TRIANGULAR TRADE. At least two overlapping patterns of trans-Atlantic trade developed in the colonial era whereby profits from rum and other American and British manufactured goods sold on the west coast of Africa financed the purchase of enslaved Africans. Those slaves were then taken to the Americas, where their sale in turn funded the shipment of sugar, molasses, and other New World raw materials to the point of origin for the manufactured products. There the whole three-cornered process began anew. In one version of this triangular trade, the manufactured goods originated in British ports, notably Liverpool. In the similar American triangular trade route, the manufactured goods, especially rum, went from New England ports to the Gold Coast of Africa. In both patterns, the second leg of the triangle became known as the infamous "middle passage" in which enslaved Africans were carried to destinations in the Americas, usually islands in the West Indies, but in some instances locations on the North American mainland, especially Charleston, South Carolina.
After they sold their slave cargoes at great profit to colonial purchasers, ship captains took on molasses, sugar, or other local crops, mostly to avoid sailing back to their home ports in ballast. Especially for New England merchants, the middle passage was by far the most lucrative of the three legs of the triangular trade. The English triangular trade commenced almost as soon as European colonies in the New World began to import African slaves. The American variant had roots in the seventeenth century but was mostly an eighteenth-century phenomenon. Although greatly reduced by the end to the legal slave trade in 1808, the triangular pattern continued to exist in an illicit form until the Civil War ended slavery in the United States.
The large slave-carrying ships out of Liverpool required deep-water anchorage, limiting them to a few European-controlled ports on the African coast. They were too specialized to accommodate nonhuman cargoes efficiently, yet often suffered from long periods of unprofitable idle time in America as captains scrambled for local products to ship back to England. Ultimately, many returned laden only with ballast, leaving it to other sorts of British ships to carry goods along the leg of the triangle
between England and the New World. Instead of being a simple three-legged route for any one vessel, then, the triangular path from England to Africa to America was in reality a general arrangement for the movement of goods, credits, and slaves around the Atlantic world, often with different ships running different legs of the route.
In America, Rhode Island was the principal mainland American point on the triangle. Vessels out of Bristol and Newport were generally much smaller and far less specialized than the ships employed by Liverpool slave traders. They could negotiate shallow water, giving them access to locations the Liverpool slavers could not reach. They were also easily converted from carrying slaves to carrying nonhuman cargoes. This versatility minimized down time in port and maximized the chances for profits from the classic triangular trade pattern. While the triangular slave trade was never the prime feature of Rhode Island's commercial activity, it was important there. Indeed, contemporaries claimed that New England distilleries dominated the enormous rum trade into Africa.
The activities of the Newport merchant Aaron Lopez are perhaps the best-known evidence for the existence of the triangular trade. In his first brush with the slave trade in 1761–1762, Lopez and his partner and cousin, Jacob Rodriguez Rivera, sent more than 15,000 gallons of rum, American foodstuffs, and a small quantity of tobacco to Africa on the Greyhound, a brig under the command of an experienced Newport slaving captain named William Pinnegar. Apparently, Lopez enjoyed a substantial profit from this venture, for thirteen similar voyages by a variety of Newport ships and commanders in his employ followed through 1774. Although not all of them fit the triangular trade model perfectly, they conformed in a general sense. Lopez's vessels all left Newport with large quantities of rum, to which he added smaller amounts of foodstuffs, manufactured items, and forest products. His captains sold those goods in African ports, where they purchased slaves for the American market. Typically, they sold the slaves in several West Indian ports and sometimes at Charleston, South Carolina, taking on board whatever local produce might be available, but with a special interest in West Indian rum and the molasses that New England distilleries would convert into their own brand of the drink, thereby providing the raw materials for yet another "Guinea Voyage."
The economic dislocations occasioned by the American Revolution disrupted participation in the Atlantic slave trade. In an 1807 statute, Great Britain outlawed the slave trade altogether, and the United States followed suit in 1808. The British navy began to suppress the trade on the high seas. Some slave ships continued to make their way to American ports, but the heyday of the Atlantic slave trade, triangular or otherwise, was over.
Coughtry, Jay. The Notorious Triangle: Rhode Island and the African Slave Trade, 1700–1807. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1981.
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. New York: Academic Press, 1979.
Platt, Virginia Bever. "'And Don't Forget the Guinea Voyage': The Slave Trade of Aaron Lopez of Newport." William and Mary Quarterly, 3rd. Ser. 32 (1975): 601–618.
Triangular trade refers to the various navigation routes that emerged during the colonial period. There were numerous triangular paths that ships made to ferry people, goods (both raw and finished), and livestock. The most traveled triangular route began on Africa's west coast where ships picked up slaves. The second stop was the Caribbean islands—predominately the British and French West Indies—where slaves were sold to plantation owners; in turn, traders used the profits to purchase sugar, molasses, tobacco, and coffee. These raw materials were then transported north to the third stop, New England, where a rum industry was thriving. There ships were loaded with spirits. Traders made the last leg of their journey—back across the Atlantic to Africa's west coast, where the process began again.
On another route, manufactured goods were transported from Europe to the African coast, slaves were sent to the West Indies, and sugar, tobacco, and coffee were routed back to Europe, where the triangle began again. On yet another route, lumber, cotton, and meat were transported from the colonies to southern Europe, wine and fruits went to England and manufactured goods routed to the colonies, where the triangle began again. There were as many possible routes as there were ports and demands for goods.
The tragic result of the triangular trade was the transport of an estimated 10 million black Africans. Sold into slavery, these human beings were often chained below deck and allowed only brief, if any, periods of exercise during the Atlantic crossing (which came to be called the Middle Passage). Conditions for the slaves were brutal and improved only slightly when traders realized that if slaves perished during the long journey across the ocean, it would adversely affect their profits in the West Indies. After economies in the islands of the Caribbean crashed at the end of the 1600s, many slaves were sold to plantation owners on the North American mainland, thus initiating another tragic trade route. The slave trade was abolished during the 1800s, putting an end to the forced migration of Africans to the Western Hemisphere along these routes.
See also: Middle Passage, Molasses Act of 1733, Slavery, Sugar, Tobacco