In the fall of 1773, seven shipping vessels crossed the North Atlantic Ocean to several ports on the American Coastline. Beneath the stormed beaten decks were six-hundred thousand pounds of tea. Delivering to the ports of Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Charleston, the famous East India Company of London was assigned to transport a large amount of tea. Because of the controversy over the Townshend duties, the colonists refused the tea to be landed on shore. In New York and Philadelphia, the shipping vessels were ordered to turn back toward the Atlantic Ocean. In Charleston, the tea was immediately seized by customs officials. But on the chilly evening of December 16, 1773, three-hundred-and-forty chests of tea were dumped into the harbor of Boston by antagonistic patriots, this rebellion was known as the Boston Tea Party. Significant in the coming of the American Revolution, the Boston Tea Party convinced the colonists that their freedom was in jeopardy. American independence came by revolution, rather than evolution.
Only familiar to the natives in China, tea was to be introduced around the world. In the 1660s, the beverage was not known to countrymen. Englishmen, a century after, soon became addicted to the exotic brew. The birth of tea began in China. The Chinese discovered the leaves of their native tea bush, also referred to as Camellia Sinensis, where it was cured and brewed into a tasty refreshing beverage. The rise of tea drinking had widespread effects to the economy of England. The East India Company grew rich from the control of importation, the National Treasury collected an ever-increasing profit from strict custom duties The potters of Staffordshire, the West Indies’ sugar planters, retailers and proprietors of tea and coffee shops profited from the public’s thirst for tea. In the middle of the eighteenth century, England became a nation of tea drinkers. The upper class enjoyed tea at every social occasion. While socializing with guests, a hostess presents her silver and chin!The middle class enjoyed drinking tea as well, if somewhat pretentiously. Samuel Johnson described himself as “a hardened and shameless tea drinker who has for twenty years diluted his meals with only the infusion of this fascinating plant; whose kettle has scarcely time to cool, who with tea amuses the evening , with tea solaces the midnight, and with tea welcomes the morning” (Labaree p. 3).
The first Europeans to try tea were presumably the Portuguese. No known importations into Europe took place until the Dutch East India Company ventured shipments in 1610. In the beginning of 1667, the English East India Company started to import tea. Twenty years later they entered the business diligently. Once firmly in the trade, the English East India Company quickly surpassed its adversary by purchasing tea directly from Canton, while the Dutch East India Company obtained tea at a greater cost from Chinese vessels sailing to Batavia. Tea was the most profitable line of business for the English East India Company; selling up to four-million pounds a year in the 1760’s. To pay for the purchase of tea, the English East India Company relied on shipments of bullion and the Dutch traded with pepper. The Dutch East India Company, in 1729, established connections with Canton itself. Soon after, the French, Swedish, and Danish merchants formed their own East India Companies. A fierce competition for Chinese tea began.
Importing was not the only way tea reached America. In the late 1760s, high customs duties encouraged the smuggling of tea. Although it is difficult to calculate the amount of tea smuggled into America and determine the total consumption before the Revolution, about fifty-eight percent of tea was smuggled into the continent (Postmus p. 53). Hundreds of Englishmen led dangerous lives transporting tea from France, Holland, and Scandinavia. Most of the illegally smuggled tea came from Holland. The tea smuggling into America reached its climax during the 1750’s and legal trade gradually increased in volume. The Acts of Trade and the falling price of tea are factors that narrowed the smugglers’ margin of profit. The extent of illegal smuggling made a significant contribution to the breakdown of law and order throughout the parts of North America. This breakdown planted the seeds of an approaching revolution. Because of the overflowing amount of tea flourishing in America, Parliament decided to repress the trade into the continent.
The East India Company was well aware of the tea smuggling both at home and in the colonies. Parliament finally enacted a remedy to the situation in 1767. As a five year experiment, the Indemnity Act lowered the inland duty on tea consumed in England. It also allowed full drawback of all custom duties on tea exported into America. In June 1767 Parliament passed the Townshend Act, more famous than the Indemnity Act. The Townshend Act placed a duty of threepence per pound of tea imported into the colonies along with duties on glass, paper, lead, and paint. This halted the trader’s dream of prosperity. The Act was one of the last several attempts by British Parliament to raise a revenue from the American colonies. A statement to raise a revenue in the colonies, proceeds from the duties would support a colonial civil list, and the fact that colonists were paying provisions to collect the duties directly are several principles that caused strong opposition in America. By the spring of 1768 the American public laid the foundation for a protest movement particularly put together against the Townshend Act. The merchants of Boston agreed not to accept goods from Great Britain until all of the revenue acts were nullified. The merchants at both New York and Philadelphia resisted to follow along with the change, disappointing Boston. Despite their cries for help to other towns, Boston patriots soon found out that the ban against tea was to be temporary. After four years of boycotts and petitions for repeal of the Townshend Act, the great protest movement against the Townshend Act ended.
