Boston Tea Party - Definition, Dates and Facts

Boston Tea Party - Definition, Dates and Facts

The Boston Tea Party was a political protest that occurred on December 16, 1773, at Griffin’s Wharf in Boston, Massachusetts. American colonists, frustrated and angry at Britain for imposing “taxation without representation,” dumped 342 chests of tea, imported by the British East India Company into the harbor. The event was the first major act of defiance to British rule over the colonists. It showed Great Britain that Americans wouldn’t take taxation and tyranny sitting down, and rallied American patriots across the 13 colonies to fight for independence.

Why Did the Boston Tea Party Happen?

In the 1760s, Britain was deep in debt, so British Parliament imposed a series of taxes on American colonists to help pay those debts.

The Stamp Act of 1765 taxed colonists on virtually every piece of printed paper they used, from playing cards and business licenses to newspapers and legal documents. The Townshend Acts of 1767 went a step further, taxing essentials such as paint, paper, glass, lead and tea.

The British government felt the taxes were fair since much of its debt was earned fighting wars on the colonists’ behalf. The colonists, however, disagreed. They were furious at being taxed without having any representation in Parliament, and felt it was wrong for Britain to impose taxes on them to gain revenue.

READ MORE: 7 Events That Enraged Colonists and Led to the American Revolution

Boston Massacre Enrages Colonists

On March 5, 1770, a street brawl happened in Boston between American colonists and British soldiers.

Later known as the Boston Massacre, the fight began after an unruly group of colonists—frustrated with the presence of British soldiers in their streets—flung snowballs, ice and oyster shells at a British sentinel guarding the Boston Customs House.

Reinforcements arrived and opened fire on the mob, killing five colonists and wounding six. The Boston Massacre and its fallout further incited the colonists’ rage towards Britain.

Tea Act Imposed

Britain eventually repealed the taxes it had imposed on the colonists except the tea tax. It wasn’t about to give up tax revenue on the nearly 1.2 million pounds of tea the colonists drank each year.

In protest, the colonists boycotted tea sold by British East India Company and smuggled in Dutch tea, leaving British East India Company with millions of pounds of surplus tea and facing bankruptcy.

In May 1773, British Parliament passed the Tea Act which allowed British East India Company to sell tea to the colonies duty-free and much cheaper than other tea companies – but still tax the tea when it reached colonial ports.

Tea smuggling in the colonies increased, although the cost of the smuggled tea soon surpassed that of tea from British East India Company with the added tea tax.

Still, with the help of prominent tea smugglers such as John Hancock and Samuel Adams —who protested taxation without representation but also wanted to protect their tea smuggling operations—colonists continued to rail against the tea tax and Britain’s control over their interests.

Sons of Liberty

The Sons of Liberty were a group of colonial merchants and tradesmen founded to protest the Stamp Act and other forms of taxation. The group of revolutionists included prominent patriots such as Benedict Arnold, Patrick Henry and Paul Revere, as well as Adams and Hancock.

Led by Adams, the Sons of Liberty held meetings rallying against British Parliament and protested the Griffin’s Wharf arrival of Dartmouth, a British East India Company ship carrying tea. By December 16, 1773, Dartmouth had been joined by her sister ships, Beaver and Eleanor; all three ships loaded with tea from China.

That morning, as thousands of colonists convened at the wharf and its surrounding streets, a meeting was held at the Old South Meeting House where a large group of colonists voted to refuse to pay taxes on the tea or allow the tea to be unloaded, stored, sold or used. (Ironically, the ships were built in America and owned by Americans.)

Governor Thomas Hutchison refused to allow the ships to return to Britain and ordered the tea tariff be paid and the tea unloaded. The colonists refused, and Hutchison never offered a satisfactory compromise.

READ MORE: Who Were the Sons of Liberty?

What Happened at the Boston Tea Party?

That night, a large group of men – many reportedly members of the Sons of Liberty – disguised themselves in Native American garb, boarded the docked ships and threw 342 chests of tea into the water.

Said participant George Hewes, “We then were ordered by our commander to open the hatches and take out all the chests of tea and throw them overboard, and we immediately proceeded to execute his orders, first cutting and splitting the chests with our tomahawks, so as thoroughly to expose them to the effects of the water.”

Hewes also noted that “We were surrounded by British armed ships, but no attempt was made to resist us.”

Boston Tea Party Aftermath

While some important colonist leaders such as John Adams were thrilled to learn Boston Harbor was covered in tea leaves, others were not.

