A summary of the triangular slave trade

Map showing the trade triangle between Britain, North Africa and the Caribbean, trading Muscovado Sugar, slaves and brandy.

The triangular trade

The slave trade began with Portuguese (and some Spanish) traders, taking mainly West African (but some Central 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 their involvement increased in the 18th century when the Treaty of Utrecht (1713) gave them the right to sell slaves in the Spanish Empire. The slave trade made a great deal of profit for those who sold and exchanged slaves. Therefore, they often ignored the fact it was inhuman and unfair.

At least 12 million Africans were taken to the Americas as slaves between 1532 and 1832 and at least a third of them in British ships.

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

  • West African slaves were exchanged for trade goods such as brandy and guns.
  • Slaves were then taken via the ‘Middle Passage’ across the Atlantic for sale in the West Indies and North America.
  • Finally, a cargo of rum and sugar taken from the colonies, was taken back to England to sell.
As many as 2 million slaves died during the journey via the Middle Passage. Journeys lasted from as little as six weeks to several months, depending on the weather. The ships were often too small to carry the hundreds of slaves on board. Slaves were tightly packed into cramped spaces with one person’s right leg chained to the left leg of another person. Conditions on the ships were terrible and slaves died from diseases such as smallpox, scurvy and measles.