We’ve all learned that our Colonial forebears helped touch off the American Revolution by turning Boston Harbor into a big tea pot to protest “taxation without representation”. In fact, wealthy Dutch smugglers set the whole thing up.
Is the original story not a great tale of democracy? Angry Patriots, righteously fed up with burdensome taxes and British oppression, seize a British ship and spoil the cargo. In reality, there’s much more to the story.
The tale begins with the 1765 Stamp Act, eight years before the start of the Revolution. Because it cost Britain money to defend the colonies, the king wanted help paying the bill. This would happen through tax stamps, similar to modern postage stamps, required on various documents, printed material, goods, etc. For the same reason that proclaiming, “I will raise taxes” is the same as saying, ”don’t elect me” 12 generations later, this caused an outcry. Then, as now, most Americans would rather part with their lifeblood than pay an extra dime in taxes.
The colonists resorted to various forms of terrorism. Mobs tarred and feathered government officials, burned them in effigy, and torched their homes and possessions. Within months, the horrified British gave up on the Stamp Act Fiasco.
Next the British tried the Townshend Act 1767, imposing customs duties and hoping the average citizen wouldn’t notice. Tea, much-loved in the colonies, was among the taxed Imports. Of course, Britain lacked the resources to patrol the entire colonial coastline against enterprising Dutch smugglers, who snuck shiploads of tea past customs officials. Seeing opportunity, clever colonial businessman bought and distributed smuggled tea. Like teen-clothing branders two centuries later, they marketed their product by associating it with defiant rebellion. It worked. Colonials boycotted legally imported tea, often refusing to let it be unloaded from ships.
The Boston Massacre of 1770, a shooting incident that escalated from heckling and a snowball fight, didn’t help. The British realized that the Townshend Act wasn’t working, but they maintained the tea tax as a symbol of authority. The British East India Company, aka John Company, which monopolized the importation of Indian tea to America, was losing a lot of money. In response Parliament passed the 1773 Tea Act, which relaxed customs duties and allowed John Company to bypass costly middlemen. It was a brilliant idea. John Company could unload ruinously vast inventories of tea while pacifying the tax-hating, bargain-hunting colonials.
In November 1773, three British Merchant ships anchored in Boston Harbor with the first loads of tea. Amid much Social brouhaha, the Smugglers roused a mob that prevented the tea from being unloaded, but by December 16, it was clear that the ships would land their tea the next day.
One group of protesters fortified itself with lots of liquor, dressed up in Indian costumes, and staggered toward the Wharf in an outrage. Those who didn’t fall into the water along the way boarded the British ships and began dragging the cargo up from the holds, cracking open designated cases and heaving tea leaves into the water. By the end of the night, approximately 45 tons of tea had been dumped overboard, and tea leaves washed up on Boston shores for weeks.
Afterward, the Sons of Liberty wandered home, proud of their patriotic accomplishment. Similar tea parties occurred in other colonial ports. The colonies had successfully impugned King George III and maintained a healthy business climate for smugglers.