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The Slave Trade in the Colonial Economy


In the eighteenth century, just like today, the ocean was crowded with ships transporting goods from one continent to another. While some carried sugar, rum, guns, and an array of other trade goods, others carried human cargo from Africa. While it is well known that white Americans in the southern colonies (and later, states) enjoyed great economic benefits from slavery, it is less well known that even in the northern colonies where there were far fewer slaves, white Americans still benefited from this inhumane system. Trade goods and slaves were transported on ships made in New England from New England lumber, and crewed and captained by New England men. Financiers and insurance agents often invested in shipping companies and industries using or connected to slavery. And anyone involved in the production of a good that would be brought to Africa to trade for enslaved people made their money from the slave trade. On the consumer level, anyone baking with sugar or putting it in their tea benefited from slavery, since enslaved people worked the sugar plantations in the West Indies. Enslaved people raised and harvested rice, tobacco, and cotton, so users and sellers of those products also profited from slave labor.

In this lesson, students will explore these connections between slavery and products across the colonies. This lesson could be used during the study of colonial trades, the global triangular trade, or slavery in general. It also could work as a stand-alone lesson. It works best with middle school students.


In this lesson, students:

  • Determine the links between slavery and the colonial economy.
  • Explain the significance of these links.



  1. Put students into groups of 4 or 5. Give each group a stack of Commodity Cards and have them put the cards into one of two categories: "Involved Slavery" and "Didn't Involve Slavery."
  2. Discuss as a class. Tell students that all of the goods, in one way or another, were connected to slavery. Some were grown or made by enslaved people, others were used in ships that transported enslaved people, and still others were traded for enslaved people in Africa or received alongside enslaved people as part of a trade.
  3. Hand out the "The Slave Trade in the Colonial Economy" reading, and have students read it silently. (Alternatively, select students to take turns reading it aloud.) Then check for understanding by discussing its main points as a class.
  4. Put students into pairs and give each pair one of six Task Cards. Give students enough time to talk and answer the two questions.
  5. Have each pair share with another pair that has a different task card. After a few minutes, have each pair share with another pair with yet a different role. Repeat as many times as necessary.
  6. As an evaluation, have students write a response to the following statement: Explain how slavery impacted the lives of colonists who did not own slaves. You may wish to hand out or project the prompt for students. Specify how long you would like the response to be, based on student abilities.

Lesson Extensions

  • The framers of the Constitution debated ending the slave trade in 1787, but decided to forbid the new government from outlawing it for at least another 20 years. Discuss with students why they may have wanted to delay any decisions about the slave trade. Follow up by telling students that the United States did make the importation of slaves illegal in 1808. However, the domestic slave trade continued, and slavery itself was not ended until the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution was ratified in 1865.
  • Create an interactive Internet-based poster or presentation (for instance, using or showing the connections between the economies of the colonies and slavery. It might include text, pictures, audio, and video. Alternatively, create a poster using posterboard and colored pencils or markers.

This lesson was written by Lynne Zalesak, Houston, TX, and Kelly Pearce, Albuquerque, NM.