Atlantic Slave Trade

Lesson Plans by Matt Campbell

Find these Common Core aligned lesson plans and more like them in our US History Category!

Triangular Trade / Atlantic Slave Trade Lesson Plans

Student Activities for Atlantic Slave Trade Include:

Throughout American history, no institution has divided the country more than slavery. Despite being beacons of democracy and independence for the world to see, many of America’s founders were also slave owners. Understanding the institution of slavery is essential in the study of American history, as it played a major role in America’s economy, society, and political systems. From the first colony of Jamestown, to the ratification of the 13th Amendment, America’s dependence on slave labor remains a contentious topic and has left a permanent scar on America’s past.

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Atlantic Slave Trade Lesson Plans, Student Activities and Graphic Organizers

5 Ws of the Slave Trade

5Ws of the Slave Trade
5Ws of the Slave Trade


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In this activity, students will create a spider map that represents the basic elements of the Slave Trade. For each question provided, they will respond by creating a visualization of their response, along with a brief written description below their representation.

Slave Trade 5 Ws Example

WHAT was the Slave Trade?

The Slave Trade, otherwise known as the Triangular Trade, was the name given to the exchange of goods and slaves between Europe, Africa, and the Americas.

WHO was involved in the Slave Trade?

The Slave Trade included African slavers, African slaves, European traders, American traders, plantation owners, overseers, ship captain's, crew, and more.

WHEN was the Slave Trade?

The Slave Trade occurred between the 16th and 19th centuries. The Slave Trade began when Portuguese sailors began to trade slaves for goods, and many other countries soon followed.

WHERE were most of the slaves sent to?

Roughly 90% of African slaves were sent to the West Indies and South America. Due to the hot climates and demand for sugar and tobacco, these regions became the primary recipients for slaves.

WHY did the Slave Trade exist?

The Slave Trade existed as a way for many white traders and landowners to make a significant amount of money. Greed fueled the Slave Trade, as the more excruciating work forced on these slaves meant more money for all of those involved in the Trade itself.

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Perspectives of the Slave Trade: Frederick Douglass

Perspectives of the Slave Trade
Perspectives of the Slave Trade


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Students will create a storyboard that represents the experiences of an individual who lived during the Slave Trade. This activity will help students to visualize texts related to the Slave Trade and be able to recreate this infamous period in American History.

Teachers may choose the texts, but in the example storyboard, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave has been used. Students will select significant passages from the text, create a visualization, and include the text below each representation.

Extended Activity

To extend this activity, students will read The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano. Students will select powerful passages from Equiano’s work and represent his incredible life through a storyboard. For students that completed both activities, they can also create a T-Chart that compares and contrasts the experiences of Douglass and Equiano.

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Timeline of Slavery in America

Slavery in America Timeline
Slavery in America Timeline


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Students will create a timeline that represents the major events of the Slave Trade. Students may incorporate primary sources or other research from class to represent these events. Students can focus on the events that occurred in Africa leading up to the Slave Trade or focus on America’s role.

Slavery Timeline Example


First Slaves Arrive in America

A ship arrived in Jamestown, Virginia with twenty slaves on board. This would mark the beginning of the long and painful story of slavery in America.

Massachusetts Legalizes Slavery

Massachusetts became the first colony to officially legalize slavery. Interestingly enough, Massachusetts would later become a major advocate for abolition.

The Fugitive Slave Act

The United States Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Act. This law gave slave owners the legal right to have their slave returned to them if they were to escape.

The Cotton Gin is Invented

Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin. The cotton gin was a mechanism that quickly removed the seeds from the fibers of cotton. The cotton gin allowed cotton to be produced faster and cheaper, which resulted in a massive demand for slave labor.

Uncle Tom's Cabin is Published

Harriet Beecher Stowe published Uncle Tom's Cabin. This book quickly entered the national spotlight as it described the horrific realities of slavery. This book was seen as a major catalyst for the abolition movement in America.

Kansas-Nebraska Act

Congress passed the Kansas-Nebraska Act. Under this law created by Stephen A. Douglas, new states would use popular sovereignty to determine if the state would have slavery. This lead to a violent clash in Kansas, and is seen as a major cause of the Civil War.

Civil War Begins

In 1861, the issue of slavery became much more than an issue in Kansas, and it erupted into a four-year-long war between the Northern and Southern states. Over 600,000 deaths would occur before the North finally won the Civil War.

13th Amendment Ratified

Congress ratified the 13th Amendment, which outlawed slavery. This marked the end of the infamous history of slavery in America, and began the long road towards civil rights.

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Slave Trade Vocabulary

Slave Trade Vocabulary
Slave Trade Vocabulary


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Students will create a storyboard that will define and represent Slave Trade vocabulary to assist them in the comprehension of the topic as a whole. Students define the term and create a corresponding visualization of each defined vocabulary term.

