Transatlantic Trade, A Symbiotic Relationship


Crates full of rice slip and slide across the floorboards as the ship rocks back and forth. The  ship looks insignificant in the vastness of the ocean. Air scented with tobacco wafts through the cracks in the ceiling of the hold. A small cry breaks with the crashing of the waves as child treated like another barrel or crate full of cargo wonders about his fate. These are the sights, smells, and sounds of the transatlantic trading routes of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. 

Highly profitable triangular trade routes were established between Europe, Africa, and the New World, which consisted of the Caribbean and the American colonies. This is one of the earliest examples of globalization as people on three continents separated by thousands of miles, with hundreds of different cultures, and distinct geographies worked together to establish the transatlantic trade. The symbiotic relationships that were formed spawned new inventions and developed many lands. Profits depended on this mutually beneficial trading system, but for millions of people, these relationships brought devastation and brutality, a legacy that humans are still wrestling with today. 

Overview of the Lesson

Students will grapple with the various aspects of transatlantic trade from the commodities traded, to the various routes, and to the perpetrators and victims of this trade. This is a two-day lesson which will explain why a triangular trade was established, how it worked, and the consequences of this trade network. There will be particular focuses on the production of rice and its role in transatlantic trade and black labor. Students will look at both primary and secondary sources including maps, prints, firsthand accounts, and pictures of artifacts from the triangular trade. Students will also participate in an online web-quest to explore the numerous facets of this history. A  PowerPoint presentation is an essential component of the plan that explains transatlantic trade, and it uses rice as an example of how this trade functioned.

Learning Objectives

  • Students should be able to explain what transatlantic trade was in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries including a description of triangular trade.
  • Students should be able to map out which continents contributed which commodities.
  • Students should be able to explain the symbiotic relationship between continents using rice and black slave labor as an example.
  • Students should be able to identify the various roles that participants played, and they should be able to interpret their opinions.



Day One (45-60 minute class)

  1. In order to prepare for class print out the activity slides 14-23 of the PowerPoint presentation. These will be used in an activity.
  2. Introduce the subject of transatlantic trade to your students.  Use the PowerPoint presentation as your guide, and instruct students to take notes. Engage the students as you use the PowerPoint by asking them leading questions. On slide 9 there is a journal prompt.  Give students 5 minutes to complete the prompt.  Then share as a class.  Next, proceed with the rest of the PowerPoint to slide 12. (20-30 minutes)
  3. Assign students to groups of two or three, and hand out one of the activity slides to each group. Slide 13 provides instructions for the activity.  Give each group 3-5 minutes to complete the activity. Then go over the slides asking each group to share their observations and complete the PowerPoint presentation. (20-25 minutes)
  4. Assign homework. Hand out the web-quest worksheet and instruct students that they are to navigate the Understanding Slavery Initiative website and complete the worksheet. (5 minutes) 


Day Two (45-60 minute classes)

  1. Prior to the start of class set up stations around the room using the Stations Set-up and Worksheet document as a guide.
  2. Divide students into groups of two or three and place each group at a station. Provide each student with the handout that contains a series of questions for each station. Instruct students that they are to answer these questions in their notebooks and that they should clearly mark their responses. Give 3-5 minutes per station and then have the students rotate to another station. This will take the entire class period.  If time permits, or you would like to take part of another class, debrief the activity as a class. Feel free to remove stations if time does not permit you to use all of the stations.
  • Many of the stations require the use of computers so that students can listen to accounts, watch a video, or use an interactive map. If you do not have access to the necessary computers in class, you can select the sound clips or videos and complete the activities as a single class unit on one computer. If you do not have use of a computer in the classroom, you may be able to use an MP3 player since the sound files can be downloaded directly from the Understanding Slavery website.


  1. You can collect the web-quest worksheet and the responses to the stations activity and assess those.
  2. Olaudah Equiano wrote a biography detailing his life as a slave. (Two sound clips are from his account.) This book became very important to the abolitionist movement because it let colonists and Europeans know the true brutality of slavery.
  3. Ask students to imagine they are on a slave ship or are working on a rice or sugar plantation and have a chance to tell their stories. Ask them to write an account of their lives for the abolitionist movement detailing what life is like for them and how they feel based on the knowledge gained in the last two classes.
  4. This lesson plan looked at the sugar, rice, and black slave trade triangle of the Atlantic. Ask students to research and prepare a report, presentation board, or PowerPoint on another triangular route.
  5. Ask students about commodities they own and use in their own lives. Are there any that were made or traded using use slave labor or un-just practices? Ask them to research companies whose products they own and report to class on their practices. Ask them to include if they are willing to continue to support these companies by purchasing their products. Ask them to write in their journals or in a writing prompt how they can learn from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries’ trading practices and apply what they learned to their own lives.