In June of 1774, George Washington wrote: “the cause of Boston…ever will be considered as the cause of America.” But his personal views of the event were far different. He voiced strong disapproval of “their conduct in destroying the Tea” and claimed Bostonians “were mad.” Washington, like many other elites, held private property to be sacrosanct.

Benjamin Franklin insisted the British East India Company be reimbursed for the lost tea and even offered to pay for it himself.

No one was hurt, and aside from the destruction of the tea and a padlock, no property was damaged or looted during the Boston Tea Party. The participants reportedly swept the ships’ decks clean before they left.

Who Organized the Boston Tea Party?

Though lead by Samuel Adams and his Sons of Liberty and organized by John Hancock, the names of many of those involved in the Boston Tea Party remain unknown. Thanks to their Native American costumes, only one of the tea party culprits, Francis Akeley, was arrested and imprisoned.

Even after American independence, participants refused to reveal their identities, fearing they could still face civil and criminal charges as well as condemnation from elites for the destruction of private property. Most participants in the Boston Tea Party were under the age of forty and sixteen of them were teenagers.

Coercive Acts

But despite the lack of violence, the Boston Tea Party didn’t go unanswered by King George III and British Parliament.

In retribution, they passed the Coercive Acts (later known as the Intolerable Acts) which:

  • closed Boston Harbor until the tea lost in the Boston Tea Party was paid for
  • ended the Massachusetts Constitution and ended free elections of town officials
  • moved judicial authority to Britain and British judges, basically creating martial law in Massachusetts
  • required colonists to quarter British troops on demand
  • extended freedom of worship to French-Canadian Catholics under British rule, which angered the mostly Protestant colonists

Britain hoped the Coercive Acts would squelch rebellion in New England and keep the remaining colonies from uniting, but the opposite happened: All the colonies viewed the punitive laws as further evidence of Britain’s tyranny and rallied to Massachusetts’ aid, sending supplies and plotting further resistance.

Second Boston Tea Party

A second Boston Tea Party took place in March 1774, when around 60 Bostonians boarded the ship Fortune and dumped nearly 30 chests of tea into the harbor.

The event didn’t earn nearly as much notoriety as the first Boston Tea Party, but it did encourage other tea-dumping demonstrations in Maryland, New York and South Carolina.

First Continental Congress Is Convened

Many colonists felt Britain’s Coercive Acts went too far. On September 5, 1774, elected delegates from all 13 American colonies except Georgia met in Carpenter’s Hall in Philadelphia for the First Continental Congress to figure out how to resist British oppression.

The delegates were divided on how to move forward but the Boston Tea Party had united them in their fervor to gain independence. By the time they adjourned in October 1774, they’d written The Declaration and Resolves which:

  • censured Britain for passing the Coercive Acts and called for their repeal
  • established a boycott of British goods
  • declared the colonies had the right to govern independently
  • rallied colonists to form and train a colonial militia

Britain didn’t capitulate and within months, the “shot heard round the world,” rang out in Concord, Massachusetts, sparking the start of the American Revolutionary War.


A Tea Party Timeline: 1773-1775. Old South Meeting House.
The Boston Tea Party. The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.
The Boston Tea Party. Massachusetts Historical Society.
The Boston Tea Party, 1773.
The Intolerable Acts.

Boston Tea Party

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Boston Tea Party

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Boston Tea Party, (December 16, 1773), incident in which 342 chests of tea belonging to the British East India Company were thrown from ships into Boston Harbor by American patriots disguised as Mohawk Indians. The Americans were protesting both a tax on tea (taxation without representation) and the perceived monopoly of the East India Company.

Did the Boston Tea Party happen during the American Revolution?

The Boston Tea Party took place on the night of December 16, 1773, a few years before the start of the American Revolution in 1775. It was an act of protest in which a group of 60 American colonists threw 342 chests of tea into Boston Harbor to agitate against both a tax on tea (which had been an example of taxation without representation) and the perceived monopoly of the East India Company.

How did the Boston Tea Party start?

The passage of the Tea Act (1773) by the British Parliament gave the East India Company exclusive rights to transport tea to the colonies and empowered it to undercut all of its competitors. The leaders of other major cities in the colonies cancelled their orders in protest, but the governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony allowed tea to arrive in Boston. In response, several colonists stormed the tea ships and tossed the cargo overboard.

What did the Boston Tea Party lead to?

