The Boston Tea Party

The Boston Tea Party is considered to be an iconic act of defiance of the American colonists against the oppressive authority of the British. On December 16, 1773, a band of Bostonians disguised themselves as Mohawk Indians and raided three ships that were full of tea crates at the Boston harbor and dumped hundreds of the crates into the sea. It is generally thought that when the British raised the price of tea, many Americans were outraged and there were widespread protests, the Boston Tea Party being one of the more dramatic ones. But the real story behind this famous event in the American struggle for independence is rather different.

Essentially, the Boston Tea Party occurred not because the British hiked the price of tea, but because the tea prices were lowered by the British East India Company and this was affecting the profits of American merchants. It was not so much a patriotic action as it was an act motivated by commercial interests of the patriots who would have lost a good deal of money if loads of cheap British tea were dumped into the markets of American colonies. Furthermore it was not a spontaneous act of rebellion as is generally thought but an operation planned well ahead. Although this event fortuitously rose to great historical prominence, it was not such a unique, landmark event as it is generally depicted to be. There were tea protests both before and after the Boston event at many places New York harbor, Philadelphia, Greenwich in Connecticut, Charleston in South Carolina  all the main tea markets. In Annapolis of Maryland, a more dramatic one took place when an entire ship was put to fire (Ayres, 208).

The great conflict over tea began when the British East India Company originally increased its prices to make up for the tax increases imposed by the British government. In the years leading up to the American Revolution, the issue of tax increasingly became a source of great friction between the ruling British and the colonial Americans. Taxation was, albeit indirectly, one of the major reasons for the uprising of the colonies. Americans were technically regarded as English citizens, and they were proud and content to be so for a long time. However, the colonists were not allowed to vote and did not have any representation in the British Parliament. Now, the money that was spent by the British government, over the years, in developing and protecting the 13 colonies went on piling up and in order to offset these expenses the British parliament began to levy increased taxation on the colonies.

The colonists were not against the increased taxation, but they demanded that they have representation in the British Parliament so that they could be sure that the revenues from the taxes were spent justifiably. No taxation without representation was their slogan. Therefore at issue was not taxation per se, but the authority of a British Parliament  devoid of elected American leaders  over the American colonies. The colonists were asked to pay extra for all sorts of things like stamps, sugar and so on. Though such taxation could be considered exorbitant, Americans would still have had no problem with it if they had the confidence that the extra money they were paying was being put to use in an accountable manner. But this did not happen. Americans therefore took a stand that they could be taxed only by Americans, in the colonial assemblies.

Friction between Americans and the British government erupted in regard to the Stamp Act and it was repealed in 1765. But fearing that it was ceding to too much power to the Americans, the British Parliament grew stubborn and passed a Declaratory Act in 1766 which asserted the absolute right of the Parliament to legislate for the colonies as it deemed fit. Immediately thereafter, the Townshend Revenue Act of 1767 began imposing a series of new taxes, including on tea.

Americans led by a group of patriots called Whigs began organizing a spate of protests and boycotts. Merchants formed into coalitions and abided by a non-importation agreement, while in the colonies toward north they tried to import tea from Canada. Abstaining from British tea became a gesture of patriotism among the colonists. Smuggling was afoot in the major centers such as New York and Philadelphia, while British dutied tea too continued to be imported. Finally, in 1770, the British Parliament yielded to the pressure of American protests and repealed the Townshend taxes  except for the tea tax.  The tea tax was retained by the British as a matter o f principle, so that they do not appear as if they were completely yielding to the demanding of the colonists. The British wanted to assert their authority to some extent or other.

As a result, the black market for tea continued to thrive in the colonies. Americans were smuggling in tea from the Netherlands and were selling it at much cheaper prices in comparison to British tea. Even some of the notable names of American Independence struggle were possibly involved in this illicit trade.

As Americans increasingly went for the contraband tea, it severely dented the revenues of East India Company. At one stage, there was seven year supply of tea lying in the warehouses of the Company. At this point the British government intervened and introduced the Tea Act of 1773 in a bid to save the floundering East India Company. The Act granted official monopoly to the Company to import and sell tea in the colonies. More importantly, the British government made an arrangement which allowed the Company to sell tea to the colonists at prices lower than those of the smuggled varieties.

The crucial point here is that the tea taxes were retained by the British mainly as a symbolic gesture of authority, and not to draw revenues. The new arrangement in the framework of the Tea Act allowed the East India Company to keep the prices lower even after the addition of taxes. This meant that 1) the British need not step back on the issue of tea tax, 2) the East India Company is in a competitive position to sell tea, and 3) the American consumer should be happy buying legal tea at affordable prices. Every one stood to gain  except for the traders who dealt in the smuggled tea and making quick money. These merchants and the leaders associated with them spearheaded the movement against the large influx of East India Companys tea into the colonies, under various pretexts. One of the chief pretexts was that if monopoly could be imposed on sale of tea, it could be imposed on various other products as well. Yet another argument was that the British were stubbornly retaining the taxes even if they did not stand to benefit from them in any way, just as a matter of principle, and therefore they ought to be opposed too as a matter of principle. Lowering of the tea prices was actually seen as a bribe or reward for the colonists in return for their willingness to be taxed. Earlier on, the colonists were opposing the taxes on a matter of principle  no taxation without representation. Now if they started paying taxes willingly by buying the cheap tea, they could appear soft and opportunistic. Although these are rather legitimate concerns and fears, they were fanned by the smuggled tea merchants who are the only group who stood to lose financially by the Tea Act. The colonists felt that they were being manipulated by the British, but they were also being manipulated by their own black marketers who organized numerous protests. Much brouhaha was created in especially in the colony of Massachusetts.  

In late November, 1773 the Companys vessel Dartmouth arrived in Boston harbor carrying a huge cargo of Darjeeling tea ( Activists led by Samuel Adams were keen to send away these ships. These people participated in agitations and threatened violence if Dartmouth did not return to England. However, Governor Thomas Hutchinson was equally adamant on not yielding to the demands of the radicals. Meanwhile, two more Companys vessels landed at the Boston harbor carrying large consignments of tea. The consignments of the three ships had to be officially taxed on or before December 16, after which they could be released into the markets. All this time, Samuel Adams and others was holding public meetings and inciting the masses to join in bigger rallies.

On December 16, a crowd of 8,000  about half the population of Boston  showed up at Adams anti-tea rally. During this gathering, Adams received the word that the cargo vessels would be unloaded soon. As Adams meeting was going on, simultaneously another meeting was arranged at the home of Boston merchant Benjamin Edes. Some 50 men in addition to several leaders of the local chapter of Committee of Correspondence were present at the meeting. They were getting ready to carry out an assault on the tea ships. Before they set out on their mission, however, they drank strong rum concoctions to their hearts fill. As Adams led his crowd to the wharf, the men from the Edes party too arrived there and boarded the ships to the cheers of the crowds, while the British onlookers stood staring helplessly. It took over three hours for the intruders and a number of other activists who joined them to dump the tea cargoes overboard.
  The British officials in England were particularly outraged by this act. Additional troops were stationed in Boston. The harbor was closed. Until Bostonians compensated for the tea that had been destroyed, many new restrictions limiting self-rule in Boston would be in place.

The Boston Tea Party would not have had so much significance for American history, if not for the strong retaliatory measures it provoked from the British. The British reaction ended by intensifying the colonial rebellion and led to the inevitable armed conflict.


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