Long characterized as the Triangle Trade—a name derived by drawing straight lines between Europe, Africa, and the New World, the areas that participated in large-scale colonial era trading—it is more accurate to characterize it as a circular trade. Driven by ocean and wind currents in the Atlantic basin, the wooden, wind-powered European ships of the era found it safest and most expedient to sail to America by going south past the Bight of Benin in western Africa. They picked up trans-Atlantic currents to the vicinity of the shoulder of Brazil and then followed streams northward to New World destinations. From the New World, the Gulf Stream crossing from the area of Newfoundland toward Ireland and northern England carried ships eastward, where southbound currents would allow navigation back to European ports. Trade followed this large circle, bringing raw materials to Europe from America, manufactured goods to Africa, and slaves back to America. This system dominated the colonial economy and only changed with the invention of steamships that could actually travel in straight lines.

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