This month in history: the Boston Tea Party

Boston tea party illustrationThe Boston Tea Party was a political protest against British taxation that took place in Boston, Massachusetts, on 16 December 1773.

For almost 200 years, the British East India Company was one of the strongholds of the British economy. By the early 1770s, it found itself at odds with American non-importation restrictions on tea, and was left with a huge inventory of tea that it could not move. The company was not able to meet its payment on dividends and loans, and was moving towards bankruptcy.

Under the Tea Act of May 1773 (Gazette issue 11351), the financially troubled company was granted a monopoly on all tea exported to the colonies. Tea sent to the colonies could now only be sold through the East India Company’s own agents, bypassing the independent colonial shippers and merchants. The company could therefore undercut colonial businesses and illegal smugglers.

In cities such as New York, Philadelphia and Charleston, tea agents resigned in protest and cancelled their orders with immediate effect. However, in Boston, the royal governor, Thomas Hutchinson, was determined to uphold the law. He allowed 3 arriving East India Company ships – the Dartmouth, Eleanor and Beaver – to unload their cargoes of tea and have the duties paid.

Meanwhile, several mass meetings were held in early December 1773 to demand that the tea be sent back to England, with the duty unpaid. Tension mounted as patriot groups, led by Samuel Adams, tried to persuade Hutchinson to accept this approach. Their demands were flatly refused by Hutchinson on 16 December.

Incensed, a group of about 60 men, encouraged by a large crowd of Bostonians, donned blankets and Indian headdresses, marched to Griffin’s Wharf, boarded the ships, and dumped 342 tea chests, valued at around £9,000 (the equivalent of £1.2 million today) into the water. Hutchinson was furious, calling the dumping of the tea high treason. But, energised by their victory, boisterous patriots urged Bostonians to ’keep up your courage!’.

When news of the protest reached British shores, it was felt that Boston needed to be punished. On 29 March 1774, Gazette issue 11444 described the actions in the town on that night, and contained within it a number of punitive measures. It was announced that the port of Boston would be closed to all shipping from 1 June, and customs officers were to be removed from office. This further outraged and unified the American colonists.

In effect, the British government’s efforts to single out Massachusetts for punishment served only to unite the colonies and impel the drift toward the revolutionary war. This war began in April 1775 (Gazette issue 11568), and led to the creation of an independent United States of America in July 1776.