Boston tea party

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Boston tea party

The 16th of December 1773 AD

“No taxation without representation!” The American colonists in the 1760s and 1770s were determined that they would not pay taxes to a parliament where they enjoyed no representation. The British government, having funded the war against the combined forces of the French and the Indians in the 1760s that gave the colonies security and peace were equally determined that the colonists should pay their way.

With the benefit of historical hindsight, the American Revolution was inevitable. The colonies were now several generations old, with weaker emotional ties to Britain. More non-English colonists were arriving (there were French and Portuguese among the Tea Party participants). In the Age of Reason there were many free-thinkers and radicals in the new lands. The administration of the colonies was heavy-handed - the regular Quartering Acts, forcing householders to lodge troops seem almost designed to arouse indignation and scandal.

There was no single spark to ignite the Revolution, rather a series of events all making it impossible for a peaceful resolution. The Boston Tea Party was one of the greatest of these events, memorable as a symbol of resistance, but also because of the value of the goods destroyed and the strange (and it seems flimsy) disguises assumed by some of the raiders.

There had been confrontation between the colonists and British authorities over taxation, with the Stamp Act withdrawn to appease the Americans. There were vested interests involved in the tea trade too, given that smuggling of duty-free Dutch tea had become big business for many of the wealthy in New England.

To establish the principle that Britain could tax the colonies a clever ruse was employed. The East India Company was permitted to ship tea from Britain without paying the high taxes in place there, and a far smaller tax was to be levied in the Americas. This undercut the smugglers. But the colonists held firm, and rejected the temptation of cheap tea, preferring raspberry leaf infusions and coffee rather than give in to the crown. In Philadelphia, Charleston and New York defiance continued, ships being turned away or allowed to unload tea that then remained in warehouses for years. John Hancock had organised a tea boycott, hitting the East India Company hard – their imports to America dropped from over 300,000 pounds to 520.

In December 1773 in the port of Boston a stalemate arose when three ships, the Dartmouth, the Eleanour and the Beaver, lay at the docks loaded with tea from London that the Bostonians wanted to be returned to England, while the Governor, Thomas Hutchinson, desired to be landed to assert his authority. He had the port blockaded to prevent the exit of the ships, and thinking he had won left the city.

The poor owner of the Dartmouth, Mr Rotch, wanted to avoid conflict (and losses) and return the ship and cargo to England and along with others not of the colonists' cause he was decidedly under threat. On the evening of December 16th, when it was learned that the customs authorities would not allow the ships to leave until they had (symbolically) paid duty, a crowd of between 7,000 and 8,000 met to hear speeches by the likes of Samuel Adams. When the latter had stated: “This meeting can do no more to save the country,” in what was almost certainly a pre-arranged move a group of some 200 men, most of them under 20-years-old and many of them stevedores as shown by the speed of their later actions, marched two-by-two on the Dartmouth.

Some of the raiders were ‘disguised’ as Mohawks, with clubs in hand and making war whoops. But generally the affair was said to have been calm and measured. Guards kept order among the on-looking crowd. Over several hours the well-ordered men dumped the contents of 352 tea chests, some 45 tons of tea-bricks, into the waters, carrying out the threat of the meeting to turn Boston harbour into a tea-pot. The cargo was worth £10,000, a huge sum.

The Boston Tea Party marks a moment of separation between colonies and Britain. In the old country government and opposition alike were angered at the destruction of property in this rebellious act. In the colony it served as a demonstration of unity and of strength.

Two and a half years later the colonies would declare their independence and deservedly go on to win it, and the rest as they say is history. It is slim consolation to those in Britain that to this day it is still almost impossible to get a decent cup of tea in the USA.

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Battle of Harlaw - 1411, Mary Queen of Scots abdicates - 1567, Gibraltar Seized - 1704, Speaking Clock Introduced - 1936
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