Triangular Trade Route and History

Devon Denomme, Christopher Muscato, Grace Pisano
  • Author
    Devon Denomme

    Devon has tutored for almost two years. They have a Bachelor's in Air Traffic Management from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University and minored in Aviation Safety and Homeland Security. They also are AT-CTI certified.

  • Instructor
    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 high school social studies in several states around the country.

What was the triangular trade? Why was the triangular trade important? How did the triangular trade work? Learn when the triangular trade started and declined. Updated: 06/29/2021

Table of Contents


What Was the Triangular Trade?

The Triangular Trade, as the name suggests, was a trade route which was the source of profitable imports and exports between Great Britain, Africa, and America. Although the route was not an exact triangle and had points in which routes branched off to specific cities along the route, ships found themselves moving between three continents for the purpose of trade. Items which were exchanged included textiles, manufactured goods, slaves, tea, rum, and sugar. The Triangular Trade occurred in the early 1700's, as the British Empire sought to expand their territory and establish colonialism, or settling land belonging to another people. The route, in addition to expanding the horizons of the British Empire, was a large economical feat for both the British and Colonial America and attributed to the wealth that both settlements enjoyed during this time period. This lesson will provide information about how the triangular trade route worked and why the triangular trade route was so important.

The Atlantic Slave Trade

The Atlantic Slave Trade was the basis for the Triangular Trade. Captured inhabitants of Africa would be sent and sold to the New World along the most profitable leg of the journey.

how did the triangular trade start

The Atlantic Slave Trade took place between 1514 and 1866. It involved the capture of African inhabitants on their home continent and the transport of these people across the Atlantic Ocean to become enslaved servants on plantations. This was one of the earliest trades between Colonial America and Great Britain and made up a large portion of the Triangular Trade that later came to exist. Slaves would be picked up in Africa and were shipped to America, making up about 1/3 of the Triangular Trade route. Once in America, they were sold to the highest bidder to work on plantations. Unfortunately, this act could not be easily distinguished from the trade of other goods, and with slaves being such a commodity at the time, few people were willing to object to the Atlantic Slave Trade. It is estimated that over three times the number of Africans made the journey across the Atlantic Ocean than Europeans by 1820.

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When Did the Triangular Trade Start?

The Triangular Trade does not have an exact starting date, though it can be estimated to have started around the beginning of the sixteenth century. The Triangular Trade was in fact the development of many years of trade networks spanning the Atlantic Ocean and was a more efficient form of operating trade between major locations. Prior trade routes included the shipping of goods between Colonial America and Great Britain, the Atlantic Slave trade between America and Africa, and the trade of rum and sugar between America, the Caribbean, and Europe. The route was heavily brought about by the demand for British colonialism and expansion, as well as demand in America for more goods to support its growing colonies.

Prior Trade Routes

The North African or Atlantic Slave Trade is one of the earliest and most important trade routes in relation to the Triangular Trade and the development of colonial-era economies. Trade was crucial to the distribution of goods and wealth, especially in the British Empire, which was rapidly expanding at the time. As colonies grew in Colonial America, the demand for goods also increased. However, not enough workers were present to maintain and support the land. Slaves had been used in the British-controlled Caribbean for some time by then, so the most logical solution was to use the same methods to support the colonies. The slave trade began to expand rapidly in the early to mid-1700s as the expansion of the colonies continued to occur.

In addition to the slave trade, regular trade between the Caribbean and America, as well as between America and Great Britain, was taking place. Goods such as sugar and rum were sent from the Caribbean to America, where they were further distilled into goods including molasses, and then sent to Great Britain along with American-grown crops like tobacco. In exchange, Britain sent cloth, tea, spices, and other manufactured items. These were among the earliest British trade networks that would develop into the Triangular Trade route.