The Boston Tea Party pushed Britain’s Parliament to assert its authority—and it passed the Intolerable Acts in 1774. These punitive measures included closing Boston’s harbour until restitution was made for the tea, reducing the Massachusetts Bay Colony to a crown colony with appointed, rather than elected, officials, and allowing the quartering of troops in vacant buildings across British North America. The measures became the justification for convening the First Continental Congress later in 1774.

The Townshend Acts passed by Parliament in 1767 and imposing duties on various products imported into the British colonies had raised such a storm of colonial protest and noncompliance that they were repealed in 1770, saving the duty on tea, which was retained by Parliament to demonstrate its presumed right to raise such colonial revenue without colonial approval. The merchants of Boston circumvented the act by continuing to receive tea smuggled in by Dutch traders. In 1773 Parliament passed a Tea Act designed to aid the financially troubled East India Company by granting it (1) a monopoly on all tea exported to the colonies, (2) an exemption on the export tax, and (3) a “drawback” (refund) on duties owed on certain surplus quantities of tea in its possession. The tea sent to the colonies was to be carried only in East India Company ships and sold only through its own agents, bypassing the independent colonial shippers and merchants. The company thus could sell the tea at a less-than-usual price in either America or Britain it could undersell anyone else. The perception of monopoly drove the normally conservative colonial merchants into an alliance with radicals led by Samuel Adams and his Sons of Liberty.

In such cities as New York, Philadelphia, and Charleston, tea agents resigned or canceled orders, and merchants refused consignments. In Boston, however, the royal governor Thomas Hutchinson determined to uphold the law and maintained that three arriving ships, the Dartmouth, Eleanor, and Beaver, should be allowed to deposit their cargoes and that appropriate duties should be honoured. On the night of December 16, 1773, 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 the tea chests, valued at £18,000, into the water.

In retaliation, Parliament passed the series of punitive measures known in the colonies as the Intolerable Acts, including the Boston Port Bill, which shut off the city’s sea trade pending payment for the destroyed tea. The British government’s efforts to single out Massachusetts for punishment served only to unite the colonies and impel the drift toward war.


Labaree, Benjamin Woods. The Boston Tea Party. New York: Oxford University Press, 1968.

McCusker, John J., and Menard, Russell R. The Economy of British North America, 1607 – 1789. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press,1985.

"Recollections of George Hewes," in A Retrospective of the Boston Tea Party, 1843. Reprinted in Commager, Henry Steele, and Morris, Richard B., editors. The Spirit of 'Seventy-Six: The Story of the American Revolution as Told by Participants. Volume I. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill Co., Inc., 1958.

in about three hours from the time we went on board, we had . . . broken and thrown overboard every tea chest to be found in the ship, while those in the other ships were disposing of the tea in the same way, at the same time.

george hewes, shoemaker and participant


After the long and costly war between France and England, King George III and the British Parliament implemented a tax to help raise money to pay off the massive debts incurred. They chose to place this tax on tea sold in both England and in the English Colonies. They were convinced that people would rather pay a tax than give up their daily tea. It was also an item that the colonies were required to import only from England. Furthermore, the tax was a way to reign in the colonies, who had been neglected during the long war, and remind them that their allegiance belonged to England.

This Sugar Act was passed in 1764 imposing customs duties on several different items, including tea. Prime Minister Grenville wanted to raise the revenue by putting a direct tax on the colonists instead of at the ports, so he delayed to give the colonists a chance to find a way to raise funds themselves. They didn’t.

The following year, the Stamp Act was passed. All official documents and papers were required to have an official stamp. The cost of this stamp went directly to the crown.

The colonists were outraged. They complained bitterly that because of their distance from England, they were receiving inadequate representation in Parliament. They had not agreed to have these new taxes placed on their colonies.

The Stamp Act was eventually repealed, but not before the Sons of Liberty had formed and begun to perform public demonstrations and boycott, sometimes with violence and looting. The Colonists were frustrated by the number of taxes Parliament kept trying to place on them without their consent.

In 1767, the Townshend Acts rocked the colonies when they replaced the Stamp Act with an import duty on all kinds of essential goods. Parliament mistakenly thought the colonies objected to only internal taxes or purchases like the objects described in the Stamp Act, and that import taxes wouldn’t be a problem.

Parliament then offered a monopoly on tea importation to the colonies to the East India Company, who in turn raised their price on tea. The tea sold in the colonies wouldn’t have a tax any more, instead it would be taxed at each individual port, and agents were appointed to receive and sell the tea and pay the tax.

This was the Tea Act, passed by the British parliament on May 10, 1773. This was an attempt by the British government to prop up the failing Dutch East India Company. It reduced taxes and removed all duties on the exportation of East India Company tea. However, even when the tea tax was lowered with the Indemnity Act, the colonists protested, not because of the price, but on the principle that they were not required to pay taxes placed on them without their consent.

