The Atlantic slave trade involved the large-scale deportation of West African slaves to sugar plantations on the other side of the Atlantic.

Why was it more profitable to do that, rather than to grow sugar in West Africa?

West Africa has about the right latitude and rainfall for sugar production.

  • Reference : Triangular Trade – J... Nov 28 '17 at 17:22
  • Maybe because West Africa was not colonized and America already was..? – Greg Nov 29 '17 at 0:29

In short, Brazil and Caribbean Isles were easy to colonize and suited to the culture of the sugar cane.

This related question will provide most of the explanation why Africa was harder to colonize, and less welcoming to Europeans.

Moreover, it is far easier to control slaves outside of Africa. They can't hide in the local population.

Also, sugar became more common and sugar beets were discovered and used. West Africa was mainly colonized by France, which was the first world productor of sugar beets. So the mainland had little interest in promoting it.

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    More suited to the culture of sugar cane than West Africa? – Colin Nov 27 '17 at 14:39
  • may have meant to say 'cultivation' – Jeutnarg Nov 27 '17 at 16:29
  • @ColinZwanziger Some answers have pointed the interests of Islands in sugar cane cultivation, so I won't repeat that. The main reason sugar cane wasn't done in Africa, is because the Europeans owned land proper to this cultivation in America. So it is far more logical to plant on your suitable lands than to invade heavily populated countries abroad. It would have cost far more money, and it may not have been feasible. Invading a country by sea is incredibly hard. European powers only got a real military supremacy in the 18th century. – xrorox Nov 28 '17 at 10:53
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    @ColinZwanziger At that point, gunfire and cannons became reliable and powerful enough. Before that point in history, black power weapons were mainly used because it was cheaper than training archers. Don't forget that up to mid 19th century, many battles were won by melee fight. It was a French speciality. Some british armies were defeated by Zulus in the 19th century. That proves that invading Africa, was not a country ride. – xrorox Nov 28 '17 at 10:59

Many Native Americans had died of Old World disease, Africans did not

When the Europeans showed up in the New World, they brought disease that killed a large portion of the local people (60%? 80%? 90%? ). This meant, from the European standpoint, that in the 1500's and 1600's, New World land was available for the taking.

West Africa, on the other hand, had a high population density. Europeans were militarily not strong enough in the 1700's even to take and control African land; it would have been too expensive to defeat the Africans in war to take the land, and the Europeans would have had difficulty in holding the land as well. It just wasn't feasible to steal African land.

Why didn't the Africans grow sugar and export it to Europe? Cash crops and subsistence farming are a different enterprise; with its higher population, subsistence farming was widespread in Africa, so once again, there was not enough land available to do cash cropping.

Edit: Mayo aptly points out that Europeans had issues with Tropical Africans diseases, especially Malaria. This is an excellent point, although yellow fever killed plenty of Europeans in the New World.

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    Not to mention that Africa had malaria. Quinine wasn't isolated until the 1820s and mass distribution of Quinine didn't start until the 1850s. – Mayo Nov 27 '17 at 17:35

The cultivation of sugar was more profitable on islands. The plantations in the "Caribbean" were on islands. Until the mid-16th century at least, production from "Brazil," largely came from Santa Catarina Island (or coastal strips on the mainland with the properties discussed below). On the other hand, "West Africa" had relatively few islands except for e.g. the Canary Islands, and seaports on the "continent" were not generally convenient to the best growing lands. There are several reasons why this is important:

First, sugar is heavy relative to its value. It is hard and costly to transport, especially by land. The location of plantations on islands (or very near the coast) meant that transport distances overland to a a seacoast were relatively small. Second, and related, sugar needed to be "milled" before moving, and importing these mills was much easier on an island. Third, it was much harder for slaves to escape from an island than from a mainland. This was doubly true if they looked "different" from free people, as was the case in the New World, than would have been the case in and around Africa. Finally, it is much easier to defend an island against hostile "natives" than it would be to defend a plantation located on say, the West African mainland.


As two commenters pointed out, it's true that sugar in Brazil was also produced on coastal strips rather than islands, but the real issue was easy "access to the sea," which the west African sugar-growing areas often did not have. There was a "Gold Coast" and an Ivory Coast" but no "Sugar Coast."

