Triangular Trade

Triangular trade is the term used to describe the economic cycle in which Slavery formed a key role. It is so named as there are three centres in which trading took part: Western Europe; Western Africa and the Americas. Trade saw goods made in countries such as Great Britain taken to Africa for sale. In Africa slaves were bought. These were then transported across the Atlantic and sold to plantation owners. The ships then completed the triangle by returning to British ports with produce made by Plantations. A healthy profit was possible at each stage of the triangle and it spurred economic growth and consumerism in Britain. The conditions in the plantations and on the Atlantic crossing were often appalling and could prove deadly.

Triangular Trade

Triangular Trade

Triangular Trade in theory worked quite simply. With each location having goods, a trade seems likely. However, by the late 18th century this was not the case.

By the end of the third quarter of the century the sugar and cotton trades had become so specialised that the old concept of a Triangular Trade needs considerable qualification. Comparatively few slave-ships returned to Liverpool fully laden with West India goods. Profits were made on quick runs, not in hanging about in search of cargo. Thus the slave-ships returned with bills of exchange drawn on the London commission houses who dealt in West India produce, plus some special orders.


This source is from a biographical essay on Liverpool and the Slave Trade. It is based on the records of the docks at Liverpool and the various Slave Trading Ports. It shows that Triangular Trade was far more complex than is often portrayed.

Triangular Trade: Leg One, Europe to Africa

Triangular Trade was possible because of a combination of economic factors. In Europe there was the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. This made manufactured goods and weapons much cheaper to produce in high quantities.  Agricultural changes also enabled a shift in patterns of exports. The Wool Trade remained a staple for countries such as England but grains and other produce could also be produced more efficiently.

New Economic Opportunities

These developments meant that there was scope for European powers to start exporting to new markets. It offered a great deal of opportunity for huge profits to be made. As shipbuilding also saw improvements to the size, speed, and safety of long voyages, the number of markets available to the industrialising powers grew.

One example of this type of new market being exploited is the increase in the number of ships that sailed from England to the West Coast of Africa. A wide variety of goods were exported, with most sectors of the economy eventually having some kind of involvement.

The Africa. Example of a voyage from Bristol to West Africa

A classic example of this leg of Triangular Trade is the voyage of the ship ‘Africa’ from the port of Bristol, England. The Africa sailed for the Bight of Biafra in 1774. Her cargo was quite varied. This shows that the marketplace in Western Africa was quite vibrant as it includes luxuries as well as more practical items that were mass produced in England. The Manifest of Africa [the record of what was onboard] shows that the main export on this voyage were textiles. This was typical of English exports at the time, Wool had been the main export throughout the Medieval age into the emerging early modern era. Different, perhaps, is that much of the shipment was actually of Indian origin, expensive linens and satin being valuable goods being taken to the West African markets. Many accounts of the Triangular Trade show items manufactured from mass produced metals being taken on this leg. The Africa shows this through the carrying of 4000 copper rods. It was not just items manufactured from metal that were carried though. The improved methods of producing iron meant that it was a sought after commodity in its simply ‘iron bar’ form. Clearly, the West African nations had the means to work this iron, as the Africa carried thirteen tons of iron rods on this journey.

The Africa was far from the only vessel exporting these items. Iron, for example, was exported frequently. The port of Davenport averaged 420 tons of iron exports to the African Coast each year in the 1760’s. That is just one small port so far from representative. But similar amounts, even if they are a small percentage of English production, have a huge impact on Western African farming as the voyage iron was more hardwearing and effective than sub-Saharan iron. See this article for an in depth analysis of the trade in iron from England to Africa [External Link].

Something to remember

The example of The Africa makes it clear that Triangular Trade was not ‘just’ goods travelling around the Atlantic. Items were stowed on the ship that had already been transported from India to Bristol. So the ‘Triangular Trade’ is not limited and can be seen as simply facilitating a flow of goods, rather than being the only means of trading.

Exchange of Goods in West African ports

Merchants make money from having efficient trading routes. So ships making the voyage to West Africa would be carrying cargoes that had been pre-ordered, or that they knew held considerable value in the marketplaces of one or more ports. So goods were either pre-ordered, as seen with bespoke items, expensive luxury items, or by leaders who wanted to arm themselves or furnish their homes with extravagant items from beyond their own locale. At the same time the European merchants were well aware of the things that were in constant high demand along the coast of West Africa. These items were sold either in markets on a first come first served basis, or via auctions. In some cases an entire cargo could be unloaded and sold at one port. It was also common for merchant ships to put in at more than one port, as this would maximise the ability to furnish the pre-order market and to ensure that high prices were gained for the goods being carried.

