Boston Tea Party

boston tea party
An artist’s depiction of the Boston Tea Party, 1773

The Boston Tea Party was a dramatic incident in December 1773 that followed Parliament’s passing of the Tea Act, legislation designed to circumvent the colonial trade in smuggled tea. Frustrated by what they saw as another attempt to raise revenue from the colonies, gangs of Bostonians boarded cargo vessels anchored in the city’s harbour and dumped large amounts of tea into the water. This wanton destruction of private property caused outrage in Britain and led to the passing of the Coercive Acts several months later.

Thirsty colonists

Before the revolution, the American colonies were large consumers of tea, importing more than 1 million pounds (500,000 kilograms) each year. The beverage was consumed in every corner of the 13 colonies while tea culture was particularly strong in the cities and towns.

The colonial affection for tea was inherited from the British, who had themselves taken up the beverage in the second half of the 1600s. The British love of tea grew quickly and led to an explosion of trade with China. By the 1760s, the British were exporting 6 million pounds of tea from Asia, the Dutch more than 4 million pounds.

It was this Dutch tea that was more widely used in the 13 colonies, purchased and shipped in in breach of the Navigation Acts. The reason was simple: price. British tea, while superior in quality, was significantly more expensive. Smuggled Dutch tea could be purchased for around three shillings a pound while British tea cost at least four shillings, sometimes more.

The Tea Act

In Britain, the vast majority of tea was imported and traded by the British East India Company. In 1770, the East India Company was the largest company in the world, trading in numerous commodities across Europe, India and Asia. It was integral to Britain’s imperial economy, virtually running several colonies on behalf of the Crown.

By the start of 1773, the East India Company was carrying more than £1 million in debt, thanks chiefly to mismanagement and corruption. It was also housing 18 million pounds of unsold tea. With the situation desperate, members of the government and the company began scrambling for a solution.

The result was the Tea Act, passed by the government of Lord North in May 1773. Under the terms of this act, the East India Company would be authorised to ship 500,000 pounds of tea directly to the American colonies. The Tea Act raised no new tax or duty but it did require the company to pay the threepenny-a-pound charge still in place from the Townshend duties.

Shipping and selling directly to the colonies eliminated costs and markups, allowing British East India tea to be sold more cheaply than smuggled Dutch tea. As a bonus, the colonists would end up paying one of the duties they claimed to despise.

Colonial opposition

In America, Loyalist agents were hired as consignees to offload the East India Company tea and arrange for its distribution to local merchants. Opposition to the Tea Act was strong from the outset, however, and many of these consignees were intimidated into resigning.

Even before the first tea ship had arrived, colonial writers were railing against the Tea Act. One was John Dickinson, who urged his countrymen not to participate in offloading or handling the hated British product:

“Resolve therefore… that no man will receive the tea, no man will let his Stores or suffer the vessel that brings it to moor at his wharf, and that if any person assists at unlading, landing or storing it, he shall ever after be deemed an enemy to his country and never be employed by his fellow citizens… It is not to be supposed that a gentleman soldiers will submit to the indignity of becoming a porter to the East India Company.”

On December 12th, residents in Lexington, Massachusetts – later to become the first battlefield of the Revolutionary War – held a public meeting where British tea was voluntarily surrendered then piled and set alight in the town square.

The ships arrive

The first tea-bearing ship, the Darmouth, arrived in Boston Harbour in late November and dropped anchor. With the local consignees run out of town or in hiding, there was nobody to offload the tea, so the ship stayed at anchor. The ship’s owner, Francis Rotch, was warned against attempting to unload it himself.

Thus began a three-week stalemate. Gangs kept watch on the docks to ensure that the resolutions of the Sons of Liberty were not disobeyed. Thomas Hutchinson, now the Massachusetts royal governor, worked busily but fruitlessly to have the tea brought ashore and the customs duty paid.

By law, the Dartmouth had to unload its cargo within 20 days of arriving in port. Come mid-December, that deadline was due to expire, giving customs officials the legal authority to offload the ships themselves. By this time, the Dartmouth had been joined by two more tea-carrying ships: the Eleanor and the Beaver.