It’s often overlooked that the people in England were under the same laws and taxes and were smuggling tea, even more than the American Colonies were. The thing that upset the colonists the most was they felt they were unrepresented, unheard, and exploited by an “evil” Parliament.

When the taxes weren’t removed, some of the colonists made a small fortune on smuggled tea, including John Hancock. When the smuggling didn’t stop and neither did the violence caused by the Sons of Liberty, British troops were deployed to Boston.

Their presence was unwelcome and only added to the hostility the colonists were feeling against the crown. The hostility rose until it came to a head with the inaccurately named Boston Massacre when five people died. This was used as propaganda in the newspapers, fostering the unrest and increasing the tension.

The colonists were convinced that these Acts were an attempt to undermine colonial businesses. Nor were they in a compromising mood. They were angry over the Boston Massacre. Most of them stopped drinking tea altogether because while the Townshend Acts had been rescinded earlier in the year, its duties on tea were still in force.

Britain dropped the price of tea until the smuggled tea was actually more expensive than the regular tea. Those who were making a profit on smuggled tea continued to do so, but now it became less about saving money, and more in the name of protest for the colonists’ rights to “taxation without representation.”

In New York and Philadelphia, the colonists refused to let the boats land, and they returned to England. In Charleston, protests were so rampant that customs officials were able to seize all the tea.

In 1772, the Indemnity Act dropping the price on tea expired, and left the Townshend tax on tea. Consumers faltered at the sudden jump in the price of tea, but the East India Company continued to import it. Even though the company was failing, Parliament refused to back down regarding their right to tax the colonies. Furthermore, this tax paid the salaries of Parliament-appointed government officials, and they were loathe to allow those officials to be reliant on the colonists for their salaries, for fear it would drive them to be more supportive of their cause.

Origins of the Tea Party

Historically, populist movements in the United States have arisen in response to periods of economic hardship, beginning with the proto-populist Greenback and Granger movements in the 1860s and ’70s and continuing with William Jennings Bryan’s Populist Party in the 1890s and Louisiana politician Huey Long’s Share Our Wealth program during the Great Depression of the 1930s. In the wake of the financial crisis that swept the globe in 2008, populist sentiment was once more on the rise. The catalyst for what would become known as the Tea Party movement came on February 19, 2009, when Rick Santelli, a commentator on the business-news network CNBC, referenced the Boston Tea Party (1773) in his response to Pres. Barack Obama’s mortgage relief plan. Speaking from the floor of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, Santelli heatedly stated that the bailout would “subsidize the losers’ mortgages” and proposed a Chicago Tea Party to protest government intervention in the housing market. The five-minute clip became an Internet sensation, and the “Tea Party” rallying cry struck a chord with those who had already seen billions of dollars flow toward sagging financial firms. Unlike previous populist movements, which were characterized by a distrust of business in general and bankers in particular, the Tea Party movement focused its ire at the federal government and extolled the virtues of free market principles.

Within weeks, Tea Party chapters began to appear around the United States, using social media sites such as Facebook to coordinate protest events. They were spurred on by conservative pundits, particularly by Fox News Channel’s Glenn Beck. The generally libertarian character of the movement drew disaffected Republicans to the Tea Party banner, and its antigovernment tone resonated with members of the paramilitary militia movement. Obama himself served as a powerful recruiting tool, as the Tea Party ranks were swelled by “ Birthers”—individuals who claimed that Obama had been born outside the United States and was thus not eligible to serve as president (despite a statement by the director of the Hawaii State Department of Health attesting that she had seen Obama’s birth certificate and could confirm that he had been born in the state)—as well as by those who considered Obama a socialist and those who believed that Obama, who frequently discussed his Christianity publicly, was secretly a Muslim.

The Tea Party movement’s first major action was a nationwide series of rallies on April 15, 2009, that drew more than 250,000 people. April 15 is historically the deadline for filing individual income tax returns, and protesters claimed that “Tea” was an acronym for “Taxed Enough Already.” The movement gathered strength throughout the summer of 2009, with its members appearing at congressional town hall meetings to protest the proposed reforms to the American health care system.

