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Depiction of the classical model of the Triangular trade.

Triangular trade, or Triangle trade, is a historical term indicating trade among three ports or regions. Triangular trade usually evolves when a region has export commodities that are not required in the region from which its major imports come. Triangular trade thus provides a mechanism for rectifying trade imbalances between these regions.

The best-known triangular trading system is the Transatlantic Triangular Trade, that operated during the 17th, 18th and early 19th centuries, carrying slaves, cash crops, and manufactured goods between West Africa, the Caribbeanmarker or America colonies and the European colonial powers, with the northern colonies of British North America, especially New Englandmarker, sometimes taking over the role of Europe.

Atlantic triangular trade

The use of African slaves was fundamental to growing colonial cash crops, which were exported to Europe. European goods, in turn, were used to purchase African slaves, which were then brought on the sea lane west from Africa to the Americas, the so called middle passage.

A classic example would be the trade of sugar (often in its liquid form, molasses) from the Caribbean to Europe or New England, where it was distilled into rum, some of which was then used to purchase new slaves in West Africa.

Diagram illustrating the stowage of African slaves on a British slave ship.
The trade represented a profitable enterprise for merchants and investors. The business was risky, competitive and severe, but enslaved Africans fetched a high price at auctions, making the trade in human cargo a lucrative business .

The first leg of the triangle was from a European port to Africa, in which ships carried supplies for sale and trade, such as copper, cloth, trinkets, slave beads, guns and ammunition. When the slave ship arrived, its cargo would be sold or bartered for slaves, who were tightly packed like any other cargo to maximize profits.

On the second leg, ships made the journey of the Middle Passage from Africa to the New World. Once the slave ship reached the New World, enslaved survivors were sold in the Caribbean or the Americas.

The ships were then prepared to get them thoroughly cleaned, drained, and loaded with export goods for a return voyage, the third leg, to their home port. From the West Indies the main export cargoes were sugar, rum, and molasses; from Virginiamarker, commodities were tobacco and hemp. The ship then returned to Europe to complete the triangle.

However, because of several disadvantages that slave ships faced compared to other trade ships, they often returned to their home port carrying whatever goods were readily available in the Americas and filled up a large part or all of their capacity with ballast. Other disadvantages include the different form of the ships (to carry as many humans as possible, but not ideal to carry a maximum amount of produce) and the variations in the duration of a slave voyage, making it practically impossible to pre-schedule appointments in the Americas, which meant that slave ships often arrived in the Americas out-of-season. Instead, the cash crops were transported mainly by a separate fleet which only sailed from Europe to the Americas and back. The Triangular trade is a trade model, not an exact description of the ship's route.

New England

New Englandmarker also benefited from the trade, as many merchants were from New England, especially Rhode Islandmarker, replacing the role of Europe in the triangle. New England also made rum from the Caribbeanmarker sugar and molasses, which it shipped to Africa as well as within the New World. Yet, the 'triangle trade' as considered in relation to New England was a piecemeal operation. No New England traders are known to have completed a full sequential circuit of the triangle, which took a calendar year on average, according to historian Clifford Shipton who, after years of sifting through New England shipping records, could not find a single instance of a ship completing the full triangle as described The concept of the New England Triangular trade was first suggested, inconclusively, in an 1866 book by George H. Moore, was picked up in 1872 by historian George C. Mason, and reached full consideration from a lecture in 1887 by American businessman and historian William B. Weeden. Although the Slave Trade was banned in 1807 American involvement in the clandestine trade to Cuba and Brazil was continued up to the time of the American Civil War.

Other triangular trades

The term "triangular trade" also refers to a variety of other trades.

External links


  1. The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. Accessed 6 November 2007.
  2. National Maritime Museum - Triangular Trade. Accessed 26 March 2007.
  3. Scotland and the Abolition of the Slave Trade. Accessed 28 March 2007.
  4. A. P. Middleton, Tobacco Coast.
  5. Emmer, P.C.: The Dutch in the Atlantic Economy, 1580-1880. Trade, Slavery and Emancipation. Variorum Collected Studies Series CS614, 1998.
  6. Rhode Island Slavery History. Accessed 15 December 2007.
  7. Curtis, Wayne. and a Bottle of Rum. New York: Three Rivers Press, 2006-2007. ISBN 978-0-307-33862-4. page 117.
  8. Curtis, Wayne. and a Bottle of Rum. New York: Three Rivers Press, 2006-2007. ISBN 978-0-307-33862-4. page 119.
  9. Kurlansky, Mark. Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World. New York: Walker, 1997. ISBN 0-8027-1326-2.
  10. Morgan, Kenneth. Bristol and the Atlantic Trade in the Eighteenth Century. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993. ISBN 0521330173. Pages 64–77.
  11. Chris Evans and Göran Rydén, Baltic Iron in the Atlantic World in the Eighteenth Century : Brill, 2007 ISBN 9789004161535, 279

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