copper, cloth, trinkets, slave beads, guns and ammunition.[9] When the ship arrived, its cargo would be sold or bartered for slaves. On the second leg, ships made the journey of the Middle Passage from Africa to the New World. Many slaves died of disease in the crowded holds of the slave ships. Once the ship reached the New World, enslaved survivors were sold in the Caribbean or the American colonies. The ships were then prepared to get them thoroughly cleaned, drained, and loaded with export goods for a return voyage, the third leg, to their home port,[10] from the West Indies the main export cargoes were sugar, rum, and molasses; from Virginia, tobacco and hemp. The ship then returned to Europe to complete the triangle.

However, because of several disadvantages that slave ships faced compared to other trade ships, they often returned to their home port carrying whatever goods were readily available in the Americas and filled up a large part or all of their capacity with ballast. Other disadvantages include the different form of the ships (to carry as many humans as possible, but not ideal to carry a maximum amount of produce) and the variations in the duration of a slave voyage, making it practically impossible to pre-schedule appointments in the Americas, which meant that slave ships often arrived in the Americas out-of-season. When the ships did reach their intended ports, only about 90% of the passengers survived the journey across the middle passage. Due to the slaves being transported in tight, confined spaces, a significant percentage of the group that started perished on board or shortly after arrival due to disease and lack of nourishment.[11][12] Cash crops were transported mainly by a separate fleet which only sailed from Europe to the Americas and back, mitigating the impact of the slaves' involvement. The Triangular trade is a trade model, not an exact description of the ship's route.[13] In his books, Herbert S. Klein has often emphasised that in many fields (cost of trade, ways of transport, mortality levels, earnings and benefits of trade for the Europeans and the "so-called triangular trade"), the non-scientific literature has created a "legend", which the contemporary historiography refuted a long time ago.[14]

A 2017 study provides evidence for the hypothesis that the export of gunpowder to Africa increased the transatlantic slave trade: "A one percent increase in gunpowder set in motion a 5-year gun-slave cycle that increased slave exports by an average of 50%, and the impact continued to grow over time."[15]

New England[edit]

Graph depicting the number of slaves imported from Africa from 1501 to 1866

New England also made rum from Caribbean sugar and molasses, which it shipped to Africa as well as within the New World.[16] Yet, the "triangle trade" as considered in relation to New England was a piecemeal operation. No New England traders are known to have completed a sequential circuit of the full triangle, which took a calendar year on average, according to historian Clifford Shipton.[8] The concept of the New England Triangular trade was first suggested, inconclusively, in an 1866 book by George H. Moore, was picked up in 1872 by historian George C. Mason, and reached full consideration from a lecture in 1887 by American businessman and historian William B. Weeden.[8] The song "Molasses to Rum" from the musical 1776 vividly describes this form of the triangular trade.

Newport and Bristol, Rhode Island, were major ports involved in the colonial triangular slave trade.[17] Many significant Newport merchants and traders participated in the trade, working closely with merchants and traders in the Caribbean and Charleston, South Carolina.[18]


According to research provided by Emory University[19] as well as Henry Louis Gates Jr., an estimated 12.5 million slaves were transported from Africa to colonies in North and South America. The website Voyages: The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database assembles data regarding past trafficking in slaves from Africa. It shows that the top four nations were Portugal, Great Britain, France, and Spain.

Flag of vessels carrying the slaves
Destination Portuguese British French Spanish Dutch American Danish Total
Portuguese Brazil 4,821,127 3,804 9,402 1,033 27,702 1,174 130 4,864,372
British Caribbean 7,919 2,208,296 22,920 5,795 6,996 64,836 1,489 2,318,251
French Caribbean 2,562 90,984 1,003,905 725 12,736 6,242 3,062 1,120,216
Spanish Americas 195,482 103,009 92,944 808,851 24,197 54,901 13,527 1,292,911
Dutch Americas 500 32,446 5,189 0 392,022 9,574 4,998 444,729
United States 382 264,910 8,877 1,851 1,212 110,532 983 388,747
Danish West Indies 0 25,594 7,782 277 5,161 2,799 67,385 108,998
Europe 2,636 3,438 664 0 2,004 119 0 8,861
Africa 69,206 841 13,282 66,391 3,210 2,476 162 155,568
Did not arrive 748,452 526,121 216,439 176,601 79,096 52,673 19,304 1,818,686
Total 5,848,266 3,259,443 1,381,404 1,061,524 554,336 305,326 111,040 12,521,339

