Triangular Trade in the Atlantic Ocean

In conjunction with a historical study of slavery, students will learn about triangular trade and use maps and a website calculator to figure distances between ports.

50 minutes

Students will:
  • work together in small groups to find data and information about the seventeenth and eighteenth century slave trade
  • identify a popular triangular trade route and the distance from one port to another on a world map
  • further understand the harsh and inhumane treatment of Africans during this time period
  • copies of a world map for each student: (select "Print" or "Download")
  • world map in front of the classroom, or on an overhead projector
  • paper and pencil for each student
  • ruler or straight-edge for each student
  • website:
  • website:

    1. Review the following vocabulary words with students prior to beginning the lesson: slave trade, middle passage, cargo, longitude and latitude.

    2. Distribute world maps to students. A good world map that can easily be copied is available at: Once students have a map, discuss the practice of triangular trade:
      From the 1600s to 1800s, large sailing ships, owned by British businessmen, set sail from England en route to the west coast of Africa. There, kidnapped Africans, taken from their villages and families, were forced into extremely overcrowded quarters in the ships and sailed to the Caribbean, North America, and South America – a journey that took from five to twelve weeks. If you look at a map, you can see how this forms a triangle. Between 30 and 60 million Africans made the trip from Africa to America in this way, many of them dying during from the long journey and horrible conditions.

    3. Have students read Tom Feelings' book The Middle Passage, including the introduction. For an online version, students can see Feelings' art and read his introductory words at:

    4. Talk with students about distance. How far is it from the school building to the public library? Perhaps a few miles. How far is it from your town to the state capital? What about from one side of the country to the next, such as Sydney to Perth','New York City to San Francisco? After students have made some guesses and then you've shared the right answers with them, locate the Ivory Coast and South Carolina on the world map. Ask students to estimate how far this is; write their estimates on the board.

    5. Break students into pairs. Ask each pair to find exact locations of these points of the triangle trade: Bristol, England; Ivory Coast, Africa; Charleston, South Carolina. To do this, start at the National Geographic Interactive Map: Have a volunteer tell in which continent the first location, Bristol, England, is located. After the desired answer of Europe is elicited, have students click on that continent's name on the top of the page. Direct them to select United Kingdom to get the appropriate map for this area. Have students zoom in to find Bristol, England on this map. Then direct them to find the approximate location of Bristol on their paper map and plainly mark it. Do the same for the location of Ivory Coast, Africa (note that this is referred to as "Cote d'Ivoire" on the map; the main port is called Abidjan) and Charleston, South Carolina.

    6. Once students have marked all three sites on their maps, have them connect the points, forming a triangle. Tell the students they now need to find three things:
      • How far did the ships travel from England to the Ivory Coast? [Bristol, England to Ivory Coast – 2,997 miles/4823 kilometres]
      • How far did the Africans travel from the Ivory Coast to Charleston? [Ivory Coast to Charleston, S.C. – 5,051 miles/8129 kilometres]
      • How far did the trips have to travel to return to England? [Charleston, S.C. to Bristol, England – 3,978 miles/6402 kilometres]

      Using the "How far is it?" device at this URL,, have students figure the three distances from each point to each point of the triangle. Have them type each location and destination into the mileage finder – Bristol to Ivory Coast, Ivory Coast to Charleston, and Charleston to Bristol – and jot down the distance on the paper world map. When students are finished, redirect them to their original estimates on the board; how close were they?

    7. Using the approximate average rate of speed of thirty miles traveledper hour, have the students calculate how long each leg of the trip took and round to the nearest hour.
    • Bristol, England to Ivory Coast = 100 hours
    • Ivory Coast to Charleston, S.C. = 168 hours
    • Charleston, S.C. to Bristol, England = 133 hours
  • Bring the discussion of time and distance back to The Middle Passage and a broader study of slavery by talking with students about what that journey might have been like for a kidnapped person, chained to another person, confused and afraid. Be careful to use the lesson as a way for the students to better understand the time and distance that contributed to an incredibly difficult, traumatic event.

  • Collect and evaluate students' map sheets.
  • Call on students to discuss their reaction to the tutorial they just read.
  • also has a Latitude and Longitude Finder ( Choose other ports in the triangular trade and have students locate their longitudes and latitudes and then locate the distances this way. Also have the students make estimates again to see how close they come.
  • Use maps, the map legend, and pieces of string to calculate various distances.
  • Discuss ways in which the kidnapped Africans might have tried to keep their spirits alive during the journey, such as through singing or storytelling. In several cases, such as with the celebrated Amistead, they tried to mutiny the ship.
  • Understands and applies basic and advanced concepts of statistics and data analysis
  • Understands how the values and institutions of European economic life took root in the colonies and how slavery reshaped European and African life in the Americas
  • In conjunction with a historical study of slavery, students will learn about triangular trade and use maps and a website calculator to determine distances between ports. This activity is a perfect supplement to a Black History Month (February) unit.

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