The Trade Triangle is a term used by historians to refer to the form of trade that occurred across the Atlantic Ocean during much of the time of the Atlantic Slave Trade. In fact, it took place from about the 16th century until the 19th century and involved a major network of trade between Europe, Africa and the Americas. As a historical event, the Trade Triangle occurred after the events of the Age of Exploration, which saw European explorers sail along the west coast of Africa and to the new lands in the Americas. As the Americas developed colonies, trade with Europe and Africa became incredibly important.
In general, the Trade Triangle was a set of three routes that saw goods and people travel between Europe, Africa and the Americas. European traders exported manufactured goods (metal tools, textiles, tobacco, beads, etc.) to the societies of west coast Africa in exchange for African slaves. The European goods were manufactured in European factories and shops. Next, the African slaves were put aboard European slave ships and taken to the Americas to be sold for huge profits. Here the slaves would be put to work on plantations in order to harvest raw materials. The final stage of the Trade Triangle involved European traders taking the harvested raw materials from the plantations back to Europe where they were processed into goods in European factories. The most notable of these raw materials included: sugar, cotton, coffee, metals, and tobacco. In general, the Trade Triangle formed a cycle that saw raw materials, manufactured goods, and people transported all across the Atlantic Ocean. The route from Africa to the Americas was commonly known as the Middle Passage. This was the part in which African slaves were shipped to the Americas, which was a central part of the Atlantic Slave Trade.
As stated above, the Trade Triangle of the northern Atlantic Ocean began in the 16th century, and was developed alongside the events of the Atlantic Slave Trade. At its heart, the Atlantic Slave Trade was about transporting African slaves to the New World to work on plantations. The Atlantic Slave Trade began in the 16th century, and reached its peak in the 18th century. It finally concluded near the end of the 19th century. During the time of the Atlantic Slave Trade, approximately 12 million Africans were put on slave ships, sailed across the Atlantic Ocean and sold into slavery. Of this 12 million, approximately 600,000 were transported to the United States, which means that about 5% of all African slaves from the Atlantic Slave Trade were brought to America. This process first began in the early colonies of America but continued well into the 19th century. In fact, African slavery in the United States became an important feature of early America. The early trade in slaves proved so profitable for slave owners in the New World that the practise expanded in 18th and 19th centuries.
*Editors note - To be clear, we are not condoning the use of African slave labor in the Americas, rather trying to explain and understand the choices made at the time. The discussion of the use of African slaves below is from the historic perspective of European slave merchants and does not represent modern views. It is also important to remember and make note of the terrible treatment that African slaves experienced aboard the slave ships as well as on the slave plantations in the Americas.
In all, Portugal, Spain, Britain and France were the European nations that participated in the Atlantic Slave Trade the most. For European merchants, a reliable work force was needed in the New World in order to work on plantations in order to grow crops, such as: tobacco, sugar, and cotton. The indigenous peoples of the Americas proved inadequate (from a European slave merchant perspective) because most were dying from European diseases and a large enough population could not be kept to act as a work force. Europeans themselves were unsuited for the climate of the Americas (especially in Central and South America) and suffered from tropical diseases. Furthermore, European merchants were seeking the economic benefit that came from slave labor. Therefore, African slaves were the preferred choice (from a European slave merchant perspective) to act as slave labor in the New World, because they usually were experienced with the work required (farming) and they were used to a tropical climate and resistant to tropical diseases. As well, European racist beliefs (such as Social Darwinism and Ethnocentrism) caused European merchants to view African people as a commodity rather than a people.
Most of the slaves from Africa were taken by the European slave ships along the west coast of Africa. However, it should be noted that the Africa played an active role in the Atlantic Slave Trade. For instance, African societies along the western coast often captured and enslaved other Africans from the interior of the continent. Then, the western societies would sell or trade the captured slaves to European traders along the coast.
The most famous route of the Trade Triangle was the one that stretched from Africa to the Americas. This route saw millions of African slaves transported to the New World and was referred to as the Middle Passage. As such, the Middle Passage is notorious for the terrible conditions and treatment that the African slaves were subjected to as they were forced across the Atlantic Ocean by European slave traders. For example, life aboard the slave ships for African slaves was terrible while crossing the Atlantic Ocean on the Middle Passage. Slaves suffered in cramped conditions (each slave only had 4 square feet of space) and the lower decks received poor air circulation meaning the stench would linger and lead to horrible air quality.
In all, the Trade Triangle was a significant event in world history. This is because it led to the further economic development of colonies in the New World, including the United States. As well, it heavily benefitted European nations, since they prospered from the economic trade that occurred along the routes of the Trade Triangle.
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