Skip to main content
This section about the history of tea focuses on the Boston Tea Party and how it led to the American War of Independence.
Nowadays tea is thoroughly associated with the British, and taking time for a cup of tea is considered by millions to be a moment of calm and enjoyment in our hectic lives. It seems a little incongruous to remember that a little over 250 years ago, tea was such a hot political issue in America that it led to event that changed history forever. This was the infamous Boston Tea Party, a protest against tea duties in December 1773 that sparked off the American War of Independence and so eventually led to the United States of America becoming an independent nation instead of a group of British colonies.
During the eighteenth century, tea drinking was as popular in Britain’s American colonies as it was in Britain itself. Legally, all tea imported into America had to be shipped from Britain, and all tea imported into Britain had to be shipped in by the East India Company. However, for most of the eighteenth century, theEast India Company was not allowed to export directly to America. But during the 1770s the East India Company ran into financial problems: illegal tea smuggling into Britain was vastly reducing the amount of tea being bought from the Company. This led to a downturn in its profits, as well as an increase in its stockpile of unsold tea. In an attempt to revive its flagging fortunes and avoid bankruptcy, the Company asked the British government for permission to export tea direct to America, a move that would enable it to get rid of its surplus stock of tea. The Company actually owed the government £1 million, so the government had no desire to let the Company go bankrupt. Thus in 1773 the Tea Act was passed, granting the Company’s wish, and allowing a duty of 3d per lb to be levied on the exports to America.
underestimated the strength of the American resistance to being taxed at all by their British colonial masters
The British government did not anticipate this being a problem: by being exported directly to America, the cost of tea there would actually become cheaper, and 3d per lb was considerably less duty than was paid on tea destined for the British market. But it had underestimated the strength of the American resistance to being taxed at all by their British colonial masters. The issue of the taxation in America had been hotly debated for some years. Many Americans objected on principle to being taxed by a Parliament which did not represent them. Instead, they wanted to raise taxes themselves to fund their own administration. But successive British governments reserved the right to tax the colonies, and various bungled attempts to impose taxation had hardened American opposition. In the later 1760s, opposition took the form of boycotts of taxed goods. As a replacement for them, the Americans either bought smuggled goods or attempted to find substitutes made from native products.
These included ‘Labrador tea’, which was made from the leaves of a plant that flourished in the colonies, and ‘Balsamic hyperion’, made from dried raspberry leaves. The successful boycott of such a popular domestic product as tea was largely made possible by the active support of American women, who were on the whole responsible for household purchases. An anonymous American commentator writing some decades later noted that by abandoning the use of imported tea, ‘American ladies exhibited a spirit of patriotism and self-devotedness highly honourable to their sex’.
government repealed most of the import duties - with the exception of the duty on tea
In 1770, the British government repealed most of the import duties - with the exception of the duty on tea, which remained at 3d per lb. For a time this calmed down the situation in the colonies, although taxed tea continued to be boycotted. But the maintenance of duty in the Tea Act of 1773 reawakened the anger of the Americans. They were further incensed by the decision of Parliament that the East India Company would have a monopoly on the distribution of tea in America, using its own agents instead of established American tea merchants. This seemed like an attempt to put patriotic Americans out of business.
The colonists were united in their decision to resist the new arrangements, and decided to refuse to pay the tax on tea. Regardless of the opposition, the East India Company pressed ahead with its plans, and in autumn 1773 four ships, Dartmouth, Eleanor, Beaver and William, set sail for Boston with their precious cargo of tea. In the weeks that these ships were sailing, the American opposition stepped up a gear.
considered an ‘enemy of America’
The Massachusetts Gazette reported a meeting in early November when the people of Boston resolved that no one would import any tea that was liable for duty, and that anyone who aided or abetted the East India Company would be considered an ‘enemy of America’. Tempers were clearly running high, and there were further riotous public meetings against the tax, and even attacks on the warehouses for which the tea was destined.
