What Was the Triangle Trade?

How Rum, Enslaved People, and Molasses Were Traded for Financial Gain

A public auction of enslaved people.
Auctions of enslaved people were integral to the triangle trade among England, Africa, and North America.

Print Collector / Getty Images

In the 1560’s, Sir John Hawkins pioneered the way for the triangle involving enslaved people that would take place between England, Africa, and North America. While the origins of the trade of enslaved people from Africa can be traced back to days of the Roman Empire, Hawkins voyages were the first for England. The country would see this trade flourish through more than 10,000 recorded voyages up through March 1807 when the British Parliament abolished it throughout the British Empire and specifically across the Atlantic with the passage of the Slave Trade Act.

Hawkins was very cognizant of the profits that could be made from the trade of enslaved people and he personally made three voyages. Hawkins was from Plymouth, Devon, England and was cousins with Sir Francis Drake. It is alleged that Hawkins was the first individual to make a profit from each leg of the triangular trade. This triangular trade consisted of English goods such as copper, cloth, fur and beads being traded in Africa for enslaved people who were then trafficked on what has become to be known as the infamous Middle Passage. This brought them across the Atlantic Ocean to then be traded for goods that had been produced in the New World, and these goods were then transported back to England.

There was also a variation of this system of trade that was very commonplace during the colonial era in American History. New Englanders traded extensively, exporting many commodities such as fish, whale oil, furs, and rum and followed the following pattern that occurred as follows:

  • New Englanders manufactured and shipped rum to the west coast of Africa in exchange for enslaved people.
  • The captives were taken on the Middle Passage to the West Indies where they were sold for molasses and money.
  • The molasses would be sent to New England to make rum and start the entire system of trade all over again.

In the colonial era, the various colonies played different roles in what was produced and used for trade purposes in this triangular trade. Massachusetts and Rhode Island were known to produce the highest quality rum from the molasses and sugars that had been imported from the West Indies. The distilleries from these two colonies would prove to be vital to the continued triangular trade of enslaved people that was extremely profitable. Virginia’s tobacco and hemp production also played a major role as well as cotton from the southern colonies. 

Any cash crop and raw materials that the colonies could produce were more than welcome in England as well as throughout the rest of Europe for trade. But these types of goods and commodities were labor-intensive, so the colonies relied on the use of enslaved people for their production that in turn helped to fuel the necessity of continuing the trade triangle.

Since this era is generally considered to be the age of sail, the routes that were used were chosen due to the prevailing wind and current patterns. This meant that is was more efficient for the countries situated in Western Europe to first sail southward until they reached the area known for the “trade winds” before heading west towards the Caribbean in lieu of sailing a straight course to the American colonies. Then for the return trip to England, the ships would travel the 'Gulf Stream' and head in a Northeast direction utilizing the prevailing winds from the west to power their sails.

It is important to note that the triangle trade was not an official or rigid system of trade, but instead a name that has been given to this triangular route of trade that existed between these three places across the Atlantic. Further, other triangle-shaped trade routes existed at this time. However, when individuals speak of the triangle trade, they are typically referring to this system.

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Kelly, Martin. "What Was the Triangle Trade?" ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, thoughtco.com/triangle-trade-104592. Kelly, Martin. (2020, August 27). What Was the Triangle Trade? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/triangle-trade-104592 Kelly, Martin. "What Was the Triangle Trade?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/triangle-trade-104592 (accessed March 28, 2023).