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The Boston Tea Party was an act of protest by the American colonists against Great Britain in which they destroyed many crates of tea bricks on ships in Boston Harbor. The incident, which took place on Thursday, December 16, 1773, has been seen as helping to spark the American Revolution.
The Stamp Act of 1765 and the Townshend Acts of 1767 angered colonists regarding British decisions on taxing the colonies despite a lack of representation in the Westminster Parliament. One of the protesters was John Hancock. In 1768, Hancock’s ship Liberty was seized by customs officials, and he was charged with smuggling. He was defended by John Adams, and the charges were eventually dropped. However, Hancock later faced several hundred more indictments.
Hancock organized a boycott of tea from China sold by the British East India Company, whose sales in the colonies then fell from 320,000 pounds (145,000 kg) to 520 pounds (240 kg). By 1773, the company had large debts, huge stocks of tea in its warehouses and no prospect of selling it because smugglers, such as Hancock, were importing tea without paying import taxes. The British government passed the Tea Act, which allowed the East India Company to sell tea to the colonies directly and without “payment of any customs or duties whatsoever”. This tax break allowed the East India Company to sell for lower prices than those offered by the colonial merchants.
American colonists resented this favored treatment of a major company, which employed lobbyists and wielded great influence in Parliament. Protests resulted in both Philadelphia and New York, but it was those in Boston that made their mark in history. Still reeling from the Hutchinson letters, Bostonians suspected the new Tea Tax was simply another attempt by the British Parliament to squash American freedom. Samuel Adams, and others of like mind, called for agents and consignees of the East India Company tea to abandon their positions; consignees who hesitated were terrorized through attacks on their warehouses and even their homes.
The first of many ships carrying the East India Company tea was HMS Dartmouth arriving in late November 1773. A standoff ensued between the port authorities and the Sons of Liberty. Samuel Adams whipped up the growing crowd by demanding a series of protest meetings. Coming from both the city and outlying areas, thousands attended these meetings; every meeting larger than the one before. The crowds shouted defiance not only at the British Parliament, the East India Company, and HMS Dartmouth but at Governor Thomas Hutchinson as well, who was still struggling to have the tea landed. On the night of December 16, the protest meeting, held at Boston’s Old South Church, was the largest yet seen. An estimated 8,000 people were said to have attended.
On Thursday, December 16, 1773, the evening before the tea was due to be landed, on a signal given by Samuel Adams, the Sons of Liberty thinly disguised as Mohawk Indians, left the massive protest meeting and headed toward Griffin’s Wharf, where lay HMS Dartmouth and her newly arrived, tea bearing, sister ships HMS Beaver and HMS Eleanour. Swiftly and efficiently, casks of tea were brought up from the hold to the deck, reasonable proof that some of the “Indians” were, in fact, longshoremen. The casks were opened and the tea dumped overboard; the work, lasting well into the night, was quick, thorough, and efficient. By dawn, 90,000 lbs (45 tons) of tea worth an estimated £10,000 had been consigned to waters of Boston harbor. Nothing else had been damaged or stolen, except a single padlock accidentally broken and anonymously replaced not long thereafter. Tea washed up on the shores around Boston for weeks.
This act brought criticism from both colonial and British officials. For instance, Benjamin Franklin stated that the destroyed tea must be repaid, and he offered to repay with his own money. The British government responded by closing the port of Boston and put in place other laws that were known as the “Intolerable Acts,” also called the Coercive Acts, or Punitive Acts. However, a number of colonists were inspired to carry out similar acts, such as the burning of the Peggy Stewart. The Boston Tea Party eventually proved to be one of the many causes that led to the American Revolution. At the very least, the Boston Tea Party and the reaction that followed served to rally support for revolutionaries in the thirteen colonies who were eventually successful in their fight for independence.
As far as tea drinking itself was concerned, many colonists, in Boston and elsewhere in the country, pledged to keep away from the drink as a protest, turning instead to “Balsamic hyperion” (made from raspberry leaves), other herbal infusions and coffee. This social protest movement away from tea drinking was not, however, long-lived.
The Boston Tea Party is known around the world and has been inspirational to other rebels. For example, Erik H. Erikson records in his book “Gandhi’s Truths” that when Mahatma Gandhi met with the British viceroy in 1930 after the Indian salt protest campaign, Gandhi took some duty-free salt from his shawl and said, with a smile, that the salt was “to remind us of the famous Boston Tea Party.”