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    "And production from "Brazil," largely came from Santa Catarina Island" - Santa Catarina Island was certainly not an important place in the cultivation of sugar cane. The main production of sugar cane came from "Pernambuco" (which at the time included modern Alagoas) and Bahia. And it came from the mainland, not from islands. – Luís Henrique Nov 27 '17 at 18:53
  • @LuísHenrique: According to the Wikipedia link, "By 1540, there were 800 cane sugar mills in Santa Catarina Island and there were another 2,000 on the north coast of Brazil, Demarara, and Surinam." I revised my comment to restrict it to the mid 16th century. I also included a parenthetical "(or coastal strips on the mainland with the properties discussed below)." – Tom Au Nov 27 '17 at 18:58
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    From histclo.com/act/work/slave/am/cou/bra/sabs-boom.html: One report suggests that Santa Catalina Island had some 800 operating sugar cane mills (1540). [...] The Brazilian Nordeste became the core of the colony's economy and society. There were also plantations on Santa Catarina Island in the south which was originally founded by the Spanish. The modern states of Pernambuco, Paraiba, Bahia, and Sergipe became the center of Brazil’s sugarcane industry. – Luís Henrique Nov 27 '17 at 19:30
  • 1540 is a very early date; the effective colonisation of the country started about 1530. Then maybe Santa Catarina (though 800 mills is an exaggeration; I don't think there were as many mills in Brazil as a whole up to the 18th century) had some importance in the trade; but it was soon dislodged by the mainland exploits in the Northeast (and mainland they were; islands such as Fernando de Noronha or Itamaracá weren't the main producers), – Luís Henrique Nov 27 '17 at 19:39
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    Islands are key because slaves can't easily escape from an island. Cultivating sugar cane was basically a death sentence. Much harder to implement on a mainland. – TheMathemagician Dec 1 '17 at 12:56

Each of the current answers is excellent, but is only a partial answer. Another piece of the answer that I'm surprised hasn't already been mentioned is the Atlantic triangle slave trade: "Molasses to rum to slaves."

While it is certainly true that the Carribean is well-suited for the cultivation of sugar and that it lends itself to slave-based plantations, due to the difficulty of slaves escaping and fading into the local population, every product needs a market, or there's no profit to be made.

In the "molasses to rum to slaves" triangle, the market for Carribean sugar was in the Americas (specifically, New England); it was less expensive to ship it to New England from the Carribean.

Additionally, there was demand in Africa for goods from New England, specifically rum (produced from Carribean molasses) and textiles. Without each of these legs in place, there would have been less profit in the others.

A strictly African model of sugar production may well have been profitable. However, with the addition of these two additional legs it became obscenely profitable.


@guenthmonstr made an excellent point in the comments that I wanted to address, but was unable to do within the character limit of the comment field, so I'm updating my answer to address it.

The comment was:

Triangle slave trade is a result, not a cause. A triangle need only develop where there are 3 geographically dispersed factors of production. In this case: plantation friendly land, slave labor, and manufacturing. If plantation friendly land had been available in Africa, then Africa might have simply exported molasses or rum to Europe or New England in exchange for manufactured goods.

My response:

I agree with everything you say, with the following qualifications:

  1. You state that the "triangle slave trade is a result, not a cause." You are correct that this trade triangle was the result of the relative location of the three products. But the OP's question was about why sugar plantations in the West Indies were more profitable than those in Africa, and it is a contributing factor to that profitability.

  2. The profitability of a trade triangle is as much about the location of the products relative to one another as the products themselves. If either the product or location is wrong, there's little or no profit. In this case, both were ideal to maximize profit. Again, it's a result of the location, but a contributing factor to profits.

  3. You are absolutely correct that a system of African sugar plantations might well have been profitable, and that the African demand for textiles and other goods might have been satisfied from Europe. However, by this point in history, the British Empire was dominating production of textiles, and the colonies in New England were dominating that production, due to their close proximity to the raw materials. Transshipment of these products through Europe would have added to their cost, impacting the overall profitability of the trade. Trade would still have been profitable, but probably not as profitable.

Historically, when it can be made to work, a triangle trade always has a greater profit than two-way trade, due to the fact that the initial investment at any point is multiplied not once, but multiple times before returning its yield to the investor.

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    Triangle slave trade is a result, not a cause. A triangle need only develop where there are 3 geographically dispersed factors of production. In this case: plantation friendly land, slave labor, and manufacturing. If plantation friendly land had been available in Africa, then Africa might h ave simply exported molasses or rum to Europe or New England in exchange for manufactured goods. – guenthmonstr Nov 28 '17 at 21:20

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