On the evening of December 16th, 1773, a party of up to 130 men emerged from the Old South Meeting House on Milk St in Boston and made for the city’s harbor. This angry procession marched toward Griffin’s Wharf with their hats low, their scarves drawn up, and in the case of a hardy few, wearing an outfit that disguised them as Mohawk warriors.
This group had a good reason to conceal their identities, for they were intent on committing one of the most notorious acts of property damage in American history. Over the course of the next few hours, these men boarded the merchant ships docked at the Wharf and dumped their cargo – several hundred crates full of East Indian tea – into the harbor.
This moment, memorialized ever after as the Boston Tea Party, has become one of the most celebrated events in American history. It sparked the crisis between colonial Americans and their British imperial government in London, a crisis that culminated in the American Revolution and American independence.
Those angry Bostonians who descended on Griffin’s Wharf that cold December night could not, however, have anticipated the climactic events they were setting in motion. In 1773, Americans were only just beginning to nurse the famous grievance that would sustain their cause – No taxation without representation! – through ten years of war with Britain. Only a very few hardliners were yet contemplating American independence as a serious ambition.
So what were they upset about? And what did they hope their actions would achieve?
Chief among their grievances was that the British government had granted to the East India Company a monopoly on selling tea in North America. Parliament had devised the monopoly to help the EIC’s bottom line, because its costs in exporting goods from China and India to Europe had gotten seriously out of hand, at the same time as its profits were dwindling due to an epidemic of smuggling.
Americans, however, had long gotten their tea from local suppliers at competitive prices, and resented the hike in costs that the monopoly caused. It didn’t help their mood that an additional duty imposed on tea sales by the British Tea Act of 1773 raised prices even further. Merchants like John Hancock had made their fortune on Americans’ fervent consumption of tea, and stood to lose the most should the EIC’s monopoly be allowed to stand.
Efforts by local aldermen and other colonial politicians in Boston to prevent the EIC from inspecting ships suspected of smuggling tea into the city had been thwarted repeatedly by Governor Thomas Hutchinson, who would later become one of America’s most famous British Loyalists. It was in fact at a meeting to discuss the Governor’s obstinate stand in favor of the Tea Act on the 16th December, 1773, that the Tea Party began.
The British government did not sympathize with those merchants who felt the EIC’s tea monopoly was a threat to their bottom line. In fact, its response – the Coercive Acts, which American patriots later dubbed “the Intolerable Acts” –shut the city’s merchants down. The Acts closed the port of Boston, prorogued the Massachusetts government, made colonial courts answerable to the British bench, and increased the government’s powers to station troops in cities to clamp down on disorder.
What followed was, of course, a disaster for the East India Company and the British government, and life-changing for men like John Hancock. The America Revolution transformed how commerce and consumption worked in North America, ending the EIC’s profitable monopoly, and arguably, Americans’ love affair with tea.
In the process, it immortalized those men whose act of willful property destruction on that cold December night heated the British Imperial Crisis to boiling point, and steeped its combatants in a conflict that was anything but aromatic.