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Transatlantic trade


  • During the colonial era, Britain and its colonies engaged in a “triangular trade,” shipping natural resources, goods, and people across the Atlantic Ocean in an effort to enrich the mother country.
  • Trade with Europeans led to far-reaching consequences among Native American communities, including warfare, cultural change, and disease.
  • Although the British government attempted to control colonial trade through measures like the Navigation Acts, it only sporadically enforced trade laws.

The Atlantic highway

Which is easier to get to: a town that’s 10 miles away on the other side of a mountain range, or a city that’s 3000 miles away on the other side of an ocean? Today, there’s no question that the nearby town would be easier, but before the widespread adoption of cars and railroads, a sea voyage was a much easier prospect than a journey over treacherous land. In the colonial era, the Atlantic Ocean served as a highway between Europe, Africa, and the Americas, tying together a network of people, raw materials, finished goods, merchants, and sailors that brought wealth to colonial empires.
Map of the Atlantic Ocean.
Map of the Atlantic Ocean, c. 1765. Image credit: New York Public Library
Generating wealth for the mother country was first and foremost among the reasons for European colonization in the Americas. During this era, the economic theory of mercantilism suggested that a nation’s power relied on a favorable balance of trade: that is, exporting more than it imported.
Establishing colonies promoted mercantilist goals in two ways: first, the colonies ensured the mother country had a cheap supply of raw materials (timber, sugar, tobacco, furs, just to name a few), and second, the colonies served as a captive market for finished goods (furniture, guns, metal implements). In other words, colonies existed to sell things to the mother country and to buy things from it, and the government made its profit by taxing and imposing customs duties on trade.
Mercantilism led to the emergence of what’s been called the “triangular trade”: a system of exchange in which Europe supplied Africa and the Americas with finished goods, the Americas supplied Europe and Africa with raw materials, and Africa supplied the Americas with enslaved laborers.
In theory, a ship could make its way from one continent to another laden with cargo that would be prized in the next port: buying enslaved laborers on the coast of Africa, sailing to Barbados to sell enslaved people and buy sugar, sailing to England to sell sugar and buy guns, and then sailing to the coast of Africa to sell guns and buy more enslaved people.
Although this generalization demonstrates how each continent supplied the others with the goods or labor they lacked, the reality was a bit more complex: few ships would have completed the full triangle, and ships might also make more than one stop in the colonies—to exchange food from New England and enslaved people from the sugar islands, for instance.
Map depicting the triangular trade, showing the imports and exports of each region. The North American British colonies sent raw materials like rice, tobacco, and lumber to Europe. Europe sent manufactured goods and luxuries to North America. Europe also sent guns, cloth, iron, and beer to Africa in exchange fro gold, ivory, spices and hardwood. The primary export from Africa to North America and the West Indies was enslaved people to work on colonial plantations and farms.
There was also intercolonial trade between the West Indies and the North American British colonies. The English colonies in North America sent fish and lumber to the West Indies in exchange for enslaved people and sugar.
Goods and people flowed from Europe, Africa, and North America in the system of transatlantic trade.
The British colonies in North America specialized in producing or obtaining commodities that Europeans valued: the islands of the Caribbean produced sugar, Carolina produced rice and indigo, the Chesapeake produced tobacco, and the Middle colonies produced foodstuffs like grain. With shorter growing seasons, the New England colonies could not produce cash crops, but instead chopped down their abundant forests to build ships for fishing and for carrying cargo across the Atlantic. The northern forests were also home to beavers, whose furs were prized in Europe to make hats and fancy clothing.
This entire Atlantic economy depended on the unpaid toil and unparalleled human misery of enslaved laborers, who worked on plantations growing cash crops. Unable to compel a sufficient number of Europeans (who refused to accept brutal working conditions) or Native Americans (who escaped captivity or died from European-borne diseases) to work on New World plantations, Europeans purchased enslaved laborers from slave traders on the coast of Africa.
After a grueling Middle Passage by boat in which about one-third of captives died, most enslaved laborers arrived in the Caribbean to work on the sugar islands, like Barbados and Jamaica. Some of those who survived the harsh conditions growing and processing sugar would be sold north to Virginia or Carolina, where they worked growing tobacco or rice. Although few enslaved people worked in the New England colonies, those colonies propped up the colonial system of slavery by sailing Middle Passage ships and selling provisions to enslavers.

European trade and Native Americans

The bustling Atlantic economy also affected the lives of Native Americans—even those who never directly interacted with Europeans. Native Americans prized the guns and metal tools (knives, hoes, and kettles) that Europeans provided, as well as alcohol and glass beads that served in religious ceremonies. European traders prized the animal skins that Native American hunters provided: beaver furs in the North and deerskins in the South. Furs were especially convenient New World commodities because native communities did all the work of hunting and processing the pelts.
Print showing Europeans and Native Americans trading furs.
Print depicting Native Americans and Europeans trading furs. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons
Native Americans groups competed with each other for access to European trading partners, seeking to block their enemies from obtaining guns and other valuable commodities from the English, French, or Dutch. But European colonists discovered that they, too, had to pick a side: trading with the Hurons, for example, instantly made them the enemies of the powerful Iroquois, and Native Americans demanded military assistance from their trading partners.
The bottomless European demand for beaver furs drove Native Americans to hunt them near to extinction; conflict between native groups increased as they encroached on each others’ hunting territories. But the most destructive force of all was European disease, which devastated Native American communities and fueled a never-ending cycle of mourning wars, raids aimed at taking captives who would replace members of tribes who had died.
In the 1700s, as warfare became more brutal, both Europeans and Native Americans enriched themselves by capturing and selling their native enemies as slaves bound for the West Indies.

Trade and empire

To benefit from the mercantilist system, Britain had to ensure that the spoils of empire came to its own coffers. In 1651, Parliament passed the first of the Navigation Acts, which aimed to control the terms of trade between Britain and its colonies. Among other limitations on colonial trade and manufacturing, the Navigation Acts specified that “enumerated” goods (the most valuable colonial commodities, like sugar and tobacco) had to be transported on British ships and sold in British ports. That way, the British crown could reap the customs duties on the imported goods, and British merchants and shipbuilders could profit from the business. As British subjects, American merchants and shipbuilders benefited from these laws too.
The Navigation Acts, however, were only sporadically enforced. At times, the British government attempted to institute tighter control over its North American colonies. King James II, for example, converted proprietary colonies into royal colonies, increased duties on enumerated goods, and established a vice-admiralty court in Boston to enforce the Navigation Acts. But frequent changes in the British government led to changes in the colonial relationship. When the Catholic King James II was overthrown in 1689 in favor of Protestant monarchs William and Mary, the new king and queen relaxed or eliminated many of James’s coercive measures.
Throughout the 1600s and 1700s, trade laws—and the extent to which they were enforced—fluctuated as new kings and new prime ministers took power in British government. Between the 1720s and the 1760s, there was an extended period of “salutary neglect,” in which British officials overlooked colonists’ violations of the Navigation Acts. But that came to an end in the 1760s, when King George III attempted to reassert control over colonial trade. The colonists rebelled, ultimately starting the American Revolution.

What do you think?

How did the triangular trade work? Why was it important to the colonial system?
How did trade with Europeans affect Native American communities? How did trade with Native Americans affect Europeans?
Why did the British government pass the Navigation Acts? Were they effective?

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