On this day in 1773, patriots protested the Tea Act by dressing up as Mohawk and Narragansett Indians, boarding ships in the Harbor, and dumping over 90,000 pounds of tea into Boston Harbor. The water of Boston Harbor has been a murky, tannic brown color ever since, unsafe for all but the hardiest of fish and other ocean life.
The protest was in direct response to the Tea Act, which effectively allowed the British East India Company to import tea to the colonies without paying the high duty. This was objectionable to the colonists because their own commercial ventures had to pay the duty, making their tea uncompetitive with the market-priced, untaxed East India Tea.
Guys like John Hancock got really rich smuggling tea into the colonies, and when Hancock’s vessel Liberty was seized, he hired John Adams to defend him. Adams threatened to challenge the Tea Act’s enforceability in the colonies because no representatives of the colonies were elected to Parliament when the Tea Act was passed. Charges against Hancock were dropped and the Liberty released from seizure, but the Act continued to be enforced.
So, Samuel Adams and the Sons of Liberty found themselves with allies like the very wealthy John Hancock. They organized a boycott of East India Tea which turned into a boycott of tea generally. If you asked for a cup of tea in a Boston public house, you’d have been chased out of the building and been lucky not to have taken some punches. Drink your Madeira like a patriot instead! (If it weren’t for bootleg rum and sweet Portuguese wine being smuggled into Boston on a more or less continuous basis, chances are good we’d all still be singing God Save The Queen as our national anthem, because the Sons of Liberty were all half in the bag whenever they pulled any of their stunts. Drunk History, indeed.)
The boycott expanded in late 1773 when an East India Company ship, the Dartmouth, landed in Boston and attempted to unload its cargo, that included tea. Boston’s longshoreman refused to unload the tea. The Governor of Massachusetts Bay Colony, the notorious Thomas Hutchinson, was himself an investor in the East India Company and more to the point, he knew that King George III was personally an investor in the Dartmouth. The profits available for the sale of the tea in Boston were significantly greater than they would be in England, so he ordered that neither the Dartmouth nor any other ship was to leave harbor without unloading the tea for sale. This created a standoff that lasted several weeks, during which two more East India Company ships, the Beaver and the Eleanor, both made landfall in the harbor and found that no longshoreman would unload the tea and when the ships’ crews attempted to, they were threatened with violence.
The captain of the Dartmouth, not having any loyalty one way or another, at this point realized that he could not profitably unload the tea in Boston anyway. He resolved to find somewhere else to sell it, in London if necessary. And other kinds of cargo were not affected by the Sons of Liberty’s embargo, so he had managed to unload and upload other cargo that he also needed to get moving. Time is money in the transoceanic shipping business, which was as true in the late eighteenth century as it is today. So he was actually siding with the Sons of Liberty when he implored Governor Hutchinson, at dinner on December 16, 1773, to let him take his tea elsewhere. Hutchinson refused his request, and the Sons of Liberty soon found out about it. That’s when they decided to honor the Governor’s request, just not the way he had intended.
So, they dressed as Indians and raided the three ships. I’ve two points to make about the raid itself. First, it was no accident that they dressed as Indians. No one could have confused these pasty-white Englishmen for real Mohawks, nor were they intended to. They did so to indicate that they were acting not as subjects of the King but rather as Americans. Had they dressed as the longshoremen that they were — for they were obviously skilled and efficient at their task — they would not have had the same impact that they did. By proclaiming themselves as distinctly American and specifically beyond the authority of the King, they were in effect making the first real declaration of independence for the colonies.
Second, they destroyed a lot of tea. If you’ve ever bought a quantity of loose tea, you know that tea is extremely light. I once got a half-pound of loose tea at a coffee shop and they put so much of it in the plastic bag I was afraid I’d get arrested for being a drug dealer. 90,000 pounds (by weight) of tea had a market value in Boston of about £10,000. Adjusted for inflation as best economists can figure over so vast a period of time, that translates to just shy of two million of today’s dollars. The amount is perhaps more comprehensible when you consider that 90,000 pounds is 45 tons of tea. I wasn’t entirely joking when I said before that they stained Boston Harbor brown. Tea was washing up on shore a month later; and in furtherance of the boycott, the Sons of Liberty organized shore patrols and rowboats to destroy any packets of tea that colonists tried to scavenge from the sea after the event.
Now, the Boston Tea Party today could be described as “terrorism.” It deliberately targeted private property for destruction in protest of a governmental policy. Granted that the governmental policy was wrong-headed and the basis of the objection to the Tea Act was quite legitimate. But today we would no more sanction the smashing of the windshields of new GM cars to protest the government’s bailout of General Motors than law-and-order types in 1773 sanctioned the Boston Tea Party.
The effects of the Boston Tea Party were varied and long-reaching. Most immediately, they produced a vigorous response from London. Parliament passed what came to be called the Intolerable Acts, effectively shutting down Boston as a commercial center. John Hancock, Samuel Adams, and several other leaders of the Sons of Liberty were charged with High Treason, and they went to ground to evade prosecution.
Patriots debated about what to do next, and the point was never really fully settled in anyone’s mind. Benjamin Franklin was a strong advocate of the idea that the East India Company should be reimbursed for the losses it suffered. Others, like the firebrand Samuel Adams, said that the King’s personal involvement in the company and the tea venture rendered the tea forfeit and the colonists owed nothing. It was pretty clear that there was going to be no public money to pay off the owners for a while anyway. A New York merchant offered to pay the money back, but Lord North, the King’s hand-picked leader of Parliament, rebuked the proposal on grounds that would translate into today’s language roughly as “We do not accept money from terrorists.”
On the other hand, Hutchinson came into rebuke; the Boston Tea Party saw his political star begin to fade. His refusal to allow the ships to sail away had cost everyone a lot of money, and he was rebuked by the Crown for his inept handling of the affair. The Tea Act was repealed and tea duties were lifted for any colony that pledged to support the garrisons of the army through their own taxes.
And to this day, tea has never quite recovered from the effects of being identified as a Tory treat, as somehow culturally un-American. Not drinking tea and pointedly consuming other kinds of beverages became a way for any colonist to quietly express solidarity with the independence movement. And the experience of those colonists in having to find other things to drink as a mild morning pick-me-up has endured. Colonists drank concoctions of raspberries and balsamic vinegar, herbal infusions, and most of all, coffee.