When Dartmouth reached America on 28 November 1773, it was faced with the resolve of the townspeople that the tea must not be brought ashore or the duty paid. But the customs officers completed the necessary paperwork for the import of the tea, after which the ship could not legally set sail for England with the tea still on board. A few days later Eleanor arrived, followed by Beaver, which had been delayed by an outbreak of smallpox onboard. William had run aground and was stranded near Cape Cod. So it was that these three ships languished in the harbour at Griffin’s Wharf in Boston, waiting for the situation to be resolved.
townspeople would not allow the tea to be brought ashore
But there was deadlock. The townspeople would not allow the tea to be brought ashore without an agreement that no duty would be paid on it. The Governor of Massachusetts, Thomas Hutchinson (whose sons were to have been agents of the East India Company for the distribution of the tea), refused to let the ships leave port without paying duty on the tea. An armed guard of patriots was posted at the wharf to prevent the tea coming ashore, while a naval blockade of the harbour prevented the ships from leaving. Mass meetings were held by the resistance leaders, Samuel Adams and Josiah Quincy, and the Bostonians were further buoyed up by messages of support which they received from all over New England.
"Let every man do his duty, and be true to his country”
On 16 December, perhaps as many as 7,000 local people met at the Old South Meeting House. Francis Rotch, the American owner of two of the ships, attended the meeting. He was in an unfortunate position: unwilling to risk the wrath of his countrymen by bringing the tea ashore, but yet knowing that if he ordered the ships to set sail illegally he risked them being confiscated by the navy or even sunk. In an attempt to resolve the situation, Rotch was sent in person to see Governor Hutchinson, to demand from him a pass for the ships to leave port, with the tea still onboard. The Governor, who was at his country house seven miles from Boston, refused, and Rotch returned to the meeting with this news. George Hewes, who took part in the Tea Party, remembered that Rotch’s announcement created a great patriotic stir at the meeting; men cried out '"Let every man do his duty, and be true to his country”; and there was a general huzza for Griffin’s Wharf’. The townspeople were faced with a stalemate, and so decided upon drastic action.
In the early evening of 16 December, a band of men, some disguised as Mohawk American Indians (Hewes recorded that he darkened his face with soot), assembled on a hill near the wharf. Whooping Indian-style war cries, they marched to the wharf, where they boarded the ships one after another, hoisted the tea on board deck, split open the chests - 342 in total - and threw all the tea into the sea. The whole affair took about three hours, and it was not a violent protest - the ships’ crews attested that nothing had been damaged or destroyed except the tea - and the protesters swept the decks clean afterwards. The Massachusetts Gazette even reported that when it was realised that a padlock that had been broken was the personal property of one of the ships’ captains, a replacement was procured and sent to him. Hewes also recorded that any man caught attempting to steal any of the tea for personal consumption was punished by the Bostonians. The following morning large quantities of tea were still floating in the harbour waters, so to prevent any being salvaged, men went out in rowing boats and beat the tea beneath the surface of the water with their oars. A joke went round for months afterwards that fish taken from American waters tasted strongly of tea.
This Tea Party sparked off other protests: tea being shipped to New York and Philadelphia was sent back to London, while tea off-loaded at Charleston was left to rot in the warehouses. In retaliation, the British government passed five laws in early 1774 that became known as the Intolerable Acts. Although intended primarily to punish the people of Massachusetts (the Acts included closing the port of Boston until the tea was paid for, restricting town meetings and giving the British-appointed governor more power), in the event the Acts played a key role in uniting the 13 American colonies against British rule. In September 1774, representatives of the colonies, including Samuel Adams, one of the Bostonian resistance leaders, met at the First Continental Congress to plan common measures of resistance against the Acts. The united resistance of the colonies would lead to the American Revolution and the Declaration of Independence, which was signed in July 1776, just three years after the Boston Tea Party.
One anonymous balladeer wrote a song to commemorate the historic events in Boston, ending in the verses:
Quick as thought the ships were boarded
Hatches bust and chests displayed;
Axe and hammers help afforded,
What a glorious crash they made.
Quick into the deep descended,
Cursed weed of China’s coast;
Thus at once our fears were ended
Freemen’s rights shall ne’er be lost.
Labrador Tea: Massachusetts Institute of Technology blog
Intolerable Acts of 1774: University of San Francisco
East India House: Wikipedia
Other images: licenced from www.istockphoto.com and www.sxc.hu