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Triangular Trade: Route, System & Role in Slavery

Lesson Transcript
Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Expert Contributor
Grace Pisano

Grace attended James Madison University has a bachelor's degree in history and a master's degree in teaching. She previously taught 2 years of high school social studies in several states around the country.

During the 16th century, the transatlantic triangular trade route between Europe, Africa, and the Americas was fundamental to the early economic success of the colonial world. Learn about the system of triangular trade, the transatlantic triangular trade route, the significance of trade to economic success, and the role of triangular trade in slavery. Updated: 08/27/2021

Triangular Trade

This is a triangle. Didn't know this was a lesson on geometry, did ya? Well, don't worry; that's about as advanced as we're going to get in terms of math.

An example of triangular trade
Triangle with three people

So, look at this triangle. Imagine that there is one person standing on each corner. John here buys a flower and gives it to Jane. Jane then keeps the petals but trades the seeds to Jeremy, who plants them and grows more flowers, which he then sells to John, so John can give more flowers to Jane. She can give more seeds to Jeremy, and he can grow more flowers to sell to John, etc, etc. See how this quickly becomes a cycle of dependence? That's called a triangular trade.

Historically, this system became very important on an international scale way back in the 16th century, when European empires created networks of international trade across the Atlantic Ocean between the Americas, Europe, and Africa. It was this transatlantic triangular trade of the 16th century that was responsible for moving ideas, products, and people around the world. Yes, people. This triangular trade is how European empires filled their colonies with African slaves, starting a legacy of slavery that defined the Americas.

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The Transatlantic Triangular Trade

Europe was the starting point of the triangular trade
People getting into a boat

Okay, so let's take a trip along the triangular trade route and see how this works. Before we do, we need to update your clothes; don't forget that we're heading back to the 16th century. There we go. And we start here, in Europe. We're loading up our ships with European-made products, copper, clothes, guns, ammunition; things like that. Now, we sail with our European products to ports on the African coast; that's the first leg of the triangular trade route.

triangular trade route

So, before you know it, here we are in Africa. In Africa, the European products are traded for slaves. Slaves generally came from inland Africa, where they were captured by rival African groups and sold into African slave networks before reaching the coast. From here, the ships of slaves sailed from Africa to the Americas. This was called the middle passage, and it was a rough, rough trip. We're talking about dozens of people crammed into tiny compartments aboard a wooden ship on a trip that could last five to eight weeks. Many African slaves died on the middle passage due to terrible living conditions, poor sanitation, starvation, and physical abuse.

Once the ship arrived in the Americas, generally somewhere in the Caribbean, the slaves were unloaded, and sold to be used as laborers on large plantations. The money the ships got from slaves was used to purchase the agricultural products that the slaves were actually harvesting; things like tobacco, molasses, and sugar. Those raw products from the Americas were shipped to Europe, the third leg of the triangular trade, where Europeans processed the raw supplies and made finished products. This entire journey took about 12 weeks.


So, let's recap, maybe with a specific example. Europeans take finished products to Africa to trade for slaves. The slaves are taken to the Americas and used to harvest sugar cane. The sugar cane is taken to Europe and processed into sugar and sold. That money is used to buy products that can be traded for slaves, who are sold in the Americas where they harvest sugar cane, which is processed in Europe and sold to buy products that can be traded in Africa for more slaves, who are sold in the Caribbean to harvest sugar cane that is processed in Europe and sold for products that can be traded in Africa for more slaves, who are sold in the Caribbean to harvest sugar cane that is processed in Europe and sold for products that can be traded in Africa…wow, it just never stops, does it?

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Additional Activities

Mapping the Triangular Trade

Triangular Trade During Colonialism, Exploration, and Cultural Exchange.

In this lesson extension activity, students will map out things traded and describe the short and long-term implications of this trade.

Begin by giving students a map of the Atlantic Ocean that also includes the east coast of North and South America and the west coast of Europe and Africa. With arrows that show the direction trade flowed, students should write and draw out the names of items that were traded. For example, from Africa, students would want to draw an arrow towards the Americas that includes slaves, gold, spices, etc. Students should label with words and also include some images for items traded.

After mapping out the rest of the trade students should pick one item that was traded and write this on the back of their paper. Underneath of the item, they should list as many effects of this item's trade as possible. For example, if focusing on trade, students could talk about long-term financial influences, the importance of gold in backing an economy, funding for the Americas that would help in the Revolutionary War, etc.

Once students have finished, allow some students to share the item that they picked to focus on, and its effects.

Optional Activity

Have students discuss the following question:

How would the world today be a different place if the Triangular Trade had not happened?

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