As nations developed overseas colonies, they adopted principles of mercantilism: the belief that there was a finite amount of wealth in the world, and whoever controlled the most wealth and resources would hold the most power. In particular, wealth was measured by the amount of gold and silver a country possessed. Thus, mercantilism was driven by a desire to build strong and self-sufficient economies. Nations wanted to maintain favorable balances of trade, meaning they would export (sell) more than they would import (buy).
Colonies were central to the mercantile system. They provided markets in which nations could sell goods in addition to resources and raw materials (including precious metals).
The Columbian Exchange–the transfer of plants, animals, people, technology, disease, and culture between the Old and New Worlds–created new patterns of global trade and provided Europe, Asia, and Africa with important new trade goods, such as potatoes, tobacco, corn, and tomatoes. 🌽
Increased trade also contributed to the development of consumer culture. More Europeans demanded and could afford what used to be luxuries only enjoyed by the wealthy. Goods such as silk, sugar, chocolate, coffee, tobacco, and rum became popular among almost all social classes. ☕
The demand for luxury goods and the desire to acquire precious metals and resources led to the establishment of large-scale plantations and mining operations, which relied on the labor of enslaved people from Africa to produce sugar, tobacco, cotton, crops, and precious metals for export to Europe. In a cyclic nature, the profits generated by the trade in these goods were used to purchase more enslaved people and to acquire more goods, perpetuating a relationship between consumer culture and the slave trade.
Unfortunately, the increased demand for consumer culture further increased the trans-Atlantic slave trade, as European traders on the West African Coast sold enslaved Africans to the New World in order to produce commodities like sugar and tobacco. Europeans previously relied on enslaved Native Americans to fulfill roles of hard labor, but Native American populations were decimated by disease and conflict brought by European colonizers. To satisfy the demand for free labor, enslaved people were taken from various parts of Africa and transported across the Atlantic Ocean in brutal conditions to work on plantations, mines, and other labor-intensive projects.
Europeans benefitted from the Triangular Trade, named for the shape of its transatlantic trade routes, a system of trade that involved the exchange of goods and people between Europe, Africa, and the Americas. It served as a major source of wealth and power for European nations. At its core, the Triangular Trade involved the exchange of European goods, such as textiles, weapons, and alcohol, for enslaved Africans, who were then transported to the Americas and sold to work on plantations and mines. Raw materials and goods such as sugar, tobacco, and coffee were then sent from the Americas to Europe.
The Middle Passage referred to the overseas journey from Africa to the New World, which was considered the most dangerous and brutal aspect of the slave trade. Packed into cramped ships, enslaved Africans were subjected to disease, starvation, and abuse for several weeks to several months, which led to high mortality and suffering. The Middle Passage represented one of the most traumatic experiences in the history of the transatlantic slave trade, and it had a lasting impact on the enslaved people, their descendants, and the societies that were built on their forced labor.
Europe's commercial and agricultural revolutions emerged as a result of colonization and slavery. Importing and transplanting agricultural products from the Americas increased Europe's available food supply, leading to population growth. Moreover, the raw materials, finished goods, laborers, and markets for Europe's industrial and commercial enterprises fundamentally influenced changes in Europe's economies. 🪙
However, while Europeans benefitted and proliferated economic mercantilism, the production of crops and the garnering of raw materials came at a heavy cost for the enslaved. The transatlantic slave trade is one of the most heinous crimes in human history, resulting in the deaths of millions of people and the forced displacement of millions more. It continues to have a lasting impact on the societies of Africa, the Americas, and the Caribbean, and on the descendants of enslaved people who still face discrimination and inequality today.