At the national level, a number of groups claimed to represent the Tea Party movement as a whole, but, with a few exceptions, the Tea Party lacked a clear leader. When former Republican vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin resigned as governor of Alaska in July 2009, she became an unofficial spokesperson of sorts on Tea Party issues, and in February 2010 she delivered the keynote address at the first National Tea Party Convention. Beck—whose 9/12 Project, so named for Beck’s “9 principles and 12 values” as well as the obvious allusion to the September 11 attacks, helped draw tens of thousands of protesters to the U.S. Capitol on September 12, 2009—offered daily affirmations of Tea Party beliefs on his television and radio shows. FreedomWorks, a supply-side economics advocacy group headed by former Republican House majority leader Dick Armey, provided logistical support for large Tea Party gatherings, and Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina supported Tea Party candidates from within the Republican establishment. The diffuse collection of groups and individuals who made up the Tea Party movement was unique in the history of American populism, as it seemed to draw strength from its ability to “stick apart.”

The absence of a central organizing structure was cited as proof of the Tea Partiers’ grassroots credentials, but it also meant that the movement’s goals and beliefs were highly localized and even personalized. Nonetheless, the Tea Party proved its influence at the polls. In a special election in New York’s 23rd congressional district in November 2009, Tea Partiers mobilized behind Conservative Party candidate Doug Hoffman, forcing Republican candidate Dierdre Scozzafava from the race just days before the election. This tactic backfired, however, and the seat went to Democrat Bill Owens Owens was the first Democrat to represent the district since the 19th century. The Tea Party fared better in Massachusetts in January 2010, in the special election to fill the U.S. Senate seat left vacant by the death of Ted Kennedy. Dark-horse candidate Scott Brown defeated Kennedy’s presumptive successor, Massachusetts attorney general Martha Coakley, in a race that shifted the balance in the Senate, depriving the Democrats of the 60-vote filibuster-proof majority they had held since July 2009. In May 2010 the Tea Party exerted its influence again, this time in Kentucky, where Rand Paul, son of former Libertarian presidential candidate Ron Paul, won the Republican primary for a seat in the U.S. Senate. Paul defeated Trey Grayson, Kentucky’s secretary of state and the favoured choice of Senate minority leader and Kentuckian Mitch McConnell, in a race that was widely seen as a repudiation of the Republican Party establishment.

What was the Boston Tea Party and why did it happen?

What was the Boston Tea Party and why did it happen? The events of 16 December 1773 had global origins, suggests Benjamin Carp, and have since inspired acts of non-violent civil disobedience in nations as diverse as Lebanon and China. Here's your guide to the pivotal moment in American history and its far-reaching global legacy

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Published: November 25, 2020 at 11:50 am

What happened during the Boston Tea Party?

About a hundred men boarded three ships in Boston harbour on the evening of 16 December 1773. No one knows for sure who they were, or exactly how many of them were there. They had wrapped blankets around their shoulders, and they had slathered paint and soot on their faces. A newspaper report called them “resolute men (dressed like Mohawks or Indians)”. In two or three hours, they hoisted 340 chests above decks, chopped them open with hatchets, and emptied their contents over the rails. Since the tide was out, you could see huge clumps of the stuff piling up alongside the ships.

This was in fact 46 tonnes of tea worth more than £9,659. At the time, a tonne of tea cost about the same as a two-storey house. The event became a pivotal moment in American history, leading to the overthrow of the British imperial government, an eight-year civil war, and American independence.

Why did the Boston Tea Party happen?

The history of the Boston Tea Party belongs not just to the United States of America, but to the world. The Tea Party originated with a Chinese commodity, a British financial crisis, imperialism in India, and American consumption habits. It resounded in a world of Afro-Caribbean slavery, Native American disguises, and widespread tyranny and oppression. And for over 200 years since, the Boston Tea Party has inspired political movements of all stripes, well beyond America’s shores.

To understand why tea had become so controversial in Boston, we would have to look at the history of how this plant had come to be embraced by Britons all over the world. Camellia sinensis grew among the foothills of the high mountains that separated China from the Indian subcontinent. For over a thousand years, it was the Chinese who had popularised and marketed the drink. Chinese merchants traded tea to Japanese ships, Mongol horsemen, and Persian caravans. Few Europeans had tasted tea before 1680. Yet by the 18th century, trading firms like the English East India Company were regularly negotiating with Cantonese hongs (merchants) and hoppos (port supervisors) to bring tea back to the west. As the tea trade grew, the price dropped.

The bitter taste of tea might have been unpalatable to Europeans, had it not been for the trade in another commodity – sugar. The 17th century had seen the cultivation of sugarcane in the West Indies yield an enormously profitable crop. To raise cane and process sugar, West Indian planters relied on the labour of African slaves. Britons did not organise an objection to slavery, sugar and tea until the end of the 18th century. In the meantime, tea and sugar went hand in hand.

