Economics and Business
Colonial America and Early Republic
What was triangular trade?
Triangular trade refers to the various navigation routes that emerged during the colonial period. There were numerous triangular paths that ships traveled, ferrying people, goods (both raw and finished), and livestock. The most common triangular route began on Africa’s west coast where ships picked up slaves. The second stop was the Caribbean islands—predominately the British and French West Indies—where the slaves were sold to plantation owners, and traders used the profits to purchase sugar, molasses, tobacco, and coffee. These raw materials were then transported north to the third stop, New England, where a rum industry was thriving. There ships were loaded with the spirits and traders made the last leg of their journey back across the Atlantic to Africa’s west coast, where the process began again.
Other trade routes operated as follows: 1) manufactured goods were transported from Europe to the African coast; slaves to the West Indies; and sugar, tobacco, and coffee transported back to Europe, where the triangle began again; 2) lumber, cotton, and meat were transported from the colonies to southern Europe; wine and fruits to England; and manufactured goods to the colonies, where the triangle began again. There were as many possible routes as there were ports and demand for goods.
The tragic result of triangular trade was the transport of an estimated 10 million black Africans. Sold into slavery, these human beings were often chained below deck and allowed only brief if any periods of exercise during the transatlantic crossing, which came to be called the Middle Passage. Conditions for the slaves were brutal and improved only slightly when traders realized that should slaves perish during the long journey across the ocean, it would adversely affect their profits upon arrival in the West Indies. After economies in the islands of the Caribbean crashed at the end of the 1600s, many slaves were sold to plantation owners on the North American mainland, initiating another tragic trade route. The slave trade was abolished in the 1800s, putting an end to the capture of Africans and their forced migration to the Western Hemisphere.