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The triangular slave trade



The triangular trade

The slave trade began with Portuguese, and some Spanish, traders taking African slaves to the American colonies they had conquered in the 15th century. British sailors became involved in the trade in the 16th century, and the Treaty of Utrecht (1713) gave them the right to sell slaves in the Spanish Empire.

In the 18th century, perhaps 6 million Africans were taken to the Americas as slaves, at least a third of them in British ships.

For the British slave traders it was a three-legged journey, called the 'triangular trade':

  • Taking trade goods, such as guns and brandy, to Africa to exchange for slaves.

  • Then taking the slaves on the 'Middle Passage' across the Atlantic to sell in the West Indies and North America.

  • Finally, taking a cargo of rum and sugar back to sell in England.

Conditions on the Middle Passage were terrible, and many slaves died.


Opposition to the slave trade grew. Sometimes, slaves revolted on the voyage. In Jamaica, runaway slaves, called 'Maroons', formed their own communities. In England, a group of Black Britons called the 'Sons of Africa' started a letter-writing campaign against the slave trade.

In 1787, the Committee for the Abolition of the Slave Trade was formed. William Wilberforce represented them in Parliament. In 1807, after a huge campaign – the first mass public protest campaign in history – Parliament abolished the slave trade.

The big picture

You can see the slave trade as part of Britain's economy in Britain's Economy through time. The slave trade was a great atrocity and a crime against humanity, and you might wish to compare it to the Holocaust. You might also wish to compare the Abolition campaign to other protest campaigns, such as Chartism, the Campaign for Women's Suffrage and the Civil Rights Movement in America.

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