Case Study



Boston Tea Party Historical Society

Triangular Trade in New England Colonies

New England colonies, including Massachusetts and the city of Boston actively participated in the so-called Triangular Trade. The trade was called “triangular” because of the specific pattern in which the goods were exchanged. Like any other trade the purpose was to bring goods from overseas that were in high demand at home and trade them for goods that would be more expensive if sold overseas.

In most cases the triangular trade relied on importing slaves from Africa to work on plantations, but unlike Brazil and other South American countries such as Peru that traded with Africa directly, the triangular trade involved three destinations. It required more planning and carried higher risk and as a result was more profitable.

So let’s take a look at how the triangular trade was executed. The classic flow of goods started like this.

  • Great Britain or other European countries – the shipments of beads, copper, cloth, hardware, guns and munitions, was taken for sale in Africa.
  • West Africa – the European shipment was traded for slaves for work on sugar plantations in the Caribbean or tobacco or hemp plantations in American colonies in the south.
  • Caribbean or American Colonies – the slaves were traded for sugar, molasses, rum and tobacco to ship back to England.

Such trade circle was long and could take an entire year to complete.

The leg of the trade between Africa and American or Caribbean colonies became known as the infamous “Middle Passage” where slaves were transported in below-human conditions. The mortality rates were 12% or higher and were considered the “cost of the business”.

The trade not always carried out between the same destinations and with the same goods. In fact the merchants always looked for new opportunities to maximize the profits. The other reason to change the routes was the political volatility in different countries such as wars. For example the trade could shift from England to Spain then Portugal then Holland when relationships between European powers changed. Therefore the Triangular trade is not the term that describes the fixed route.

The Triangular Trade came to Boston in 17th century. When operations of the local merchants grew, they discovered that New England colonies could replace England in the exchange of goods. Ships from Boston carried rum made in New England to Africa to trade for slaves that were then brought to Caribbean plantations, where molasses (liquid sugar) was purchased and brought back to New England to make rum. The New England route was shorter and therefore faster to complete than the traditional European one.

African slaves were not always the necessary part of the trade. Other trade variations included agricultural produce, fish and wine.

One of the consequences of this new economic development was a huge growth of rum-making distilleries in Massachusetts and Rhode Island. It also gave a push to other industries, such as shipbuilding to carry goods to longer distances such as Africa.

New England’s version of the trade did not include England as one of the points and therefore contributed was not favorably viewed by England. Smuggling was one of the ways to get around high customs duties. John Hancock, one of the most prominent Boston revolutionary leaders made his fortune smuggling molasses on his ship called “Liberty”, the fortune which was later used to support the cause of American independence.



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