Since the advent of the 18th century, tea had been frequently imported to the American colonies. By 1773, it was estimated that American colonists drank approximately 1.2 million pounds of tea annually. In May 1773, the British Parliament, having realised the potential of this lucrative trade, passed the Tea Act granting the British East India Company a monopoly on tea sales and imposing taxes onto the American colonies. In effect, the cost of British tea became high, provoking American colonists to smuggle tea from other European markets.
The tea tax infuriated people and caused ruckus amongst the American colonists, as they believed Britain was unfairly taxing them to pay for expenses incurred during the French and Indian War. The fact that the American colonies were not represented in the Parliament intensified this resentment. Moreover, the business of local merchants, who traditionally served as middlemen in such transitions, was undercut by the direct sale of tea.
In Boston, the resistance to ‘taxation without representation’ culminated in the formation of the Boston Tea Party on the night of Thursday December 16th, 1773. Colonists disguised as Native Americans swarmed aboard three tea ships moored at Griffin’s Wharf and dumped 340 chests of Chinese cargo overboard. The total damage caused exceeded 1.7 million dollars in today’s currency. The event was carried out by a group of 116 Patriots led by Samuel Adams, known as the Sons of Liberty. As recounted by eyewitnesses the entire episode was non-violent. A Ballad of the Boston Tea Party penned by Oliver Wendell Homes describes the incident as follows:
“No! ne’er was mingled such a draught
In palace, hall, or arbor,
As freeman brewed and tyrants quaffed,
That night in Boston Harbor.”
The deeds of December 16th, 1773, appalled British political opinion makers of all stripes, and united all parties in Britain against the American radicals. Even Americans like George Washington and Benjamin Franklin disapproved of the occurrence, as they believed private property to be sacrosanct.
After the Boston Tea Party the British Parliament sanctioned the Boston Port Act, the first of the so-called Coercive Acts, which forcefully shut down Boston Harbour until the dumped tea was compensated for. Although a similar scenario was re-enacted in New York, Boston bore the brunt of Imperial retaliation because it was the first ‘culprit’. A Second Boston Tea Party was organised in 1774, albeit on a much smaller scale. The harsh retaliations by the British Parliament had the inadvertent consequence of uniting colonists even more in their frustrations against Britain and, ultimately, it ignited the Promethean fire of the American Revolutionary War.