by Liz Covart
On November 29, 1773, a group of concerned Bostonians met in Boston’s Old South Meeting House to discuss how to deal with the ships just arrived from London laden with tea to be sold by the East India Company under the terms of Great Britain’s Tea Act. The act sought to accomplish three objectives. First, the Act sought to infuse cash into the financially troubled English East India Company (EIC) by making it easier and cheaper for the Company to sell its tea directly to North American merchants. Second, the act sought to end the colonists’ practice of smuggling tea by eliminating taxes that forced the EIC to sell its tea at prices higher than the tea colonial merchants smuggled from places like the Dutch free-trade port of Sint Eustatius. Finally, Parliament hoped the act would establish a precedent that would end colonists’ resistance to Parliamentary taxation.
Since 1764, colonists had argued that Parliament had no right to tax them given they lacked direct representation in Parliament and that Parliament had never directly taxed them in the past. To this end, every time Parliament passed a tax to raise revenue from the colonies, colonists in North America protested and refused to pay. The Tea Act of 1773 sought to change this dynamic by requiring Americans to pay a small duty on EIC tea while also making EIC tea cheaper to buy than smuggled Dutch tea. Members of Parliament believed colonists would buy the EIC tea because of its cheaper price and in doing so would quietly submit to parliamentary taxation—a submission Parliament could later point to when it passed future revenue acts.
It was this last goal of the Tea Act that gave colonists pause and caused those in Boston to meet in November and December 1773 to discuss their options. These meetings culminated in a large act of protest on December 16, 1773. On the evening of December 16, 1773, a number of Bostonians marched from the Old South Meeting House to Griffin’s Wharf, where three ships laden with East India Company tea waited to be unloaded. Rather than unload the tea and pay the required duty upon it, the gathered Bostonians decided to destroy the tea by throwing it into Boston Harbor.
The Boston protest against the Tea Act has become known as the Boston Tea Party. And in an effort to commemorate and contextualize the 346th anniversary of this important event, the Omohundro Institute’s Digital Project’s team has created a playlist of OI published books, articles, and podcast episodes to help you investigate and better understand the complexities of the Tea Crisis of 1773 and its role in the American Revolution.
We suggest you begin your journey through the Tea Crisis with Jonathan Eacott. Eacott’s award-winning book Selling Empire: India in the Making of Britain and America, 1600-1830 seeks to show how India helped Great Britain make its Pacific and Atlantic empires. It also demonstrates how trade goods from India, like tea, helped create a system of global trade and a system of economic and cultural interdependence.
Tea stood as a symbol of politics long before the Tea Act precipitated a “tea crisis” in 1773. If you’ve ever wondered how tea came to play a central role in the economic, cultural, and political lives of British North Americans, look no further than Episode 160: The Politics of Tea. In this episode, Jane Merritt, Jennifer Anderson, and David Shields will help you explore the politics of tea in British North America.
Now before you dive into the Tea Crisis of 1773, it might be useful to have some context for some of the taxes Parliament tried to impose on British North Americans. In Episode 229: The Townshend Moment, Patrick Griffin will help you investigate the state of the British Empire after the Seven Years’ War (1754-1763) and how Chancellor of the Exchequer Charles Townshend sought to raise government revenue by reforming the trade and governance of British North America.
Revenue acts like the Townshend Duties of 1767 increased the prices of goods British North Americans favored, goods like tea. In an effort to avoid paying these parliamentary taxes and obtain the goods they desired, British North Americans turned to smuggling. But just how BIG of a problem was smuggling in North America? Join Fabrício Prado, Christian Koot, and Wim Klooster in Episode 161: Smuggling and the American Revolution, for an exploration of smuggling and how Americans accomplished it in the eighteenth-century Atlantic World.
With the context for tea, the British Empire, parliamentary taxation, and smuggling in place, you’re ready to jump into the Tea Crisis of 1773. A great place to start is with Mary Beth Norton’s William and Mary Quarterly article, “The Seventh Tea Ship.” Norton tells the story of the Tea Crisis by looking at what happened in Massachusetts when a ship carrying tea destined for Boston wrecked off the coast of Cape Cod. Norton’s research upends the notion that Bay Colonists stood united in their opposition to the Tea Act by revealing how the question of what to do with the salvaged tea divided friends, neighbors, and communities across Massachusetts.
You can also hear Mary Beth Norton discuss her article and the Boston Tea Party in Episode 112: The Tea Crisis of 1773.
And if you’d like to go beyond Massachusetts and see how the Tea Crisis of 1773 played out in the mid-Atlantic, we suggest John Fea’s blog post “The Greenwich Tea Burning: The Political and Religious Roots of Local Revolutionary Resistance.” In this post, Fea explores how the Tea Crisis manifested in the small hamlet of Greenwich, New Jersey in December 1774.
We hope this suggested playlist helps you explore and better understand the Tea Crisis of 1773 and its corresponding events. If you enjoy what you hear and read, please think about subscribing to Ben Franklin’s World: A Podcast About Early American History through your favorite podcast provider and becoming an OI Associate. Your support will not only help sustain our work, it will also subscribe you to the William and Mary Quarterly and bring you into contact with more OI books.