It Wasn't About the Tea…
Compiled by Jennifer Baker, DAR Vesuvius Furnace
There are a great many misconceptions about events throughout history and the Boston Tea Party is certainly no exception. The Boston Tea Party was a political protest that occurred on December 16, 1773, at Griffin's Wharf in Boston, Massachusetts.
American colonists, frustrated and angry at Britain for imposing “taxation without representation,” dumped 342 chests of tea, imported by the British East India Company into the harbor. Additionally, there was a perception of a monopoly with the East India Company supplying colonists with tea at a premium rate.
The confusion is partly timing and partly semantics. Boston’s Sons of Liberty were absolutely responding to the British Parliament’s passage of the Tea Act of 1773 when they planned the Boston Tea Party. And with a name like the Tea Act, it’s fair to think that the law was all about raising taxes on tea. The truth is that tea imports to the American Colonies had been taxed by the Crown since the passing of the 1767 Townshend Revenue Act, along with taxes on other commodities like paper, paint, oil, and glass. The difference is that all of those other import taxes were lifted in 1770, except for tea, a pointed reminder of the King’s control over his far-off subjects.
Another popular notion is that the Boston Tea Party featured angry colonists who “stuck it to King George” by boarding British ships and dumping crate loads of the King’s precious tea into the Boston Harbor. But that story’s not true on two accounts. First, the ships that were boarded by the Sons of Liberty, the Beaver, the Dartmouth, and the Eleanor, were built and owned by Americans. Two of the ships were primarily whaling vessels. After delivering valuable shipments of sperm whale oil and brain matter to London in 1773, the ships were loaded with tea enroute to the American Colonies. Second, the tea destroyed by the night raiders was not the King’s. It was private property owned by the East India Company and transported on privately contracted shipping vessels. The value of the 342 chests of squandered tea would total nearly $2 million in today’s money.
Another point, the tea was Chinese, not Indian, and lots of it was green. The East India Company exported a lot of goods from India in the 18th century, including spices and cotton, but it obtained almost all of its tea from China. Trading ships traveled from Canton to London loaded down with Chinese tea, which was then exported to British colonies the world over. The East India didn’t install its first tea plantations in India until the 1830s.
Another surprising tidbit is that 22 percent of the tea that the patriots sent to the bottom of Boston Harbor was green tea. According to the Boston Tea Party Ships and Museum, Thomas Jefferson and George Washington were fans of a particular Chinese green tea variety called “hyson.”
The Tea Party, itself, didn’t incite revolution. There’s this idea that the Boston Tea Party was the rallying cry that galvanized the colonies for revolution, but many strong opponents of British rule, George Washington among them, denounced acts of lawlessness and violence, especially against private property. While the Tea Party itself didn’t mobilize colonial Americans, it was Parliament’s reaction to it that did. In 1774, the UK passed what are known as the Intolerable Acts or the Coercive Acts, a series of punitive measures meant to teach the rebellious colonists who was boss.
As a result of the Boston Tea Party, the British shut down Boston Harbor until all of the 342 chests of British East India Company tea were paid for. Many of these sanctions were levied on the Massachusetts Colony and Boston itself, including the closing of Boston Harbor, replacing Boston’s elected leaders with those appointed by the Crown, and forcing the quartering of British troops in private homes. While taxation without representation was a dangerous precedent in and of itself, these acts were conflicting with the Massachusetts charter by taking away rights that Massachusetts had previously enjoyed. As uncomfortable as some colonists might have been with the Tea Party action itself, they were far more uncomfortable with the authoritarian reaction by Parliament. In response to the Coercive Acts, the First Continental Congress met in 1774 and Jefferson wrote “A Summary View of the Rights of British America.” Revolution was officially in the air.
The Sons of Liberty famously masqueraded in Native American dress on the night of the Tea Party raid, complete with tomahawks and faces darkened with coal soot. But were they really trying to pass themselves off as local Mohawk or Narragansett tribesmen? No, because it was customary in 18th-century England for protestors to “cross-dress” in one way or another—blackening their faces, dressing as women, or even Catholic priests—to create an atmosphere of misrule. Secondly, the Sons of Liberty were cashing in on the image of the Native American as an independent spirit, the epitome of anti-colonialism. And third, there was the practical reason for masking their identities. They were fully aware that they were committing a crime.
The name party wasn’t “coined” to describe this event until the 1829 obituary of Nicholas Campbell – one of the enactors or “ever memorable (members of the) Boston Tea Party.” In most of those early mentions, the word “party” didn’t refer to a celebratory event with cakes and balloons, but to a party or group of men.
After Boston, there were other ‘tea parties’ up and down the eastern seaboard – Philadelphia PA (December 1773), New York (April 1774), Chestertown MD (May 1774), York ME (September 1774), Charleston SC (November 1774), Annapolis MD (October 1774), Edenton NC (October 1774), Greenwich NJ (December 1774), and Wilmington NC (March 1775). While many of these protests were led by men – both NC protests were led by women.
The DAR Vesuvius Furnace Chapter will be commemorating these tea parties by hosting a more traditional one at Vesuvius Vineyards on December 11th from 2-4 pm. Proceeds from the Christmas Tea event will fund historical preservation projects in eastern Lincoln County. Tickets are available on Eventbrite. For more information call Jennifer Baker at 704-607-5901.