1.12 The Triangular Trade

Trade Empires and Early Capitalism

The Atlantic System is referred to variously as the African Slave Trade or the Triangular Trade. Regardless of what it is called, this is a network of trading routes connecting Europe, Africa and the Americas. The Triangular Trade was an extremely complex series of commercial relationships that (by the late-17th century) connected Europe, Africa, and the Americas. The traffic in slavery served as the linchpin to the system The expanding network of commerce between Europe and its colonies was fueled by the sale and transport of slaves, the exchange of goods produced by slave labor and the need to feed and clothe such a large work force. Slaves from Africa were shipped to the New World to work on plantations. Raw goods (e.g. sugar, tobacco, cotton, coffee, etc.). were processed and shipped to Europe. Finished and manufactured goods were then shipped to Africa to exchange for slaves. This cycle of exchange grew decade-by-decade over the course of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

Simon, P. "Triangle Trade." September 21, 2005.
Simon, P. “Triangle Trade.” September 21, 2005. Wikimedia.

The term Middle Passage, used to refer to the route that many slaves took from Africa across the Atlantic Ocean, is a reference to this triangular system. Slaves from West Africa were transported across the Atlantic Ocean and purchased in the Americas. Sugar and coffee produced in the Americas from the labor of slaves were transported across the ocean to Europe where they were refined and then reshipped. Other products, that didn’t have as large of a market as sugar, were items such as tobacco, rum, guns, timber and tea.

The video below tells the (purported) story of a young man, Olaudah Equiano, who was abducted from Africa for the slave trade and (later) earns his freedom and tells his life story. There is some question as to the veracity of Equiano’s account, but the depictions of the basic conditions for people who were treated as slaves is accurate.

A Son of Africa. 1996. Films on Demand. 29:04.

The leg of the triangle trade that connected Africa and the Americas was known as the Middle Passage because slave ships went directly across the middle of the Atlantic, most traveling to Brazil or the Caribbean as noted above. Slaves on board ships were packed in so tightly they could not move for most of the voyage, with slave ship captains calculating into their profit margins the fact that a significant percentage of their human cargo would die en route – over a million slaves died during the Middle Passage in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries as a result.

Foote, Andrew Hull. "The Lower Deck of the Guinea-Man." 1854. British Library.
Foote, Andrew Hull. “The Lower Deck of the Guinea-Man.” 1854. British Library. Wikimedia. November 15, 2014.

The current data (available on the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database , which was created and is maintained by professional historians of the Slave Trade) suggests that well over twelve million people were enslaved and transported to the new world from the sixteenth century through the early nineteenth. That number is lower than the actual total, since roughly 20% of transported slaves were undocumented (i.e. smuggled and technically “illegal” from the standpoint of the slave-trading states) voyages. Thus, the real number is probably closer to fifteen million. In turn, over 90% of slaves were sent to the Caribbean or Brazil, because the sugar crop, as well as coffee cultivation and mining in Brazil, demanded constant replacements as slaves perished from exhaustion or injury.

The topic of slavery is vast; it was a huge economic engine and a major part of life in the entire New World. It shaped the demography and the culture of every American society, and its sheer scale dwarfs every other pattern of slavery in world history. That said, of its various aspects, the one that probably casts the longest shadow in terms of its historical significance is the fact that the Atlantic Slave Trade was the first time in history that slavery was specifically racial in character. Because it was Africans who were enslaved to work in the Americas under the control of Europeans, Europeans developed a range of racist theories to excuse the practice from its obvious immorality. In fact, the whole idea of human “race” is largely derived from the Slave Trade – biologically, “race” is nothing more than a handful of unimportant cosmetic differences between people, but thanks to the history of the enslavement of Africans, Europeans in the early modern period led the charge in describing “race” as some kind of fundamental human category, with some races supposedly enjoying “natural” superiority. That conceit would obviously cast a perverse shadow up the present.


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PPSC HIS 1320: Western Civilization: 1650-Present by Wayne Artis, Sarah Clay, and Kim Fujikawa is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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