The Boston Tea Party

By the middle of the 17th century, tea began to arrive in the port of London aboard the East India Company’s ships. The exotic beverage was costly and in the beginning, enjoyed only by the upper classes. At first, the China Drink or Tee, was taken as a major social occasion in the drawing rooms of the wealthy, and was accompanied by fine Chinese porcelains, genteel manners, and rich silver serving pieces. However, within a hundred years, the prices were gradually reduced, and tea became the drink of the masses both at home and in the Colonies.

The East India Company’s importation monopoly made the company rich and powerful as the British Empire had virtually become crazed over tea. Ben Johnson described himself in 1757 as “a hardened and shameless Tea-drinker, who has for 20 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.”

Camellia Sinensis

The leaves of the tea bush, Camellia Sinensis, bear the traits of the soil on which it was grown. Thus, you get a taste of Ceylon, the slopes of the Himalayas, India, Formosa, or Japan with each brew. Teas are made from the dried, smoked, fermented, or cured leaves and result in various types of brews like green tea, black tea, and smoked teas with magical sounding names. Many teas are blends of various types of leaves and have made reputations for tea merchants for hundreds of years.

About a third of the population of colonial America drank tea with about 90 percent of imports coming directly from Great Britain into the ports of New York, Boston, and Philadelphia. Charleston, South Carolina was the only other port that accounted for more than 5,000 pounds of imported tea in 1768. Legitimate importers faced fierce competition from Dutch smugglers working primarily in Maryland, New York, and Pennsylvania.

Duties on tea

In 1767, the British Crown made the last of several attempts to raise revenue from the American colonies through the Townshend Act. This followed the repeal of the Stamp Act in 1766. Named after the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Charles Townshend, the Act levied duties on the importation of paper, glass, lead, painters’ colors, and tea. Most Americans were outraged by the taxes and felt that Parliament had no right to raise revenue in the colonies unless they had representation in Parliament. There followed a movement to boycott the importation and use of British tea, which was by far the most commonly used product being taxed under the new law. Opposition to the Townshend Act became focused almost entirely on the duties for tea.

Importers were tarred and feathered and tea known to have been brought in by smugglers was favored. In June 1772, the revenue cutter Gaspee was burned to the water line in Providence, Rhode Island. Later that year the committees of correspondence were established in Massachusetts, and the propaganda efforts of Samuel Adams and his Boston followers were consistently employed. On Sunday, November 28, 1773, the Dartmouth, one of four ships from London bearing a cargo of tea anchored in Boston Harbor. The news spread rapidly through the town, and a demand was made that the tea be returned to England. Legal problems with Customs officials were many. One regulation stipulated that Customs could seize dutiable goods if payment was not made within 20 days. This deadline would expire on the cargo of the Dartmouth on December 17 and the citizenry was determined that the tea would not be unloaded.

Trouble in Boston harbor

The ship was moved to Long Wharf, followed by a move to Griffin’s Wharf on December 3. By this time, the Eleanor had also arrived in Boston Harbor. The brig Beaver arrived off Boston on December 7, but brought smallpox as well as tea, so it was sent to Rainsford’s Island for cleansing and smoking. She joined her sister ships on the 15th. Another ship, the William grounded in Sandwich on the Cape, and never made it to Boston. As the 20-day deadline approached, the town was very tense. Almost daily meetings ensued, culminating in a December 16 meeting at Old South attended by 5,000 people.

At 5:45 p.m. word came to the hall that Governor Hutchinson refused to issue a pass for the ships to sail back to England with the tea on board. A war whoop was heard from the gallery followed by another from a group in the doorway disguised as Indians. The crowd proceeded to Griffin’s wharf with the Dartmouth and the Eleanor alongside, each with 114 chests of tea on board. The Beaver was anchored nearby loaded with 112 chests. Eyewitnesses reported that between 30 and 60 patriots actively took part in breaking open the chests with hatchets, and shoveled the tea from them into the harbor. The work was finished in less than three hours while crowds watched in silent approval.

Sons of Liberty

Just who was involved in the Boston Tea Party is one of the best kept secrets in American history. Benjamin Woods Labaree, in his book The Boston Tea Party, states that tentative plans were probably made at the all-day session of the Committee of Correspondence.

The committee met at Fanuiel Hall on December 13. Many of the members also belonged to the North End Caucus, the Long Room Club, and the Grand Lodge of the Masons, which probably had a hand in the planning as well. The three major influences, Sam Adams, Joseph Warren, and William Molineux, were all members of the Long Room. As far as active participants go, their identities have been shrouded in secrecy. Almost certainly, some were Masons and others were Sons of Liberty. Best known of the alleged are Paul Revere, William Molineux, and Thomas Young.

Though a squadron of the Royal Navy rode at anchor only a few hundred yards away, no orders to intervene that evening were ever issued and government authorities never interrupted the proceedings. It seems that this event on a cold December night in 1773 lead steadily to the Declaration of Independence just a few years later. According to Labaree, “That American independence ultimately came by revolution instead of by evolution was largely determined by events and attitudes in the months following the arrival of the East India Company’s dutied tea. The American nation was to be born in war rather than in peace, and this fact has had a profound influence on its development ever since.”

Written By: Randall Decoteau
Source: New England Antiques Journal