The East India Company, officially known as The United Company of Merchants trading to the West Indies, was one of two of the most powerful financial organizations of Great Britain. The cornerstone of the East India Company’s trade, in the middle of the eighteenth century, was tea. The trade of tea accounted for over ninety percent of its commercial profits. The East India Company not only prospered, but also faced serious financial crisis in 1772. During a depression that left businesses and banking houses stagnant, the Company owed the government one-million pounds. After the drastic financial decline, on August 4, the East India Company gave final approval to send two-thousand chests of tea to four American ports. Only one major problem was not fully considered. The directors of the Company discovered that the Townshend duties in the colonies might introduce economic and political problems.
The city of Boston were extremely upset because of the East India Company’s tea plan. The plan irritated the local patriots and rose a stronger opposition to the shipments. Boston’s Committee of Correspondence sent out warning letters to other towns, calling attention to the dangers of the incoming tea and to seek measures to prevent its taking effect. Bostonians confined their opposition to only verbal criticism. In Philadelphia and New York, protests and meetings had not been organized. After a Boston merchant expressed his surprise, Boston radical patriots decided that the time for action has approached. During the ending weeks of November, the Boston’s press strongly resisted the planned importation. Patriots such as Sam Adams, Alexander McDougall, and Charles Thompson struggled to build an organization and to keep resistance against the tea.
On November 29, the ship Dartmouth entered the Boston with its one-hundred- and-fourteen chests of tea. Along with the Dartmouth was the vessel Eleanor and the brig Beaver carrying a total of ninety-thousand pounds of tea. The inhabitants of Boston demanded that the vessels should be sent back. Legal technicalities had made the situation more complicated than the patriots realized. As long as the vessel remained outside of the Boston harbor, the tea was not liable to the custom duties. Governor Hutchinson made this point:”The Governor, foreseeing the difficulty that must attend this affair, advised the consignees to order the vessels when they arrived, to anchor below the Castle; that if it should appear unsafe to land the tea, they might go to sea again; and when the master came up to town, Mr. Samuel Adams and others, a committee of the town, ordered him, at his peril, to bring the ship up to land the other goods, but to suffer no tea to be taken out. The ship being entered, the Custom-house Officers would not clear her out until the duty on the tea was paid” (Thomas p. 53).
The notion of destroying the East India Company’s tea was the last resort in the minds of Boston patriots. The Sons of Liberty, who had showed up for reasons varying from patriotism to the quest for excitement, and Bostonians boarded the tea ships on the cold December evening. Carrying hatchets to destroy the tea chests, three groups consisting of thirty to sixty participants and a leader were working on destroying the tea. Several men on each tea ship hoisted the chests on deck while another group broke open the chests and poured the tea into the harbor. A large crowd silently approving the damage watched along the wharf. In less than three hours, the gangs had destroyed and dumped all the tea into the harbor. It was made clear that nobody was to keep any tea. One patriot filled the lining of his coat with loose tea and was quickly spotted, stripped of his clothing, and given a beating. Governmental authorities did not interrupt the proceedings during the night of the destruction of the tea. The main factor to the Boston Tea Party’s success was when the tea ships entered the harbor and into the hands of the Boston patriots. “This is the most magnificent Movement of all,” wrote John Adams in his diary the next day. “There is a Dignity, a Majesty, a Sublimity in this last Effort of the Patriots that I greatly admire… so firm, intrepid, and inflexible, and it must have so important Consequences and so lasting, that I cannot but consider it as an Epocha in History…”(Labaree p. 145)
Following the Tea Party , the governor stated that there was no practical means preventing the destruction of the tea. The cargo was offered to be stored, but the Boston patriots refused. To prevent the destruction of the tea, a pass would have been granted to the vessels. But to do so would have disobeyed a law forbidding the return of tea to Great Britain. The patriots’ leaders illustrated the destruction of the tea only came as a last resort. There was no other known way to prevent the landing of the tea and the eventual payment of the duties. In Cambridge, Massachusetts rewards for information about the Tea Party was suggested. However, an attorney general was advised to make an investigation and present his evidence before a grand jury. By the beginning of the new year, the opposition to dutied tea was spread throughout the American continent. The Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Charleston inhabitants focused their concern on the remaining Townshend Duty. The East India Company supported a grand conspiracy forcing Americans to acknowledge Parliament’s power of taxation. For the remaining months of the year there was very little tea in the Boston area. Because of the Boston Tea Party, almost every colony became violent against dutied tea. Although the realization that English tea was still liable to taxation by Parliament, a Philadelphian remarked:”There is not an American from New England to South Carolina who would so far shame his country as to accept this baneful diet at the expense of his liberty. Fleets and armies… will never subdue the noble spirit of Freedom which fills our breasts.. I love Great Britain and rever the King; but it is my duty to hand down Freedom to my posterity, compatible with the rights of Englishmen; therefore no tea duty, nor any unconstitutional tax whatever”(Sutherland p. 117).
