In the 18th century, slavery was considered a respectable enterprise and the trade fuelled the growing European economy. The slave ships followed a triangular trading route. They left Lancaster laden with manufactured goods such as mirrors, hats, clothes, hawks bells, beads, iron bars, brass pans and copper and brass bracelets for the East coast of Africa.
Lancaster merchants focused almost exclusively on Sierra Leone, the Gambia, and Windward Coast. There the Captain would sell and barter the goods for slaves, many of whom had been captured in the African interior and marched many miles to the coast in shackles and chains. Once the slaves had been purchased they were transported to the colonial plantations and industries in the Caribbean and America where they worked in agriculture, mining, domestic service and various other skilled and unskilled roles.
Lancastrian traders had strong links with South Carolina merchants, and there the Captain would collect exotic products such as rum, sugar, tobacco, cotton, rice and cocoa for transportation back to England. The Lancaster traders also brought mahogany and cedar wood back to supply the town's furniture industry, including the renowned Gillow's cabinet makers.
Not all of Lancaster's trade was based on the slave trade. There was a flourishing bilateral trade, which involved trading directly with the Americas from Lancaster. This involved a different set of goods being imported to the colonies.
Coastal trade along the west coast of England and with Ireland was also important to the town. Other trade focused on the Baltic states and the Iberian peninsula.