Tea made its way to American ports like Boston, Massachusetts, and even into the outermost reaches of the American frontier. Some of it was legally bought, and the rest was smuggled to avoid British duties. It soon became the drink of respectable households all over the British empire, although it also pained critics who worried about its corrupting effects. They lamented that tea led to vanity and pride, it encouraged women to gather and gossip, and it threatened to undermine the nation. Nevertheless, the British government, reliant on the revenues from global trade, did nothing to stand in the way of tea drinkers. Indeed, in 1767, parliament passed a Revenue Act that collected a duty on all tea shipped to the American colonies.

Timeline: From the Boston Tea Party to American Independence

16 December 1773 Protesters dump 340 crates of the East India Company’s tea into Boston harbour

January 1774 London learns of the destruction of the tea, and of other American protests

March 1774 Parliament passes the first of the so-called Coerciver Acts, the Boston Port Act, which closes the port of Boston until the town makes restitution for the tea

May 1774 Parliament passes two more laws for restoring order in Massachusetts. These laws limit town meetings, put the provincial council under royal appointments, and allow British civil officers accused of capital crimes to move their trials to other jurisdictions

1 June 1774 The Boston Port Act takes effect, and Governor Thomas Hutchinson departs for England, never to return. His replacement is General Thomas Gage, a military commander

Summer 1774 Massachusetts protesters resist the Coercive Acts by disrupting local courts and forcing councillors to resign their seats

September to October 1774 The First Continental Congress meets, declares opposition to the Coercive Acts, and calls for boycotts of British goods and an embargo on exports to Great Britain

February 1775 Parliament declares Massachusetts to be in a state of rebellion. Governor Gage will later receive orders to enforce the Coercive Acts and suppress the uprising

19 April 1775 British regular troops and Massachusetts militiamen exchange fire at Lexington and Concord. In response, armed New Englanders surround the British fortifications at Boston

March 1776 American forces take Dorchester Heights and the British evacuate Boston

July 1776 The Continental Congress adopts the Declaration of Independence of the United States

These were years when Great Britain, still groaning under the debts incurred during the Seven Years’ War (1756–63), began tightening the reins on its imperial possessions all over the globe. In America, this meant restrictions on westward expansion, stronger enforcement of customs regulations, and new taxes. In India, this meant increased control over the East India Company.

The employees of the East India Company were not just traders in tea and textiles. Since the reign of Elizabeth I, the company had also been fortifying, making allies, and fighting rivals in the lands east of the Cape of Good Hope. It had a monopoly on the eastern trade, and its role took an imperial turn in the 1750s. Eight years after Robert Clive defeated the Nawab of Bengal at the battle of Plassey in 1757, he arranged to have the company assume the civil administration (and tax collection) in Bengal.

General clamour

Many Britons had high hopes for this new source of revenue but then, in the autumn of 1769, Indian affairs took a horrific turn. A famine struck Bengal, killing at least 1.2 million people – this was equivalent to half the population of the 13 American colonies at the time. A horrified British public blamed the East India Company for the disaster. “The oppressions of India,” wrote Horace Walpole, “under the rapine and cruelties of the servants of the company, had now reached England, and created general clamour here.”

The East India Company’s troubles multiplied. In 1772, manipulations of its stock were blamed for a series of bank failures that sent a shockwave of bankruptcies across the globe. The company was losing money on its military ventures in India. The Bank of England refused to keep lending it money, and it owed hundreds of thousands of pounds in back taxes. What’s more, competition from smugglers and excessive imports led the company to amass 17.5 million pounds of tea in its warehouses – more than the English nation drank in a year.

To rescue the company (and gain greater control over it), parliament passed a series of laws in 1773, including the Tea Act. This law levied no new taxes on Americans, but it allowed the company to ship its tea directly to America for the first time. The legislation, Americans feared, would have three effects. First, it granted a monopoly company special privileges in America, cutting out American merchants (except a few hand-picked consignees). Second, it encouraged further payment of a tax that the Americans had been decrying for six years. Third, the revenue from the tax was used to pay the salaries of certain civil officials (including the Massachusetts governor), leaving them unaccountable to the people.

