Triangular Trade: Route, System & Role in Slavery

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  • 0:02 Triangular Trade
  • 1:21 The Transatlantic…
  • 3:11 Significance
  • 4:50 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

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

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.

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.

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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