The British ministry held a series of conferences to decide what action the government should carry out because of the destruction of tea in Boston. Lord Dartmouth proposed that the King should advise the Governor of Massachusetts Bay to relocate the seat of government to a location in the province least likely to be influenced by the city of Boston. Dartmouth also suggested relocating the Boston custom-house to another port, resulting in the closing of the Boston harbor. The Ministry brought about two policies that automatically took effect. Punishing all of Boston and singling out guilty patriots and charging them with treason. The arrested patriot leaders were transported to England for trial. Francis Rotch, Captain Hall, along with six others recalled the events of the tea crisis to the Council. The eight witnesses did not reveal specific individuals in charge of the groups who destroyed the tea. The Cabinet gave up on prosecuting individuals because they wanted legal officers to take full responsibility for the consequences.
Because of the King’s suggestion to move the custom-house, the Port Bill was passed. The Bill stated that because of the Boston Tea Party, commerce could no longer be safely be carried on there or even the duties collected by customs officers. The custom-house was moved to Plymouth and vessels participating in trade or commerce could not enter the Boston harbor. The purpose of the bill was to end disorder and to secure the dependence of the colonies.
The closing of the Boston port left thousands of citizens unfed, unclothed, and unemployed. The town of Charleston in South Carolina donated grain, flour, sheep, fish, rice, and money to relieve Boston. These contributions could not enter Boston’s port because of the Port bill, instead everything was transported by wagons. The delegates of Congress, on October 14, approved resolutions that were known as the Declaration of Colonial Rights and Grievances. The patriots stated the right they thought they were entitled “by the immutable laws of nature, the principles of the English constitution, and the several charters or compacts.” The Declaration concluded that all existing acts of Parliament that taxed the colonists, including the Townshend Act, were infringements on American rights. United, the American colonies assisted Boston’s resistance to the Coercive Acts and launched their plan of economic retaliation.If the Tea Party had occurred in New York or Philadelphia, its consequences would have differed from that of Boston’s. The destruction of tea in Boston considered it as the seat of American agitation. The Port Act punished all of the citizens of Boston, innocent and guilty alike. In the summer of 1774, Americans everywhere soon realized a time for common action. Twelve months after the Boston Tea Party, the Americans were in rebellion. Furthermore, the destruction of the tea shattered whatever chance there was for a developing federal empire. Acts to duty tea imported into America solely drove the colonies together to further resist the mother country. Firmly placing itself in American history, the Boston Tea Party is one of the major factors in the causing of the Revolution. The colonists’ opposition to the power of the government proved the patriots’ strength. The shipments of tea in New York and Philadelphia were eventually turned back toward Great Britain. In Boston, however, the violent retaliation sparked a period when colonies realized the truth of bureaucratic vivacity. Because the evolution of a continent did not progress, the American nation was to be born in violent rebellion rather than in peace. With two sides more willing to fight than to retreat, war became unavoidable.
Barrow, T.C. Trade and Empire. PrincetonPrinceton University Press, 1967.
Boyer, Clark, et al. The Enduring Vision. LexingtonD.C. Heath and Company, 1993.
Cook, Sarah G. Boston’s History. Computer Software. Compton’s New Media, 1994. IBM.
Postmus, Nicholas V. The East India Company’s Affairs. London, 1946.
Sutherland, Lucy S. A London Merchant. New York: Barnes and Noble, 1962.
Thomas, Peter G. Tea Party to Independence. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1991
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