Similarly goods and slaves could be bought at one or several ports. The object was to maximise the opportunity to trade and profit which would include taking up port to port trade if profitable.

Triangular Trade: Leg Two: Africa to the Americas

Trade at the time is generally said to have benefitted from the use of three main areas. Each had goods of use to the other two areas. Therefore it made sense to have a merchant route in which goods could be transferred on a rolling cycle between the three. The model is called triangular trade.

Triangular Trade
Triangular Trade – Generalisation. via wikimedia

Triangular Trade in simple terms:


Had high quality iron, manufactured goods, high quality textiles, and the means to transport large amounts of goods across oceans and along dangerous coastlines. It had a demand for crops such as sugar, tobacco, tea. Its ports received large quantities of spices and textiles such as silk and satin from India and the far east.


Offered precious stones, exotic fruits and animals. And its most infamous export, people as slaves. It also had marketplaces in which there was a demand for manufactured goods, high quality iron, and textiles such as silk and satin.

The New World of the Americas

Ideal for growing crops such as sugar, tobacco,  a variety of fruits. It had a wide range of raw materials in abundance. As a rapidly expanding series of colonies and infant countries it had a high demand for workers, be they high skilled and trained, or simple manual labour who were cheap and expendable.

Triangular Trade, the economic benefits

It’s a perfect economic triangle. Ships can start anywhere and have a product available that they know will sell in the next stage of the triangle. money can be made at all three points.  From a mercantile perspective it simply begs the questions: how fast can the triangle be navigated? how much produce can be stowed on any given vessel? how can profits be increased? [Bigger, faster ships. Cheaper labour for manufacturing and farming etc].

It is that cost effectiveness that fuelled the inhumane legacy of Triangular Trade. The trade that took place between the Western Coast of Africa and the New World was the Transatlantic Slave Trade. With it’s deadly ‘Middle Passage’ it saw over three million humans transported from Africa across the Atlantic to the Americas and Caribbean. many more died in transit.

Slavery and Triangular Trade

Brief history of pre-1650 Slavery in Africa

  • The first trading in Slavery in Africa was LONG before Triangular Trade. It existed before the New World had been discovered.
  • The origins of ongoing Western and Northern European trading in African Slaves in the post Ancient World was via Viking raids.
  • West Coast Slave sales under Portuguese and Spanish control saw Slaves transported from Africa to Europe, or Atlantic Islands such as the Azores, before any Transatlantic Slavery was attempted. These were permitted under Papal Bulls dating to the 1450’s.
  • Whilst Transatlantic Slave Trading is the focus of this particular section, do not forget that Slavery also existed in Central Africa at this time and there was a history of Slaves being carried to the Eastern coast of Africa and/or into Arabia. Slavery had also been practised on the Mediterranean coast of Africa throughout the Crusading era.

Slavery in Western Africa

Slavery was a well oiled economy in most places where it existed. Rival tribes or nations would use prisoners of war as Slaves. They might raid places to capture people who could be sold as slaves. They would then either keep the captives as their own slaves, or sell them to the highest bidder. It was an economy as old as written records. People throughout time have taken advantage of other people, exploited them, enslaved them, treated them as commodities. What made the Transatlantic Slave Trade so different is not what was happening, as Slavery was a very well established practise. It was the scale and nature of the trade. As the Europeans sought to exploit the riches of the New World, they looked to do it as quickly, economically, and easily as they could. And now they had ships that could traverse the Atlantic and a seemingly endless supply of new Slaves. As a consequence, Slavery was undertaken on a scale never seen before.

Slave Castles

Buying and selling slaves is rightly seen as an abhorrent act in the modern world. 400 years ago the view on slavery was different. Slavery quite simply was a trade in the eyes of merchants and many in positions of governance and authority. Religions had rules on the matter, so enslaving peoples was restricted. That restriction was, in simple terms, that you could not enslave somebody of your own faith: that was the medieval teaching of Christianity and Islam. This of course meant that people who were not of your own religion were perfectly acceptable targets for enslaving. With regards Christian nations this was confirmed by Papal Bulls in the mid 15th century. These granted permissions for Portugal and Spain to trade in West Africa, stated each kingdoms economic spheres of influence, and permitted the trade in slaves. This led to a demand for slaves which eventually developed into the Transatlantic Slave Trade.

