Triangular Trade
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"trinkets to Africa, slaves to Jamaica, rum and tobacco back again … and again … and again…"

(from) The Bristol Slaver Show of Hands

Basic Information

The triangular trade was the economic model in which the Atlantic Slave Trade operated and consisted of a three voyage cycle trading system between Europe, Africa and the European colonies in the Americas.

The trade was begun by the Spanish Empire, mostly seeking workers for their gold and silver mines and then dominated by the British and French in search of manpower for sugar, cotton and tobacco plantations in the Carribean and North America. Reaching a peak in the late 18th century the slave-carrying "Middle Passage" was then more or less shut down when the British Empire decided to abolish the slave trade - although demand from a now independent America and illicit traders in the British and European colonies kept a clandestine trade operating for many years after official prohibition and forced the use of extensive naval blockades (and a few colonial land wars) to close it down completely.

The sides of the "triangle" were thus:

The Outward Passage: Ships sailed from Europe with a cargo of manufactured goods - textiles, steel tools, cast ironware, distilled alcohol, muskets and the like - and traded these to African or resident European slave dealers along the coast of (mostly Central-Western) Africa in return for slaves.

The Middle Passage: The ships loaded slaves from Africa and sailed across the Atlantic to the Americas, selling their new cargo (less any that died en-route) into their preferred markets - whether mines, plantations or any other use that was to be had for slaves.

The Return Passage: Loaded with new world goods - rum, cotton, tobacco, timber and/or precious metals the traders then returned to the Old World to accquire a new cargo of goods for Africa.

Not all traders worked all passages - there was also trade directly between Europe and Africa (albiet mostly with a return load of ivory and similar things given that slaves were in limited demand back home) and Europe and the Americas (since the colonies also consumed more manufactured goods than they produced), and there were not a few ships (sometimes known as Guineamen) that specialised in the Middle passage, often making a direct America to Africa return run under ballast. Once the prohibition acts had passed and the Royal Navy had begun its blockade, the Middle passage turned from a legal trade into a smuggling route.


1. full source reference

Game and Story Use

  • Actually working the triangle is likely to involve too much values dissonance for most players. There is probably more scope for playing interdicting warship crews or pirates and privateers preying on any of the passages of the trade.
    • Edward Teach's Queen Anne's Revenge was a converted Guineaman captured from the French and at least part of the cargo is thought to have enlisted in his crew.
  • Easily recycled in the fantasy or sci-fi setting of your choice.
    • Or, indeed, historically.
  • The same model, sans slaves, could easily be made to work elsewhere - all you need is three mutually complementary trade theaters.
  • Note the "trade" part - some historical revisionists seem to think that slavers simply sailed to Africa, abducted people and bussed them across the Atlantic. Some slave trades did rely on coastal raiding, but the Atlantic trade ran almost exclusively on purchased lives. The raiding, abduction and other subjugation was carried on in the interior by various native tribes and the victims then "sold down the river" (rivers being the main trade highways to the coast in most cases) to the waiting ships.
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