Slave Trade Example Terms

  • Triangle Trade
  • Middle Passage
  • Slavery
  • Overseer
  • Plantation
  • Slave Codes
  • Cash Crop
  • Dehumanization
  • Racism
  • Indentured Servant
  • Mercantilism
  • Runaway
  • Slave Auction
  • Stereotype
  • Creole
  • Fugitive

Cash Crop
A cash crop is an agricultural term for any crops grown with the intent to sell for profit. During the height of the Slave Trade, cotton, rice, sugar, indigo, and tobacco were the major cash crops in America.

An overseer was an individual who worked on slave plantations and was responsible for the productivity of slaves. Overseers were infamous for their brutality and intimidation of slaves to ensure a maximum yield of profit.

The Middle Passage
The Middle Passage is the term used to describe the slave ship's voyage from Africa to America. This voyage was infamous for the brutal conditions and high death toll among the captives.

Slave Codes
Slave codes were a series of laws throughout Colonial America that restricted the movement and actions of slaves. These codes deterred slaves from running away or rebelling against their masters, as death was a common punishment.

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Triangular Trade

The Triangular Trade
The Triangular Trade


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In this activity, students will create a storyboard depicting the chain of events that transpired throughout the Triangular Trade. Students will represent the interactions and exchanges in Africa, Europe, and America and describe what each continent imported and exported throughout this trading process.

The Triangular Trade

  1. British Goods Sent to Africa
    A cargo ship would leave Great Britain with valuable goods such as rum, furniture, weapons, cloth, salt, or other goods. The ship would set sail for Africa.

  2. Goods Exchanged for Slaves
    The ship would arrive in Africa with the cargo from Britain. The goods would then be exchanged for African slaves. The slaves would then be tightly packed onto the ship.

  3. Middle Passage Across the Atlantic
    Slaves would then be confined to horrific conditions while on the slave ships. It is estimated that up to 25% of slaves died during the voyage due to disease, starvation, injury, or suicide.

  4. Slaves Arrive in America
    For slaves who survived the Middle Passage, they would be unloaded at a trade port in exchange for rum, tobacco, molasses, or other goods.

  5. Slave Auctions
    Once the slaves were unloaded, they would be separated from their families and auctioned off to plantation owners and others who desired a slave. Most slaves would never see their families again.

  6. Ship Returns to Britain
    The ship would then return to Britain with the rum, molasses, tobacco, or other goods exchanged for the slaves. The Triangle would be complete, and once again the ship would return back to Africa for more slaves and goods.

Extended Activity: For an extended activity, students can use the information from the activity above and represent them through the use of primary source documents. Students may use either a single individual's perspective from a trading ship, or use a variety of resources from each continent. Students will include parts of their research into a storyboard with representations of each primary source.

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The Atlantic Slave Trade

The institution of slavery has existed for thousands of years; most great societies had, and depended on, slaves. Ancient Egypt, Greece, Rome, Byzantium, China, and Japan are only a few places where slavery had once been legal. As European explorers discovered new lands in the fifteenth century, they gathered treasures in the forms of spices, minerals, goods, and people. Some Europeans thought themselves greatly superior to other peoples, and subverted others into servitude, particularly into manual labor roles. Without needing to pay their laborers, plantation owners were able to become extremely wealthy. As the demand for slave labor increased over the years in the New World, the Slave Trade exploded. Capturing, buying, and selling slaves became a flourishing economic industry.

Students will research the Slave Trade, one of the most significant institutions in American history. Students will develop an understanding of how the Slave Trade impacted America from before its founding to after the Civil War. Students will create storyboards that will help them understand the role of the Triangular Trade, analyze the the slave ship experiences of the Middle Passage, and connect slavery’s individual impacts to the broader context of American history.

Essential Questions for the Atlantic Slave Trade

  1. What was the triangular trade?
  2. What was the Middle Passage?
  3. What kind of treatment did slaves receive?
  4. How did the Atlantic Slave Trade impact American history? American society?

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•   (English) The Slave Trade   •   (Español) El Comercio de Esclavos   •   (Français) La Traite des Esclaves   •   (Deutsch) Der Sklavenhandel   •   (Italiana) La Tratta Degli Schiavi   •   (Nederlands) Slavenhandel   •   (Português) O Tráfico de Escravos   •   (עברית) עבד הסחר   •   (العَرَبِيَّة) تجارة الرقيق   •   (हिन्दी) दास - व्यवसाय   •   (ру́сский язы́к) Работорговля   •   (Dansk) Slavehandel   •   (Svenska) Slavhandeln   •   (Suomi) Orjakaupan   •   (Norsk) Slavehandel   •   (Türkçe) Köle Ticareti   •   (Polski) Handel Niewolnikami   •   (Româna) Sclavul Comerț   •   (Ceština) Obchodu s Otroky   •   (Slovenský) Slávny Obchod   •   (Magyar) A Rabszolga-kereskedelem   •   (Hrvatski) Trgovina Robom   •   (български) Славата Търговия   •   (Lietuvos) Prekyba Vergais   •   (Slovenščina) Slave Trade   •   (Latvijas) Vergu Tirdzniecību   •   (eesti) Orjakaubanduse