Boston takes action

In the evening of December 16th, Samuel Adams called yet another town meeting at Boston’s meeting house, this one by far the largest with more than 6,000 present. Those in attendance heard that immediate action was necessary.

After dusk, a band of between 40 and 50 men, reportedly dressed as Native Americans, slinked towards Griffin’s Wharf, where the three tea ships were at rest. The vessels were boarded and their holds broken into. With the skill of dock workers, the raiders hoisted scores of tea chests the deck and deposited them into the shallow water and grey mud of Boston Harbour.

Reports suggest that 340 crates of tea were destroyed, weighing some 45 tons and approaching £10,000 in value. The operation was done with relative calm and considerable efficiency. Contrary to visual depictions of the event, there were no flamboyant displays and no cheering crowds lining the harbour.

Other ‘Tea Parties’

The Boston Tea Party is the best-known colonial protest against the Tea Act but it was not the only, nor was it the first. Raiders in South Carolina had seized and impounded imported tea almost two weeks earlier.

On Christmas Day 1773, a British ship carrying almost 700 crates of tea – the largest single shipment sent to the colonies – was turned around in Philadelphia after its captain was sent the following threatening message:

“You are sent out on a diabolical service [by those] who have made you a dupe of their avarice and ambition… What think you, Captain, of a halter around your neck, 10 gallons of liquid tar decanted on your pate, with the feathers of a dozen wild geese laid over that to enliven your appearance? Only think seriously of this and fly to the place from whence you came. Fly without hesitation, without the formality of a protest — and above all, Captain Ayres… fly without the wild geese feathers.”

The new year of 1774 brought similar confrontations in Princeton and Sandy Hook, New Jersey. In April, a ship’s captain was held in New York City until he agreed to return with the hated cargo. There was a second dumping of tea in Boston Harbour in March, this time of only 28 chests, and a dozen or so other incidents around the colonies where tea was impounded, stolen or destroyed.

Consequences

News of the Boston Tea Party reached England in mid-January 1774 and within days, was being recounted in newspapers. At first, the reaction was tempered. George III himself responded more with disappointment than anger, believing the Boston incident a one-off and the Tea Act might still succeed: “I am much hurt that the instigation of bad men has again drawn the people of Boston to take such unjustifiable steps, but I trust by degrees the tea will find its way there”.

By the end of January, however, England’s politicians and press were better informed about just how widespread colonial opposition had been. Anger grew quickly and some editorials fumed about the events in Bostonians, who were accused of committing “every species of licentiousness and cruelty common to a state of anarchy”. A letter-writer to the Middlesex Journal observed that “the Americans, it appears, are absolutely in open and avowed rebellion.”

Many British Whigs and moderates had previously backed colonial opposition to the Stamp Act and the Townshend duties. This time, support was much thinner. Whatever their views on British colonial policy, and whatever the status of tea duties, men of property could not countenance the destruction of thousands of pounds worth of private goods.

This wellspring of anger and disgust convinced the government, at that time led by Lord North, that strong action must be taken against Massachusetts and its recalcitrant capital city. They set about drafting punitive legislation that itself would fan the flames of revolution.

boston tea party

1. The Boston Tea Party refers to an incident in December 1773 when between 40-50 Sons of Liberty boarded British ships in Boston Harbour and destroyed 340 crates of British-owned tea.

2. Recent legislation called the Tea Act allowed the British East India Company to ship its tea directly to the colonies, allowing cheaper sales to undercut the price of smuggled tea.

3. Because this tea still carried a duty levied by the Townshend acts, the Sons of Liberty urged locals not to offload or trade in it, leading to a standoff in Boston Harbour.

4. Opposition to the Tea Act produced similar protests in other port cities across the colonies, though Boston’s was by far the largest and most costly.

5. This widespread opposition, along with the destruction of significant private property in Boston, caused outrage in England and convinced the government to take tough action.

Citation information
Title: ‘The Boston Tea Party’
Authors: Jennifer Llewellyn, Steve Thompson
Publisher: Alpha History
URL: https://alphahistory.com/americanrevolution/boston-tea-party
Date published: July 16, 2019
Date updated: November 22, 2023
Date accessed: May 23, 2024
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