Americans were vitriolic in their response, and their pamphlets resounded in global language. “Hampden”, a New York writer, warned that the East India Company was “lost to all the Feelings of Humanity” as they “monopolised the absolute Necessaries of Life in India, at a Time of apprehended Scarcity”. The new tea trade, he warned, would “support the Tyranny of the [Company] in the East, enslave the West, and prepare us fit Victims for the Exercise of that horrid Inhumanity they have… practised, in the Face of the Sun, on the helpless Asiaticks”. John Dickinson, a Pennsylvania lawyer who gained fame as a protestor against British taxes, similarly attacked the East India Company. “Their Conduct in Asia, for some Years past, has given ample Proof, how little they regard the Laws of Nations, the Rights, Liberties, or Lives of Men.”

Having drained Bengal of its wealth, he wrote, they now “cast their Eyes on America, as a new Theatre, wheron to exercise their Talents of Rapine, Oppression and Cruelty. The Monopoly of Tea, is, I dare say, but a small Part of the Plan they have formed to strip us of our Property. But thank GOD, we are not Sea Poys, or Marattas, but British Subjects, who are born to Liberty, who know its Worth, and who prize it high.”

Bostonians responded to these warnings. Under pressure from the Sons of Liberty (a group of American patriots) in New York and Philadelphia, they threatened Boston’s consignees until they fled the town. When the first of the tea ships arrived on 28 November 1773, the Bostonians demanded that the cargo be returned to London without unloading. The owner, a Quaker merchant named Francis Rotch, protested that he couldn’t do this, by law, and so a stalemate of almost three weeks ensued. Upon the stroke of midnight on 17 December, the British customs service would have the power to step in, seize the tea, and sell it at auction.

Therefore, the evening before, on 16 December, the Bostonians got their Indian disguises ready. These were crude costumes, not meant to conceal so much as warn the community not to reveal the perpetrators’ identities. Yet the choice of a Native American disguise was still significant. Americans were often portrayed as American Indians in British cartoons, and the colonists were often lumped in with the indigenous population and derided as savages. What better way to blunt the sting of this epithet than to assume an Indian disguise?

The Bostonians may have been inspired by a New York City newspaper piece in which “The MOHAWKS” wrote that they were “determined not to be enslaved, by any power on earth”, and promised “an unwelcome visit” to anyone who should land tea on American shores. The tea destroyers of Boston selected a costume that situated them on the other side of the Atlantic ocean from the king and parliament. They were beginning to think of themselves as Americans rather than British subjects, as free men throwing off the shackles of empire.

Who were the key players in the Boston Tea Party?

Although most of the tea destroyers were born in Massachusetts, some had more far-flung origins. James Swan, an anti-slavery pamphleteer, was born in Fifeshire, Scotland. Nicholas Campbell hailed from the island of Malta. John Peters had come to America from Lisbon. Although there were wealthy merchants and professionals among the destroyers, the bulk of them were craftsmen who worked with their hands, which enabled them to haul the chests of tea to the decks in a short time. Mostly young men between the ages of 18 and 29, they were thrilled to make a bold statement to the world.

And the world responded. Prints of the Boston Tea Party appeared in France and Germany. In Edinburgh, the philosopher Adam Smith shook his head disapprovingly at the “strange absurdity” of the East India Company’s sovereignty in India. He stitched his ideas together into a foundational theory of free market capitalism in 1776. A Persian historian in Calcutta would write in the 1780s that the British-American conflict “arose from this event: the king of the English maintained these five or six years past, a contest with the people of America (a word that signifies a new world), on account of the [East India] Company’s concerns.” Many years later, activists from China to South Africa to Lebanon would explain their actions by comparing them to the Tea Party. As a symbol of anti-colonial nationalism, non-violent civil disobedience, or costumed political spectacle, the Tea Party was irresistible.

In 1773, the diplomat Sir George Macartney waxed poetic about Great Britain, “this vast empire, on which the sun never sets, and whose bounds nature has not yet ascertained”. Bostonians tested those bounds later that year. The Boston Tea Party is often spun as the opening act in the origin story of the United States. Yet it is better understood as a bright conflagration on the horizon of a big world – a fire that still burns brightly.

The global legacy of the Boston Tea Party

More than two centuries after it took place, campaigners around the world are still inspired by the Boston Tea Party as a model of peaceful protest…

Temperance movement

During the 19th century, Americans periodically drew upon the Boston Tea Party as a precedent for democratic protests: labour unions, the Mashpee tribe of Native Americans, women’s suffragists, and both foes and defenders of the anti-slavery movement. As a lawyer in 1854, the future president Abraham Lincoln defended nine women who had destroyed an Illinois saloon in the name of the temperance movement. He argued that the Boston Tea Party was a worthy model for their actions.

