The triangle trade and the colonial table, sugar, tea, and slavery

Global trade in a cup of tea

Covered sugar bowl, c. 1745, silver, 11.5 x 9.1 cm (Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art)

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Sugar Bowl

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Key points

  • The history of sugar stretches from India and the Middle East, where it was first grown, to the New World, where it was cultivated by Christopher Columbus and other Europeans. Until the 16th century, when Europe began importing sugar from the Americas, sugar was reserved for the elite in Europe, because it was both rare and expensive.
  • A global trade developed around sugar in the 15th and 16th centuries, bolstered by the growing popularity of tea, coffee, chocolate, and punch in Europe. Its expanded production in the New World depended on the labor of enslaved people, many abducted in Africa, to harvest and process sugar cane. Molasses, a byproduct of sugar production, was an important commodity in the triangle trade.
  • When tea imported from China became popular in Europe and the Americas in the 1600s, many of the objects associated with the tea service were inspired by objects also imported from China (in this case, the silver sugar bowl is formed in the shape of a Chinese rice bowl). The sugar itself was part of trade exchanges between Africa, the Americas (and the West Indies), and Europe.
  • Both the form and the function of this bowl reflect the elite status of its owner. The use of silver for this bowl reflects the expensive nature of sugar, even in the 18th century;  its delicate design suggests that it was the work of a master silversmith.

Go deeper

See this object on view at The Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art

Use primary sources to learn about the slave trade

Read about the slave trade and African society

Learn more about slavery and the sugar industry

Read about the popularity of tea, coffee, and chocolate in the colonial United States

Learn more about silversmithing in the colonial period

Learn about the use of silver in the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries

Watch a video about the making of a Roman silver cup


More to think about

This sugar bowl was handmade. In the 21st century, most of the objects in our world are mass produced. Do we look at handmade objects differently now than we did in the preindustrial era?


Smarthistory images for teaching and learning:

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Explore the diverse history of the United States through its art. Seeing America is funded by the Terra Foundation for American Art and the Alice L. Walton Foundation.