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Summary Article: Atlantic Slave Trade
From Gale Encyclopedia of U.S. Economic History

From the sixteenth through the nineteenth century the Atlantic slave trade was an international network between Africa, Europe, and the New World for the exchange of three types of commodities: crops and other raw materials, manufactured goods, and human beings. Historians traditionally have characterized this system of trade as following a clear triangular pattern between Europe, Africa, and the American colonies, whereby each location on the trade route had one specific commodity to supply and another that it demanded to fuel its economy. In this view a given commodity traveled in one direction only as part of a trilateral exchange. More recent scholarship, however, reveals that the notion of a “triangle trade” is an oversimplification; in fact, trade was multidirectional, with two distinct centers in the New World, the West Indies, and mainland North America, resulting in a trade pattern with four points, not three. The Atlantic slave trade had profound and lasting consequences on the societies and economies of West Africa, Europe, and the Americas. In the United States it served to entrench the institution of slavery, while increasing dependence on an agricultural economy and stifling industrial growth in the South, until the mid-nineteenth century.

The most traveled of the various international routes began in Europe, where ships were loaded with manufactured goods. These ships then traveled to the Atlantic coast of Africa to trade guns, alcohol, cloth, and other products for slaves. Ships packed with enslaved Africans sailed for the Americas as part of the so-called Middle Passage, a harsh and often deadly journey that ended on the plantations of South America, the Caribbean, and the United States. Slaves were sold to plantation owners, and slave traders used the profits from their sales to purchase sugar, molasses, tobacco, coffee, and other crops. These raw materials were then transported to England and elsewhere in Europe for consumption and manufacture. Some of these manufactured goods were sent back to the Americas for sale, while others were sent to Africa's west coast, where the cycle of trade began again. Although this was the predominant pattern of the international trade, it was often altered as people and goods flowed wherever there was demand.

The Atlantic Slave Trade involved the exchange of agricultural goods (such as tobacco and sugar), manufactured goods, and slaves among three regions: Europe, Africa, and the New World. XNR PRODUCTIONS. COPYRIGHT © CENGAGE LEARNING.

The Atlantic slave trade significantly shaped the economic growth of the American and European economies. In England it fueled the process of industrialization, while in the Americas it encouraged the development of agriculture-based economies. In Africa, however, it proved devastating as an estimated 10 million Africans were sold into bondage in order to meet demand for slaves in the New World. Sold to European and American traders, these slaves were typically chained below deck and allowed only brief periods of exercise, if any, during the long Atlantic crossing. Although traders had some profit motive to keep slaves alive during the long journey across the ocean, conditions were brutal, and many perished on the Middle Passage. Those who survived the journey were subjected to lives of bondage and cruelty—as were their descendants. When the slave trade was finally abolished during the 1800s, the forced migration of Africans to the Western Hemisphere as commodities ended, and the system ceased.

SEE ALSO Africans Arrive in North America; Industrialization; Middle Passage; Plantations; Slavery

  • Emert, Phyllis Raybin, ed. Colonial Triangular Trade: An Economy Based on Human Misery. Discovery Carlisle, 1995. Print.
  • Findlay, Ronald. The “Triangular Trade” and the Atlantic Economy of the Eighteenth Century: A Simple General-Equilibrium Model. Princeton U Intl. Economics Princeton, 1990. Print.
  • Inikori, Joseph E.Africa and the Globalization Process: Western Africa, 1450-1850.” Journal of Global History 2.1 (2007): 63-86. Cambridge Journals. Web. 6 Jan. 2014.
  • Inikori, Joseph E.; Stanley L. Engerman, eds. The Atlantic Slave Trade: Effects on Economies, Societies, and Peoples in Africa, the Americas, and Europe. Duke UP Durham, 1992. Print.
  • Klein, Herbert S. The Middle Passage: Comparative Studies in the Atlantic Slave Trade. Princeton UP Princeton, 1978. Print.
  • COPYRIGHT 2015 Gale, Cengage Learning

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