Mahatma Gandhi

After the British government in South Africa mandated that resident Indians had to be registered and fingerprinted under the Asiatic Registration Act of 1907, Mahatma Gandhi adopted the practice of satyagraha, or non-violent protest. He led the Indian community in the burning of registration cards at mass meetings in August 1908. Gandhi later wrote that a British newspaper correspondent had compared the protest to the Boston Tea Party.

US tax protestors

Today the Boston Tea Party is proving a rallying point for conservative Americans. American tax protesters have often invoked the Tea Party as their inspiration since the 1970s. The libertarian presidential candidate Ron Paul held a campaign fundraiser on 16 December 2007. In February 2009, a business news broadcaster called for a “tea party” to protest against the US government’s plan to help refinance home mortgages. With the help of national organisations and media attention, the movement stitched together local groups of protestors. The tea partiers have been calling for less federal regulation and lower taxes.

Republic of China (Taiwan)

In late 1923, during the struggle for power in China between the Kuomintang (Chinese Nationalist Party) and the Communist Party of China, Sun Yat-Sen, head of the Kuomintang, threatened to seize customs revenues from Guangzhou. The United States and other western nations sent warships to intervene. On 19 December (three days after the 150th anniversary of the Boston Tea Party), Sun wrote: “We must stop that money from going to Peking to buy arms to kill us, just as your forefathers stopped taxation going to the English coffers by throwing English tea into Boston Harbor.”

African-American civil rights

In his 1963 ‘Letter from a Birmingham Jail,’ the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr called for a “nonviolent direct action program” in Birmingham, Alabama. Discussing his historical inspiration, he wrote: “In our own nation, the Boston Tea Party represented a massive act of civil disobedience.” Three years later, Robert F Williams would recall the Tea Party to rally more violent action on behalf of African-American civil rights: “Burn, baby, burn.”

Benjamin L Carp is associate professor of history, Tufts University, Massachusetts. His book Defiance of the Patriots: The Boston Tea Party and the Making of America (Yale University Press) is out now.

Books: Defiance of the Patriots: The Boston Tea Party and the Making of America by Benjamin L Carp (Yale, 2010) The Corporation that Changed the World: How the East India Company Shaped the Modern Multinational by Nick Robins (Pluto, 2006) The Shoemaker and the Tea Party: Memory and the American Revolution by Alfred F Young (Beacon, 1999)

The Tea Act of 1773

Though unwilling to repeal the Townshend duty on tea, Parliament did move to aid the struggling East India Company by passing the Tea Act in 1773. This reduced importation duties on the company and also allowed it to sell tea directly to the colonies without first wholesaling it in Britain. This would result in East India Company tea costing less in the colonies than that provided by smugglers. Moving forward, the East India Company began contracting sales agents in Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Charleston. Aware that the Townshend duty would still be assessed and that this was an attempt by Parliament to break the colonial boycott of British goods, groups like the Sons of Liberty spoke out against the act.

Tax Deadline

With the arrival of the three shipments of British East India Company tea to Boston, the tax on tea, which had been implemented with the passing of the 1767 Townshend Revenue Act, had to be paid the moment the tea was unloaded from the Beaver, Dartmouth, and Eleanor. The absolute deadline for payment of the tax was twenty days after the arrival of the tea. If the tax was not paid within the twenty days following the ships’ arrival, the ships and their cargoes of British East India Company Tea would be seized by authorities. The deadline to pay the tax on the tea the Dartmouth delivered to Boston was December 17. Immediately following the arrival of the Dartmouth at the end of November 1773, pamphlets distributed by the Sons of Liberty appeared throughout the streets of Boston proclaiming, “Friends! Brethren! Countrymen! That worst of Plagues, the detested tea shipped for this port by the East India Company, is now arrived in the Harbor the hour of destruction, or manly opposition to the machinations of Tyranny stares you in the Face…” For the twenty days following the arrival of the Dartmouth, meetings occurred on a daily basis throughout Boston at locations such as the Green Dragon Tavern, Faneuil Hall, and Old South Meeting House to discuss what was to be done about the shipments of “detested tea”. The Sons of Liberty, led by Samuel Adams, was responsible for organizing the Boston Tea Party.

The people of Boston and the surrounding towns meet to discuss the “tea crisis” at the Old South Meeting House. November 29 to 30, 1773.

The people of Boston and the surrounding towns meet for the last time prior to the Boston Tea Party at the Old South Meeting House.

The night that the Sons of Liberty carry out the Boston Tea Party.

The destruction of the British East India Company tea by the Sons of Liberty.

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