What was the Triangular Trade?
The Triangular Trade, referring to a system of profitable exchange that encompassed Europe, Africa, and European colonial possessions in the Americas, took place from the 1500s to the 1700s. Relying on the African slave trade, the network of the Triangular Trade fueled the growth of that very same slave trade, and vice versa. Merchants in Europe, Africa, and the Americas became wealthy as a result, and the institution of slavery in the Americas grew ever larger.
While he may not have been the first person to benefit from the system, Sir John Hawkins was allegedly the first Englishman to take part in it. From 1562 to 1563, he captured a slave-trading Portuguese ship off the coast of Sierra Leone and proceeded to sell the ship’s slaves in the Spanish colonies of Santo Domingo and Venezuela, earning a sizeable profit for the group of investors he represented. Spanish authorities were offended, and as a result banned English merchants from taking part in the transatlantic slave trade.
However, Spanish administrators had already realized that letting outside entities take part in the slave trade could pass onto other people the cost and risk of transporting and supplying slaves, while ensuring the slaves were sold into the labor pool of Spain’s American colonies. Some shrewd Spanish officials quickly modified Spanish policy on the participation of English merchants. During Hawkins’s second voyage in 1564, officials in Borburata in western Venezuela took the lead by granting Hawkins a commercial license to sell African slaves in the colony, in return for Hawkins paying a tax. In effect, this gave Spain a monopoly on the trade of African slaves in their colonies, with heavy private contracting.
This was the asiento, a monopoly of the Spanish crown on the transatlantic slave trade between Africa and Spanish colonies in the Americas, that was in place from the early 1500s. It required any outside person, company, or government wishing to take part in this trade to contract with the Spanish government, which involved paying for a slave-trading license under a bidding process, and then subsequently paying a tax to Madrid and fulfilling an order for a specific amount of slaves. As a result, slavery in the Triangular Trade became big business. The merchants participating in it could thereby tap into the enormous gold and silver reserves of the Spanish Empire, which were often used as the currency for buying slaves – and which were originally extracted by slaves from large-scale mines in the Americas. Slaves were also sold to plantation owners in the Portuguese, English, French, and Dutch colonies in the Americas – by the 18th century in enormous numbers.
When fully operational, the Triangular Trade involved English merchants trading goods including copper and fur on the African continent in return for African slaves, who were then transported across the Atlantic in the so-called “Middle Passage” to be sold for gold and silver, which the merchants then used to buy various slave-extracted raw materials from plantation owners, including molasses, tobacco, and cotton. These raw materials were then shipped to Europe, sold for a profit, and processed into manufactured goods in European cities, including rum and textiles, which would then be exchanged on the African continent by European merchants with African merchants for captured African slaves, beginning the triangle over again. In the case of molasses, it could alternately be shipped north to English colonies in North America, where it was turned into rum, which would then be shipped at a profit back to England, completing the triangle. But the trade could take different arrangements, expanding the means by which merchants could turn profits: sometimes New-England merchants exported rum made in their colonies directly to the African continent, launching the triangle in that way. Or the European-manufactured goods derived from American raw materials could be sold for money in Europe that was partly used to buy guns, soap, and glass, which could then be exchanged for slaves in Africa.
The Triangular Trade created a frenzy for profits among merchants, officials, and plantation owners, which spurred an explosion of slavery, horrible working conditions for slaves, and a rise in their purchase price as demand for slaves increased. Because of the enormous profits to be gained, the slave trade received official, high-profile support. Spain already had the asiento, and in 1618 King James I of England granted 30 London merchants a monopoly on English trading of African slaves. Nearly a century later, the English South Sea Company, which in 1713 bought the English government’s contract with Spain to supply slaves to Spanish markets in the Americas, included among its investors Sir Isaac Newton, Alexander Pope, Jonathan Swift, and Queen Anne, whose share of the company’s stock was more than 22 percent. Excessive greed for the profits of the slave trade sometimes had nasty consequences for the Europeans. Rampant, out-of-control speculation by investors collapsed the South Sea Company in 1720, in what was known as the “South Sea Bubble.”
On one level an ingenious system that turned new discoveries to full profit, the Triangular Trade enriched all European colonial empires in the Americas as well as their mother countries. But the wealth derived from this trade was inextricably tied to slavery. At its root was forced labor without consent of the laborers or payment for their work. By the 1800s, the entrenched moneyed interests built on the slavery of the Triangular Trade were so large and powerful, that the abolition of slavery in certain areas could only proceed through violent conflict.
Before we go, let’s look at a review question to see how much you remember:
All of the following are true of the Triangular Trade except
- The slave-trading leg of the triangle that took place in Spanish America generally required slave traders to license slave-trading rights from the Spanish government, under an official monopoly called the asiento.
- As part of the Triangular Trade, rum made from Caribbean molasses was shipped from New England to Europe and from New England to Africa.
- Gold and silver bullion were generally the wares that European traders exchanged for slaves in Africa.
- Some slaves sold as part of the Triangular Trade mined gold and silver, while others harvested tobacco, sugar, and cotton.
The correct answer is C. European traders would exchange rum and textiles for African slaves.
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