Slave Castles as Depots that enabled Transatlantic Slave Trading

The problem that slave traders had was that people do not take kindly to being forced into slavery. To fulfil an increased demand for slaves meant that trading tribes would need to make raids, capture large number of people, and secure them. This led to the creation of Slave Castles, fortified camps in which Slaves were held. The Slave Castles were financed by the European traders. African Slave Traders or European agents brought Slaves to these to be secured until sale. It was essentially a very secure depot in which goods were brought in, held in high security, then sold and transported to or by the purchaser. When the goods are people the risks involved are high stake. There is a prospect of the tribe from whom the people have been captured making armed attempts to secure the release of their kin. Those who have been captured will present a risk. Revolt, escape, attacking guards and officials are all quite likely as people try to escape or exact some form of revenge. Thus there was a need to fortify places where the Slaves could be held. Like a prison it needed to keep people in. Like a castle, it was designed to keep assailants out. And like a warehouse it needed simple means of processing the goods [people] that came in, were stored, and then sold/exported. This could include having a dock at a coastal Slave Castle to maximise security of loading the Slaves as cargo.

Elmina Castle. Slave Fort on the Gold Coast. Part of the system of Triangular Trade
Elmina Castle in present-day Ghana (formerly the Gold Coast) viewed from the sea in 1668. (Public domain photo / Wikipedia)

Triangular Trade: The Ships

Ships that travelled the Atlantic varied in size. One ship that has become quite well known is the Brookes. The Brookes had a weight burden of 267 tons. Prior to legislation being introduced in 1788 she carried 609 enslaved people. A calculation that became important after the 1788 Slave Trade Act was the ratio of Slaves to weight of the boat. The ratio for The Brookes prior to limits was 2.3 enslaved people to each ton. After legislation The Brookes could legally hold no more than 454 Slaves. This was done using weight and space calculations. The way that the enslaved people were put into The Brookes with this new limit is shown in the Regulated Slave Trade documentation for the ship, shown below.

Slave Ship Brook. Example of Slave Stowage on the Transatlantic section of Triangular Trade.
Legal Stowage as per 1788 Slave Act. Click on image to see full size.

People as a cargo. The Zong Insurance Claim

This requirement to limit the number of enslaved persons and to document the manner in which they were to be stowed, as cargo, was the result of a now infamous court case. In late November of 181 a British Crew had killed at least 130 enslaved people who had been stowed onboard The Zong. When the ship arrived in Jamaica the owners of The Zong put in an insurance claim against the loss of their cargo, the killed enslaved people. The insurance claim led to a series of court hearings. The first agreed that as the ship was insured that the loss of cargo should result in an insurance pay out. An appeal then determined that there ought not to be any such payment. Not on the grounds that the people had been murdered, but on the grounds that the crew had been responsible for the loss of the goods. The entire hearing treated the slaves simply as a commodity, no different to a crew stowing then discarding a cargo of manufactured goods.

1788. Legislation on Slaves in the Triangular Trade

The Zong Case became well known to the general public as it attracted the attention of Abolitionists such as Olaudah Equiano and Granville Sharp. The abolitionists tried to have the crew charged with murder. They were unsuccessful in achieving that aim but did enough to provoke enough public feeling to prompt legislative changes. Those changes came in the form of the 1788 Slave Trade Act. It’s the Act of Parliament that resulted in ships such as The Brookes having to illustrate stowage methods. The space afforded to each enslaved person in the diagram above is an improvement on what The Brookes and other ships had done prior to laws forcing them to have space per slave. To illustrate how crowded ships could be, The Zong had a weight burden of 110 tons. The voyage in which the crew threw 130+ people overboard on had embarked with 442 slaves onboard, plus crew. That ratio is roughly 4 slaves per ton of weight.  The Brookes had been sailing with 2.3 slaves per ton prior to legislation. That was deemed to be an unsafe ratio. The  owners and crew of The Zong had forced almost as many slaves into a ship less than half the size of The Brookes. Conditions on board would therefore have been bordering on suffocation levels. Academics have studied ship records for stated numbers of slaves being put onto ships undertaking the Transatlantic Slave Trade voyages, they vary greatly in terms of the ratios given but show that conditions were horrific.

The Middle Passage, the Zong at Sea

The voyage across the Atlantic was not easy. The Zong had embarked from Accra on 18th August 1781. Her voyage across the Atlantic was problematic. Navigational mistakes cost the ship time and added distance. They finally disembarked on 22nd December having made multiple mistakes with charts, misidentified islands, and sailed hundreds of miles in the wrong direction at times before adjusting for more accurate navigational assessments. That is just over four months at sea. It includes the central part of the Atlantic, known as The Middle passage in relation to the Slave Trade. Months at sea. In the hold of a small ship. Crammed conditions, a vessel that is quite small for the rigours of a transatlantic voyage and with only supplies for the intended journey time. And Zong is the famous example, other crews made mistakes. Other groups of enslaved people were kept in similar conditions for very long periods. And other groups of enslaved people were also thrown overboard to save on water supplies and limit the threat of illness killing all on board.