Other triangular trades[edit]

The term "triangular trade" also refers to a variety of other trades.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Weber, Jacques. "La traite négrière nantaise de 1763 à 1793" (PDF). Centre national de la recherche scientifique (in French).
  2. ^ Vindt, Gérard; Consil, Jean-Michel (June 2013). "Nantes, Bordeaux et l'économie esclavagiste – Au XVIIIe siècle, les villes de Nantes et de Bordeaux profitent toutes deux de la "traite négrière" et de l'économie esclavagiste". Alternatives économiques. 325: 17–21.
  3. ^ Morgan, Kenneth (2007). Slavery and the British Empire: From Africa to America. Oxford: Oxford University Press. p. 62. ISBN 9780191566271. Retrieved 16 October 2020.
  4. ^ Kowaleski-Wallace, A.P.o.E.E., Elizabeth (2006). The British slave trade and public memory. New York: Columbia University Press. ISBN 9780231137140.
  5. ^ Liverpool and the Slave Trade, by Anthony Tibbles, Director of the Merseyside Maritime Museum
  6. ^ The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. Accessed 6 November 2007.
  7. ^ "Triangular Trade". National Maritime Museum. Archived from the original on 25 November 2011.
  8. ^ a b c Curtis, Wayne (2006–2007). And a Bottle of Rum. New York: Three Rivers Press. pp. 117-119 ISBN 978-0-307-33862-4.
  9. ^ Scotland and the Abolition of the Slave Trade Archived 2012-01-03 at the Wayback Machine. Accessed 28 March 2007.
  10. ^ A. P. Middleton, Tobacco Coast.
  11. ^ Duquette, Nicolas J. (June 2014). "Revealing the Relationship Between Ship Crowding and Slave Mortality". The Journal of Economic History. 74 (2): 535–552. doi:10.1017/S0022050714000357. ISSN 0022-0507. S2CID 59449310.
  12. ^ Wolfe, Brendan (1 February 2021). "Slave Ships and the Middle Passage". In Miller, Patti (ed.). Encyclopedia Virginia. Charlottesville, VA: Virginia Humanities – Library of Virginia. Retrieved 4 March 2021.
  13. ^ Emmer, P.C.: The Dutch in the Atlantic Economy, 1580–1880. Trade, Slavery and Emancipation. Variorum Collected Studies Series CS614, 1998.
  14. ^ Klein, H.S.:The Atlantic Slave Trade (Cambridge:The University of Cambridge, 1999)
  15. ^ Whatley, Warren C. (2017). "The Gun-Slave Hypothesis and the 18th Century British Slave Trade" (PDF). Explorations in Economic History. 67: 80–104. doi:10.1016/j.eeh.2017.07.001.
  16. ^ "Slavery in Rhode Island". Slavery in the North. Accessed 11 September 2011.
  17. ^ "The Unrighteous Traffick". The Providence Journal. March 12, 2006. Archived from the original on September 12, 2009. Retrieved July 31, 2010.
  18. ^ Deutsch, Sarah (1982). "The Elusive Guineamen: Newport Slavers, 1735–1774". The New England Quarterly. 55 (2): 229–253. doi:10.2307/365360. JSTOR 365360.
  19. ^ Slave Voyages, Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade - Estimates
  20. ^ Jones, Donald W.; Archaeological Institute of America; University of Pennsylvania. University Museum (2000). "Crete's External Relations in the Early Iron Age". External relations of early Iron Age Crete, 1100–600 B.C. p. 97. ISBN 9780924171802.
  21. ^ Kurlansky, Mark. Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World. New York: Walker, 1997. ISBN 0-8027-1326-2.
  22. ^ Morgan, Kenneth. Bristol and the Atlantic Trade in the Eighteenth Century. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993. ISBN 0-521-33017-3. pp. 64–77.
  23. ^ Chris Evans and Göran Rydén, Baltic Iron in the Atlantic World in the Eighteenth Century : Brill, 2007 ISBN 978-90-04-16153-5, 273.

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