The Triangular Trade in Colonial America

1607–1763

The Triangular Trade was a Transatlantic network of trade routes that were used during the Colonial Era, to ship goods between England, Africa, and the Americas.

Sugar Plantation, West Indies, Illustration

This illustration depicts a Sugar Plantation in the West Indies. Image Source: Library of Congress.

Triangular Trade Summary

Triangular Trade in Colonial America involved shipping commodities between three ports in a triangular sequence. The starting port was in West Africa, where manufactured goods were traded for captive Africans. The second port was the West Indies or the 13 Original Colonies, where Africans were traded for natural resources like rum, sugar, molasses, and cotton. The third port was England where raw materials were traded for manufactured goods. The first Triangular Trade journey was carried out by Sir John Hawkins in 1562 and the routes were shaped by geography and British economic policies.

Jamestown, 1620s, Painting, Rocco
This illustration depicts a ship arriving at Jamestown, Virginia. Image Source: National Park Service.

Triangular Trade Facts 

The Triangular Trade was a Transatlantic network of trade routes that were used during the Colonial Era, to ship goods between England, Africa, and the Americas. There were three main routes:

  1. England to Africa.
  2. Africa to the 13 Original Colonies and the British West Indies.
  3. The Americas back to England.

Goods were often traded, rather than purchased with specie — gold and silver.  The goods that were traded typically included:

  1. Raw materials — rum, timber, sugar, tobacco, rice, and cotton — from the 13 Original Colonies and the British West Indies.
  2. Manufactured goods from England and Europe, such as guns, cloth, furniture, and jewelry.
  3. Captive people from West Africa, who were sold into slavery in South America, the West Indies, and the American Colonies.

Causes of the Triangular Trade Routes

Triangular Trade Routes were caused by three main factors:

  1. Geography
  2. The Mercantile System
  3. The Navigation Acts

The trade routes were shaped by geography as much as anything because there was no easy route from the Americas or Europe to the Far East. Rrumors persisted of a legendary “Northwest Passage” to the Far East, which spurred many of the early expeditions during the Age of Exploration.

Triangular Trade routes were also shaped by England’s Mercantile System and the Navigation Acts, which placed significant restrictions on trade within the British Empire. Over time, more restrictions were added and a complex system emerged that was difficult to follow and to enforce. 

The Mercantile System was an economic system that required England to maintain a positive trade balance, so it retained as much gold and silver as possible. In the system, colonies played an important role, because they provided raw materials. Because England controlled the colonies, it did not have to trade gold and silver for the raw materials. Further, the finished products had more value than the raw materials, which allowed England to maintain a favorable trade balance with its colonies.

The Navigation Acts required exports from the colonies to be transported on English ships, which had to pass through English ports, regardless of their final destination. When ships arrived in port, customs officials were required to check the shipments and collect customs duties.

Oliver Cromwell, Portrait
The first Navigation Act was passed by Oliver Cromwell and the Rump Parliament. Image Source: Wikimedia.

Salutary Neglect

By the 1720s, Britain was caught up in European affairs and Prime Minister Robert Walpole encouraged a policy in which British customs officials neglected to enforce the Navigation Acts and collect customs duties. 

The unwritten policy, which became known as “Salutary Neglect,” allowed American merchants to expand their markets and increase their profits. Despite this, the triangle-shaped routes continued to be used, primarily because the American Colonies and West Indies Colonies depended on slave labor from West Africa and manufactured products from England. 

Robert Walpole, Painting
Prime Minister Robert Walpole implemented the unwritten policy known as Salutary Neglect. Image Source: Wikimedia.

Although customs officials often looked the other way, they were also paid to do so through bribes. This led to an increase in bribery and smuggling, especially in the New England Colonies, where molasses from the West Indies was vital to the rum distilling industry.

Following the French and Indian War, Prime Minister George Grenville issued instructions for customs officials to enforce the Molasses Act, bringing Salutary Neglect to an end.

Transatlantic Slave Trade

Triangular Trade was closely associated with the Transatlantic Slave Trade. The capture of Africans for sale in slave markets was established by a network of African kingdoms, the Spanish, and the Portuguese. Over time, the Dutch and English became involved in the business.

Middle Passage, Captive Africans, Illustration, NYPL
This illustration depicts captive Africans in the cargo hold of a slave ship. Image Source: New York Public Library Digital Collections.

The First Triangular Trade Voyage

The first expedition specifically to transport captive Africans to sell in the New World is believed to have been carried out by Sir John Hawkins, an English sea captain, in 1562. Hawkins captured and traded for captive Africans along the coast of Africa, and sailed to the Caribbean, where he traded them for pearls, animal hides, and sugar. The expedition was so lucrative that a coat of arms was designed for him, which included a crude drawing of an enslaved African. The first trip is considered by some to be the first implement and profit from the Triangular Trade Route.

The Cycle of Triangular Trade

Overall, the shipment of goods along the Triangular Trade routes moved in a fairly consistent manner:

  1. From England, Ships sailed to Africa, carrying manufactured goods and products, which were traded for captive Africans, gold, and spices.
  2. Leaving Africa, ships sailed to the West Indies and the American Colonies over the “Middle Passage.” Upon arrival, they traded slaves for raw materials.
  3. From the Americas, Ships transported raw materials back to England, where they were used to manufacture finished goods and products.

Chart of Exports Traded by the 13 Original Colonies

England established the colonies as a way to produce raw materials for British manufacturing companies, which was a key aspect of the Mercantile System. Another important part of the system was the restriction of manufacturing in the 13 Original Colonies. There were various acts passed that restricted manufacturing, ensuring British manufacturers received all the raw materials and natural resources. One important exception to the rules was shipbuilding, which was allowed.

New England Colonies Exports

Middle Colonies Exports

  • New York — Fur Trade, Flour, Timber, Iron Ore
  • New Jersey — Agricultural Products, Iron Ore
  • Pennsylvania — Grains and other Agricultural Products, Iron Ore
  • Delaware — Fur, Timber, Iron Ore

Chesapeake Colonies Exports

  • Maryland — Fish, Timber, Fur, Tobacco, Sugar
  • Virginia  — Corn, Flax, Tobacco, Sugar

Southern Colonies Exports

  • North Carolina — Rice, Indigo, Tobacco, Sugar
  • South Carolina — Indigo, Rice, Tobacco, Sugar
  • Georgia — Tobacco, Cotton, Sugar

Triangular Trade Significance

Triangular Trade is significant to United States history because of the role it played in creating an economic system in the American Colonies.

Triangular Trade APUSH Review

Use the following links and videos to study Triangular Trade, the Mercantile System, and the Colonial Era for the AP US History Exam. Also, be sure to look at our Guide to the AP US History Exam.

Triangular Trade APUSH Definition and Significance

The definition of Triangular Trade for APUSH is a complex system of trade routes that developed during the Colonia Era. It involved three main legs: the first leg saw English goods, including firearms and textiles, shipped to Africa in exchange for enslaved Africans. The second leg consisted of the Middle Passage, where enslaved Africans were transported to the Americas. The third leg involved the transport of raw materials back to England. Triangular Trade played a significant role in shaping the economies of the 13 Original Colonies.

Triangular Trade Video for APUSH Notes

This video from Heimler’s History discusses the Triangular Trade system.