From the Middle Passage to the Slave Auction

Many of the most famous stories of Enslaved people come from the United States of America. These tales, in general, refer to Slaves on plantations in the South, or the Abolitionist movement. What may surprise readers is that whilst lots of Enslaved people did get sold in the United States, it was actually a relatively small proportion of the Slaves who survived the Middle Passage. Around 5% of slaves who survived transit were sold at ports in what is now the United States of America. The majority of slaves were sent to Brazil [45%] and the Caribbean [45%] with the remaining 5% being dispersed to a wide variety of locations.

Disembarkation at these destinations was also undertaken with security in mind. Typically slaves would be held until an auction was held. These ranged in size from small localised slave auctions for domestic servants through to much larger ones where the owners of large plantations sought new Slave Labour.

Engenho Sugar Plantation. At one time the largest Sugar Plana
Engenho in the Captaincy of Pernambuco, the largest and richest sugar-producing area in the world during Colonial Brazil.

Triangular Trade: Leg Three: The Americas to Europe

Triangular Trade in the Americas was largely reliant upon the Slave Trade as described above. Slaves were used by colonial planters, wealthy Europeans who invested in farming cash crops. The crops that are most commonly referred to are:

  • Sugar
  • Tobacco
  • Cotton
  • Coffee

Desirable and in demand

These crops were highly desirable in England and other European nations. The early boom in Coffee Shops produced a demand for coffee and sugar. Sugar was also wanted for a huge variety of culinary purposes. Tobacco became very popular very quickly. Cotton was already available from other sources but the Americas provided an opportunity for massive expansion. It provided a cheap and durable alternative to other textiles.

Farming any of these crops was labour intensive when European colonisation of the Americas began. Therefore there was a high demand for Slaves to work on the newly established plantations. This demand was increased due to the native tribes often being unwilling or unable to undertake the required tasks.

The nature of work on this plantations is described in this page on Slave Plantations.

Exceptions to Triangular Trade

Of course not every merchant ship travelled in a route that followed this triangular pattern. Many voyages took place that went from one port to another and then back again. This enabled the sale of metals, products, and guns to Africa with goods such as ivory, gold, animal skins and African farming produce to be brought to market in England. Other bilateral journeys were common, West Africa to Brazil with a return voyage was common as it enabled the traders of slaves to benefit from the Sugar plantations and to acquire raw materials. There were also regular return voyages from England to the Northern American Colonies. These enabled migration under a variety of schemes to be enabled into the continent with raw materials and produce being loaded in America for sale in England and other European countries.

Further Reading on the British Empire

Making of the United Kingdom

Making of the United Kingdom unit homepage – Glorious Revolution – The British in Ireland, 1688-1691 – Settlement of Ireland – Jacobite Opposition – Glencoe Massacre – Darien Scheme – Act of Union – Migration to the Americas

Economic Consequences of Empire

Economic Consequences of Empire – Unit homepage – Royal African Company – Triangular Trade – Lifting of the RAC monopoly – Plantations – The Slave Economy – Opposition to the Slave Trade in North America – Slave Resistance – East India Company – Expansion of trade in East India – Bank of England – South Sea Bubble Bursts

How did the Empire affect working lives and consumer habits in Britain?

Empire and consumerism – Involvement of the British population in the slave trade and the ‘slave ports’ – Emergence of consumerism

How did the Empire affect British politics and changing ideas?

Politics and changing ideas – Coffee houses and developing political activism – growth of ideas of a racial hierarchy and the impact on settled minority communities

Common questions about the British Empire

Questions about the British Empire – When did the British Empire start? – When did the British Empire end? – What countries were in the British Empire? – Why did Britain want an empire? – What was life like in the British Empire? – Was the British Empire a force for good or bad? – What is Is perfidious Albion? – How was the British Empire controlled?

Further Reading on Triangular Trade

Stanley B. Alpern. What Africans Got for Their Slaves: A Master List of European Trade Goods. History in Africa. Vol. 22 (1995), pp. 5-43 (39 pages). Cambridge University Press.

Chris Evans, Göran Rydén, ‘Voyage Iron’: An Atlantic Slave Trade Currency, its European Origins, and West African Impact, Past & Present, Volume 239, Issue 1, May 2018, Pages 41–70,

Chris Evans. University of South Wales. 5 things you probably didn’t know about the Slave Trade.

Liverpool Museums. Transatlantic Slave Trade.

National Archives. Britain and the Slave Trade.

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