On a cold December evening in December 1773, American colonists, members of the Sons of Liberty protested the British Tea Act by disguising themselves as American Indians and threw an entire shipment of tea from England into Boston Harbor.
This political protest and the subsequent reactions of the English government, set in motion a series of events that would eventually kick-start the American Revolution in nearby Lexington and Concord in April 1775.
Background: The Tea Act, passed by Parliament in April of 1773 infuriated the colonists as they felt the English government was unfairly putting the financial burden of the failing East India Company on the colonists of America. “No Taxation without Representation” became the rallying cry for political movements including the Sons of Liberty which began in Boston but had other groups in New York, Philadelphia, and other colonies.
Europeans had developed an affinity for tea in the early 1700s and that carried over to the American colonies. English Parliament granted a monopoly to the East India Company to the importation of tea into England. Parliament sought and was granted permission to carry that over to the American colonies in 1721. The Dutch smuggled tea into America and the cost was much cheaper. The East India Company was losing huge amounts of money. So Parliament passed the Indemnity Act which lowered the tax on tea consumed in Great Britain, and gave the East India Company a refund of the 25% duty on tea that was re-exported to the colonies. To counter their loss of taxes, Parliament decided to make up the money on the American colonies.
They passed the Townshend Revenue Act of 1767, which levied new taxes, including one on tea, in the colonies. The colonists, at this time considered themselves Englishmen, were infuriated as Parliament was levying taxes on them while they had no representation in Parliament.
This created a firestorm in London, because, according to the British Constitution, citizens could only be taxed by their elected representatives. Since the colonies had no representation in Parliament, they felt the taxes were illegal.
In late 1772 because of the Indemnity Act, sales of tea plummeted and the warehouses of the East India Company (EIC) were overflowing with tea no one was buying. The East India Company was on the verge of bankruptcy. So Parliament allowed the EIC to import tea directly to the colonies. They tried to hide from the colonists that they were still paying a tax on their tea. But once the colonists found out it sprang them into action.
But the irony of the situation was that the price of tea in the colonies was now cheaper than even the smugglers were charging. Some of the biggest colonial opposition figures such as Samuel Adams considered the British tea monopoly to be “equal to a tax” and to raise the same “Taxation Without Representation” issue whether or not a tax was applied to it.
Situation Coming to a Head in Boston: In Charleston, SC and New York, colonists had succeeded in forcing the tea consigners, appointed by Parliament to resign. Therefore customs officials seized the tea. In Philadelphia and New York, the protests stopped the tea from being unloaded and the ships returned to London with the tea in the ship’s holds.
Boston however, was another matter. Governor Hutchinson, forced the two tea consigners (his sons), not to resign. The tea ship Dartmouth arrived in Boston on November 29, 1773. Law stated that the tea must be offloaded within 20 days or the Customs officials could seize it. Samuel Adams called a meeting and thousands of colonists attended at the Old South Meeting House.
Adams put 25 men watching the Dartmouth to see if the company tried to offload the tea. Hutchinson refused to let the Dartmouth sail back to England without paying the duty of the tea in her hold. Meanwhile, two more tea ships, the Eleanor and the Beaver arrived in Boston Harbor and anchored near the Dartmouth. A fourth was supposed to arrive but a storm diverted it to Cape Cod.
On the final night of the Dartmouth’s deadline, Adams led a meeting of over 7000 colonists as the Sons of Liberty were preparing for a night of lawlessness that would push both parties inexorably toward war.
Boston Harbor December 16: While Adams was firing up the colonists at the Old South Meeting House, plans had already been made to take matters into their own hands. While Adams made a show of trying to keep the meeting going, about 150 members of the Sons of Liberty, slipped out and began drifting towards Griffin’s Wharf.
They elaborately disguised themselves as Mohawk Indians to avoid identification.The act of wearing Indian dress was to express to the world that the American colonists identified themselves as “Americans” and no longer considered themselves British subjects. Many left Boston soon after for fear of reprisal.
One hundred and sixteen men were positively identified as members of the Tea Party but many others stayed anonymous. Sixteen of the participants were teenagers and only nine were over the age of forty.
George Hewes recorded his own journal of the event: “It was now evening, and I immediately dressed myself in the costume of an Indian, equipped with a small hatchet, which I and my associates denominated the tomahawk, with which, and a club, after having painted my face and hands with coal dust in the shop of a blacksmith, I repaired to Griffin’s wharf, where the ships lay that contained the tea. When I first appeared in the street after being thus disguised, I fell in with many who were dressed, equipped and painted as I was, and who fell in with me and marched in order to the place of our destination.”
The men boarded the ships and began the work of bringing all 342 tea chests to the sides of the ships and dumping them into Boston Harbor. The entire operation took over three hours. Only two of the chests that night survived. One of them is on display now at the Boston Tea Party Museum. The value of the estimated 92,000 pounds of tea tossed in Boston Harbor was around £9,659 which was reported at the time. That is worth around $1.7 million dollars today.
English Reaction: The events in Boston galvanized Parliament, even those who had been sympathetic to the colonists’ cause. Parliament passed what was known in England as the Coercive Acts but became known in America as the Intolerable Acts.
The Intolerable Acts were actually a series of separate acts designed to punish the colony of Massachusetts and the people of Boston for trying to usurp their authority.
Prime Minister Lord North said, “The Americans have tarred and feathered your subjects, plundered your merchants, burnt your ships, denied all obedience to your laws and authority; yet so clement and so long forbearing has our conduct been that it is incumbent on us now to take a different course. Whatever may be the consequences, we must risk something; if we do not, all is over.”
The first act closed the Port of Boston until all of the tea was paid for and the King’s government was satisfied that order had been restored in Massachusetts. The second took away the charter of the colony of Massachusetts and stated that all positions in the colonial government were to appointed by the governor, Parliament or the King. Local meetings were restricted to only one per year unless the governor called for one.
The third act stipulated that any officials of the crown accused of a crime in the colony of Massachusetts would be tried in England or another area of the Empire since they couldn’t be guaranteed a fair trial in Massachusetts. (British soldiers were acquitted in 1770 of murder during the Boston Massacre when tried in Massachusetts) And the final was the Quartering Act which colonists were forced to house British soldiers in their homes.
Rather than isolate what were considered radicals in Massachusetts and force the colonists to concede authority to Parliament over their lives in America, it had the opposite effect. The other colonies, fearing the same could happen to them, banded together in support of Massachusetts. The began correspondence with one another and sent delegates to the Continental Congress. Banded together, they still hoped that their issues with England could be solved.
About a year later in April 1775, at the small village green in Lexington, a local militia stood up to the British army in what is known as the “The Shot Heard Around the World”, and the American Revolution began.
Photos: Wikipedia, Boston Tea Party Museum