As the British expanded their reach further into North America, the Caribbean, and Africa, they found that it would be beneficial to create trade routes between the important points or continents of their empire to support their growing populations. The expansion into new land, known as colonialism, was a large reason that the Triangular Trade was able to remain so successful for a period of time. Each area that the British expanded into provided different goods and resources, which they were able to trade between the colonies. Africa provided the unique addition of slaves to the trade, which monopolized the operation more than the original trade of produced goods by the colonies. With more workers, more profit could be earned. Creating a simple route to follow made navigation of the seas and trade more efficient, also contributing to a higher profit within the empire.

How Did the Triangular Trade Work?

The Triangular Trade network originated in the home country of Great Britain. Ships would sail south to Africa, then across the Atlantic Ocean to the Caribbean or New England. The triangle would be completed by returning to Great Britain from either of these locations. The route also worked in reverse, though less commonly. Each destination had unique resources and commodities to offer. This route was the culmination of many smaller trade routes between the locations; it helped boost the economy of the colonies and facilitate trade in a faster manner.

Great Britain

Great Britain was the origin of the Triangular Trade. Most ships operating along this route belonged directly to the British Empire and traded between British colonies as such. The goods being imported from America and received by Britain included:

  • Sugar
  • Rum
  • Tobacco
  • Iron
  • Cotton

These materials were considered "raw", meaning that they needed to be processed into finished goods. These finished goods then became the exports from Great Britain and found their way back to America, after stops in Africa and occasionally the Caribbean/West Indies. Goods that were sent from Great Britain directly to Africa included:

  • Cloth
  • Guns/ammunition
  • Ironware

West Africa

West Africa was the most profitable leg of the Triangular Trade because it enabled the colonial British Empire to enlist more workers and therefore produce more goods to trade. West Africa imported goods mainly from Great Britain (British exports), detailed in the previous section. In exchange for these goods, Africa provided the following items to the Triangular Trade:

  • Captured Native African peoples, who were transported and became slaves on plantations
  • Spices such as pepper

In the rarest cases, African goods found themselves heading directly back to Great Britain. Most often, these items would cross the Atlantic Ocean, bound for one of two destinations: the Caribbean or America.

The Caribbean

One of the main items on the Triangular Trade route was rum. The Caribbean would export sugar to America, where it was turned into rum and sent to Great Britain in exchange for other goods.

how did the triangular trade work

One of the two destinations directly following the Africa leg of the Triangular Trade route was in the Caribbean. Here, captured African natives would be sold to the highest bidder to work on plantations. This was similar to America, with the main difference being the type of crop that was being produced for trade. With more workers in the Caribbean, the region was able to send off the following goods to America, or sometimes directly back to England:

  • Sugar
  • Rum
  • Molasses
  • Fruits
  • Slaves, on some occasions

Most of the time, the goods continued on to America, where more supplies were traded before sailing across the ocean to Great Britain. Fruits and sugar were among the largest exports sent directly to Great Britain.

New England

If trade ships did not travel from Africa to the Caribbean, they likely headed for New England in America. The African slaves were offloaded and sold much in the way that the Caribbean managed the trade. Again, this influx of workers allowed Colonial America to produce more of its unique goods to send to other locations. Usually, spices from Africa and sometimes goods from the Caribbean continued on to England on the last leg of the Triangular Trade, along with American items, including:

  • Tobacco
  • Cotton
  • Iron
  • Lumber

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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?

What are the three parts of the triangle trade?

The three parts of the Triangular Trade were:

1. Great Britain sent cloth, guns/ammunition, and manufactured goods to Africa.

2. Africa sent slaves and spices to the Caribbean and America.

3. The Caribbean sent iron, lumber, sugar, rum, tobacco, cotton, and other crops to Great Britain.

What was the purpose of the triangular trade?

The purpose of the Triangular Trade was to exchange goods between Great Britain and the British colonies in Africa, West Indies, and New England in order to create a large economy. This wealth allowed Britain to fund colonialist endeavors, meaning that they could expand their political and territorial reach throughout the various continents that they occupied.

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