Triangular Trade Pattern

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TRIANGULAR TRADE PATTERN. The transatlantic slave trade involved more than the European purchase of slaves in Africa and their sale in the New World. Historians have identified as a triangular trade pattern a typical voyage of a slave ship consisting of three distinct legs: in the first, the ship would sail from a European port to coastal Africa and exchange its goods for slaves, who were then taken to the New World and sold for colonial produce. The ship then returned home to Europe laden with colonial cash crops, completing the triangle. The triangular trade found its classic, although not its original, expression in Eric Williams's seminal Capitalism and Slavery (1944). Williams argued that the triangular trade was Great Britain's primary trade in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and gave a triple stimulus to British industry. British manufactures were used to buy slaves in Africa, and once the slaves were put to work on American plantations, they were dressedalong with their ownersby British industries and fed by New England agriculture and Newfoundland fisheries. Finally, the New World commodities that the slaves produced were processed in Britain, thus giving rise to new industries.

Williams went on to suggest that this multiple stimulus was so significant that the British triangular trade paved the way for the industrial revolution. There was a link, he argued, between the capital accumulated in the slave trade of Liverpool, Britain's largest slave-trading port, and the emergence of manufactures in Manchester. Up to 1770, one-third of Manchester's textiles exports went via Liverpool to the African coast, and one-half to the American and West Indian colonies. Other historians have pointed out that long-term credits from Manchester manufacturers were used to finance Liverpool's trade. However, it has not been possible to determine the extent to which industrial development was linked directly to the slave trade.

Africa was always the first stop in the triangular trade, and the Europeans quickly learned that they needed a variety of goods in order to do business there. The specific merchandise brought to barter differed according to the place of trade, and it was important for slaver merchants to keep up with local demand. European goods were highly valued in the local African economies, both for their usefulness and their exchange value. Cloth, for example, was popular in Senegambia (the area of modern day Senegal and Gambia), because it could serve as a kind of money or be made into clothes. The same was true of iron, which had a high exchange value but could also be made into tools, utensils, and weapons.

For lack of facilities to intern the slaves on the coast, the European purchase of slaves could take a long time. The average slaving vessel spent several months in Africa, the captain sailing up and down the coast or traveling inland until the ship's hold was filled. Once the so-called Middle Passage (the Africa-Americas run) had been completed, the slaves were sold. Payments were a perennial problem in the New World, since ships often arrived outside of the harvest season and, even when they arrived at the opportune time, most of their customers were heavily indebted planters. Due to the delay of payments, slave merchants were frequently compelled to advance credit to the planters, the interest for which was credited to the slave trader. Under this system, slave factorstraders in the employ of European merchant housesserved as intermediaries between the trader and the planter by arranging for the sale of slaves. In the British slave trade, the debt problem led to the adoption of a new system of remitting the proceeds of slave sales to England. This system, first introduced in the Caribbean in the 1730s, forced the slave factors to pay outstanding debts at specific times and to remit the proceeds of the slave sales in either cash, produce, or bills of exchange, effectively shifting the burden of supplying credit from the trader to the planter. If the factor cleared a debt with a bill of exchange, it had to be drawn against a British mercantile firm or guarantor.

Slave traders relied increasingly on these bills of exchange, as well as on the transport of produce on board ships other than slavers. The third leg of the triangular trade thus deviated from the model in that slave vessels did not usually carry large amounts of slave-produced goods from America to Europe. Many of the ships returning to the United Provinces from Suriname sailed in ballast, weighed down by sand and water. On the other hand, it was exceptional for slave vessels returning to British ports from Virginia and Jamaica to sail in ballast. Overall, it is hard to establish what percentage of the goods carried back represented payment for the slaves, although it is clear that the volume of goods that slavers transported from the New World to Europe was relatively small.


In Atlantic trade generally, it was actually not the triangular trade that predominated, but the shuttle (also called round-trip) voyage, which did not include the New WorldEurope leg of the triangle trip. Round-trip voyages produced experienced captains and increased the chance of a punctual delivery and of a landing around harvest time. By the last quarter of the seventeenth century, the transport of African slaves in the South Atlantic was partially a shuttle trade, in which the tobacco planters near Brazil's capital of Bahia exchanged their crop for bonded Africans on the Gold Coast. A similar bilateral trade developed between Rio de Janeiro and Angola. The largest of all slave trades, that of Brazil, was therefore not triangular at all.

Nevertheless, although the African slave trade was often conducted separately from the trade between Europe and the Americas, the services it supplied to the latter were indispensable. And while doubt has been cast on the overall effect of the triangular model on British industrialization, the triangular trade pattern forms part of the web of dependence that connected Europe, Africa, and the New World in the age of the slave trade.

See also British Colonies: North America ; Commerce and Markets ; Slavery and the Slave Trade .


Klein, Herbert S. The Atlantic Slave Trade. Cambridge, U.K., 1999.

Minchinton, Walter E. "The Triangular Trade Revisited." In The Uncommon Market: Essays in the Economic History of the Atlantic Slave Trade, edited by Henry A. Gemery and Jan S. Hogendorn, pp. 331352. New York, 1979.

Richardson, David. "The British Slave Trade to Colonial South Carolina." Slavery & Abolition 12, no. 3 (December 1991): 125172.

Searing, James F. West African Slavery and Atlantic Commerce: The Senegal River Valley, 17001860. Cambridge, U.K., 1993.

Williams, Eric. Capitalism and Slavery. Chapel Hill, N.C., 1944.

Wim Klooster

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Triangular Trade Pattern

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