Triangular Trade: Route, System & Role in Slavery

Instructor: Jennifer Jurling
In the 16th century, trade between Europe, Africa, and the Americas defined the colonial world. In this lesson, explore the system of triangular trade and test your understanding with a brief quiz.


The Triangular Trade was a system in which slaves, crops, and manufactured goods were traded between Africa, the Caribbean, and the American colonies. The early days of the American economy were filled with trade routes stretching across the Atlantic Ocean.

Classical model of the Triangular Trade
Triangular Trade Route

What Was the Triangular Trade System?

In the American colonies, goods came from two main sources: England and Africa. The first stage of the Triangular Trade involved taking manufactured goods such as cloth, tobacco, metal goods, and cowrie shells from Europe to Africa. These goods were exchanged for African slaves.

The second stage of the Triangular Trade (the Middle Passage) involved shipping African slaves to the colonies. The duration of the journey varied from one to six months depending on weather conditions. Could you imagine being on a ship for this length of time? Conditions on the ships were horrendous; disease and overcrowded conditions were common. Many Africans refused to eat or jumped overboard, committing suicide. In the Middle Passage alone, it is estimated as many as eight million slaves died.

African slaves are closely watched on board
African Slaves

The third and final stage of the Triangular Trade involved the return to Europe. Ships returned with goods from the plantations such as cotton, sugar, and tobacco. However, before these goods were loaded on the ship, an entire cleaning of the ships took place. There were numerous outbreaks of smallpox, syphilis, and measles on these ships, since conditions aboard the ships were highly conducive to disease.

First Atlantic System

The Atlantic slave trade took place across the Atlantic Ocean from the 1500-1800s. The majority of slaves were transported from central and western Africa. Portugal and Spain used African slaves throughout South America. Surprisingly, various African tribes sold their captives and prisoners of war to Europeans. This was a common practice on the African continent, selling captives and prisoners of war to the Portuguese and Spanish.

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