triangular trade

An older analysis of the Atlantic slave trade was modeled on the so-called triangular trade. This described a system where a ship left Liverpool, for example, with trade goods for Africa, picked up slaves, crossed the Atlantic, deposited the slaves in Jamaica, and took sugar back to Britain, completing the triangle. Several variants of this model existed, of course, and it fits a logical assumption, but the triangular trade mechanism was simply one of a number of ways that commerce worked. By the eighteenth century, slave ships were being designed to carry slaves and little or no other cargo. Nearly two-thirds of those ships were engaged in a simple return sequence, from Africa to America then “deadheading” (sailing empty or near empty) back to Africa. As it grew in scale, the slave trade was less an adjunct to other commerce and increasingly a specialized system.
—  Eric Nellis, “The Atlantic Slave Trade,” Shaping the New World: African Slavery in the Americas, 1500-1888, pg.30

The Middle Passage was the stage of the triangular trade in which millions of people from Africa were shipped to the New World as part of the Atlantic slave trade. Ships departed Europe for African markets with manufactured goods, which were traded for purchased or kidnapped Africans, who were transported across the Atlantic as slaves; the slaves were then sold or traded for raw materials.

Most contemporary historians estimate that between 9.4 and 12 million Africans arrived in the New World.

Disease and starvation due to the length of the passage were the main contributors to the death toll with amoebic dysentery and scurvy causing the majority of deaths. Additionally, outbreaks of smallpoxsyphilis,measles, and other diseases spread rapidly in the close-quarter compartments. The rate of death increased with the length of the voyage, since the incidence of dysentery and of scurvy increased with longer stints at sea as the quality and amount of food and water diminished. In addition to physical sickness, many slaves became too depressed to eat or function efficiently due to loss of freedom, family, security, and their own humanity.

While treatment of slaves on the passage was varied, slaves’ treatment was often horrific because the captured African men and women were considered less than human; they were “cargo”, or “goods”, and treated as such; they were transported for marketing. For example, the Zong, a British slaver, took too many slaves on a voyage to the New World in 1781.

Overcrowding combined with malnutrition and disease killed several crew members and around 60 slaves. Bad weather made the Zong’s voyage slow; the captain decided to drown his slaves at sea, so the owners could collect insurance on the slaves. Over 100 slaves were killed and a number of slaves chose to kill themselves. The Zong incident became fuel for the abolitionist movement and a major court case, as the insurance company refused to compensate for the loss.

While slaves were generally kept fed and supplied with drink, as healthy slaves were more valuable, if resources ran low on the long, unpredictable voyages, the crew received preferential treatment. Slave punishment was very common, as on the voyage the crew had to turn independent people into obedient slaves.  

Whipping and use of the cat o’ nine tails were a common occurrence; sometimes slaves were beaten for “melancholy”.The worst punishments were for rebelling; in one instance a captain punished a failed rebellion by killing one involved slave immediately, and forcing two other slaves to eat his heart and liver.

Robert Morris: “Financier of the American Revolution.”

Robert Morris (1734—1806) “Financier of the American Revolutionary War”

His “rags to riches” story embraces a profound patriotism, the likes of which in that day was unparalleled in terms of the financial support he offered to George Washington and the Continental Army.  An immigrant from England, orphaned as a teenager, Morris became a partner in a Philadelphia mercantile firm by the age of 22.  His company, Willing & Morris Company, traded throughout  India, the Levant (the Eastern Mediterranean), the West Indies, Spanish Cuba, Spain, and Italy.  Like many merchants sailing the Atlantic’s triangular trade routes, their cargo included grain, animal   furs, and enslaved Africans.  Eventually Morris resisted the slave trade and led efforts to pass a 1780 Pennsylvanian law to gradually abolish the slave trade.

Robert Morris lived in Philadelphia and was elected to represent the colony at the Continental Congress. He and Roger Sherman are the only two people who signed all three of the founding documents: The Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation, and the United States Constitution.  As most undoubtedly the richest person in Pennsylvania, Robert Morris bankrolled the Revolutionary War, voluntarily contributing millions of dollars to pay for soldiers, ammunition, weapons, clothing, food and other necessities to keep the Army fed and supplied when money wasn’t available otherwise.  He gave his best ship, the Black Prince, to the Continental Congress, which renamed it the USS Alfred.  Whereas he and John Dickinson, both representatives of Pennsylvania, at first ballot voted against Independency, both gentlemen agreed to abstain at last, so that the Pennsylvanian delegation would not be the lone dissenting colony in regards to the vote.   Ben Franklin’s vote carried the day.   Nonetheless, when it came time to sign the Declaration, Robert Morris joined the rest with adding his signature, saying, “I am not one of those politicians that run testy when my own plans are not adopted. I think it is the duty of a good citizen to follow when he cannot lead.”  

From 1781 to 1784, he served as the powerful Superintendent of Finance, managing the economy of the fledgling United States. This was during the concluding years of the Revolutionary War.  As Agent of Marine who controlled the Continental Navy.   His experience with privateers helped him with here.  Following the writing and ratification of the Constitution, he served as one of Pennsylvania’s first Senators, serving from 1789 to 1795.  During Washington’s and most of Adams’s terms of Presidency (1790–1800), Robert Morris offered his house to be the President’s House (like the White House serves today.)   Morris moved into another house he owned so that the President could be close to the workings of the Legislature in Congress Hall.   Unfortunately, some bad land deals and speculation landed him in debtor’s prison for three years towards the end of his life.   A bankruptcy law was written with him in mind, freeing him to live his last years quietly  with dignity.

Robert Morris, painted by Charles Willson Peale (Philadelphia, in collection at the Second National Bank). 

Mary White Morris, wife of Robert Morris, and sister to Bishop William White of Christ Church, Philadelphia (Anglican Church).



The seal of the Society or the Abolition of Slavery in England shows an African on bended knee proffering his manacles, above the impassioned plea: “Am I not a man and a brother?” It is the cri de coeur of moral repugnance: nothing so belittles Europe and the Americas as their willing involvement, for economic gain, in the enslavements of millions of Africans over three centuries, and in the continuing exploitation of their descendants. The Portuguese and Spanish may have started the transatlantic slave traffic, but as soon as the could find the ships and a market, everyone else joined in. Slavery was not new. It is as old as mankind, and was prevalent in African tribal cultures of the 17th century. The nicely consisted in Europeans reviving that as a justification, centuries after abandoning it as morally worthless. They all had colonies to develop. Slavery was expedient, and created a triangular trade between Europe, Brazil and the Caribbean islands, and - in the hands of the French and British especially - the United States. Soon hundreds of specially built slavers, called ‘blackbirders’, were crating Africans in worse conditions than sardines direct to market in America.

More than 11 million human beings were wrenched from family and culture, and worked to death. Their inhumane treatment further brutalised their abusers, infecting American culture itself. Conscience died. Everyone (of every nationality) condoning slavery had to persuade themselves that Africans were savages beyond understanding ‘civilised’ processes: it became a subconscious credo that survived the US Civil War and legal emancipation (as late as 1888 in Brazil). Ever since, the institutionalised belief in racial superiority of inferiority has remained a powerful driving forced in international relations, and a fundamental ingredient current in both military and economic wars. Even in its mildest social forms, it’s a sickening legacy of a sickening trade.