Most Americans can tell you that the first unofficial “declaration of independence” happened in Boston, when a band of tax-hating renegades dumped King George’s beloved tea into the harbor, a spirited act of defiance that united the colonies in revolution.
But as with most well-trod origin stories, the true history of the Boston Tea Party is far more complicated than the grammar-school version, and the real facts of what happened on that fateful night in 1773 might surprise you.
1. Colonists weren’t protesting a higher tax on tea.
Easily the biggest surprise about the Boston Tea Party is that the uprising wasn’t a protest against a new tax hike on tea. Although taxes stoked colonist anger, the Tea Act itself didn’t raise the price of tea in the colonies by one red cent (or shilling, as it were).
The confusion is partly timing and partly semantics. Boston’s Sons of Liberty were absolutely responding to the British Parliament’s passage of the Tea Act of 1773 when they planned the Boston Tea Party. And with a name like the Tea Act, it’s fair to think that the law was all about raising taxes on tea.
The truth is that tea imports to the American Colonies had been taxed by the Crown since the passing of the 1767 Townshend Revenue Act, along with taxes on other commodities like paper, paint, oil and glass. The difference is that all of those other import taxes were lifted in 1770, except for tea, a pointed reminder of the King’s control over his far-off subjects.
Benjamin Carp, a history professor at Brooklyn College and author of Defiance of the Patriots: The Boston Tea Party and the Making of America, says that the Tea Act of 1773 was onerous in a different way. It was essentially a British government bailout of the British East India Company, which was hemorrhaging money and weighed down with unsold tea. The Tea Act allowed the East India Company to unload 544,000 pounds of old tea, commission-free, on the American Colonies at a bargain price.
Cheaper tea sounds good, says Carp, but for the Sons of Liberty—many of whom were merchants and even tea smugglers—the Tea Act smelled like a ploy to get the masses comfortable with paying a tax to the Crown.
“You’re going to seduce Americans into being ‘obedient colonists’ by making the price lower,” says Carp. “If we accept the principal of allowing parliament to tax us, they’ll eventually make the taxes heavier on us. It’s the slippery slope argument.”
2. The attacked ships were American and the tea wasn’t the King’s.
The popular notion of the Boston Tea Party is that angry colonists “stuck it to King George” by boarding British ships and dumping crate loads of the King’s precious tea into the Boston Harbor. But that story’s not true on two accounts.
First, the ships that were boarded by the Sons of Liberty, the Beaver, the Dartmouth and the Eleanor, were built and owned by Americans. Two of the ships were primarily whaling vessels. After delivering valuable shipments of sperm whale oil and brain matter to London in 1773, the ships were loaded with tea en route to the American Colonies. Although not British, some of the ship’s American owners were indeed Tory sympathizers.
Second, the tea destroyed by the night raiders was not the King’s. It was private property owned by the East India Company and transported on privately contracted shipping vessels. The value of the 340 chests of squandered tea would total nearly $2 million in today’s money.
3. The tea was Chinese, not Indian, and lots of it was green.
This is another naming problem. The East India Company exported a lot of goods from India in the 18th century, including spices and cotton, but it obtained almost all of its tea from China. Trading ships traveled from Canton to London loaded down with Chinese tea, which was then exported to British colonies the world over.
The East India didn’t install its first tea plantations in India until the 1830s.
Another surprising tidbit is that 22 percent of the tea that the patriots sent to the bottom of Boston Harbor was green tea. According to the Boston Tea Party Ships and Museum, Thomas Jefferson and George Washington were fans of a particular Chinese green tea variety called “hyson.”
4. The Tea Party, itself, didn’t incite revolution.
There’s this idea that the Boston Tea Party was the rallying cry that galvanized the colonies for revolution, but Carp says that many strong opponents of British rule, George Washington among them, denounced acts of lawless and violence, especially against private property.
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While the Tea Party itself didn’t mobilize Americans en masse, it was Parliament’s reaction to it that did. In 1774, the UK passed what are known as the Intolerable Acts or the Coercive Acts, a series of punitive measures meant to teach the rebellious colonists who was boss.
Many of these sanctions were levied on the Massachusetts Colony and Boston itself, including the closing of Boston Harbor, replacing Boston’s elected leaders with those appointed by the Crown, and forcing the quartering of British troops in private homes.
“Taxation without representation was a dangerous precedent in and of itself, but now they were messing with the Massachusetts charter,” says Carp, “taking away rights that Massachusetts had previously enjoyed. As uncomfortable as some colonists might have been with the Tea Party action itself, they were way more uncomfortable with the authoritarian reaction by Parliament.”
5. Tea Party protestors dressed as ‘Indians,’ but not convincingly.
The Sons of Liberty famous masqueraded in Native American dress on the night of the Tea Party raid, complete with tomahawks and faces darkened with coal soot. But were they really trying to pass themselves off as local Mohawk or Narragansett tribesmen?
Not likely, says Carp. For starters, it was customary in 18th-century England for protestors to “crossdress” in one way or another—blackening their faces, dressing as women, or even Catholic priests—to create an atmosphere of misrule.
Secondly, the Sons of Liberty were cashing in on the image of the Native American as an independent spirit, the epitome of anti-colonialism. “By adopting that identity, they’re saying, ‘We are defiant. We are unbowed. We won’t be defeated,’” says Carp.
And third, there was the practical reason for masking their identities. They were committing a crime! Even if they knew that no one would believe they were actual Native Americans, the disguise sent a clear message to anyone who would dare to snitch: don’t you dare!
6. No one called it the ‘Boston Tea Party.’
The Boston Tea Party occurred in 1773, but the very first time that the words “Boston Tea Party” appeared in print was in 1825, and in most of those early mentions, the word “party” didn’t refer to a celebratory event with cakes and balloons, but to a party of men. An 1829 obituary of Nicholas Campbell notes that he was “one of the ever-memorable Boston Tea Party.”
Soon after the rebellious act was committed, Carp says, it was simply referred to as “the destruction of tea in Boston Harbor, or something similarly cumbersome.”
There’s some question if the social known as a “tea party” even existed in the 1770s. The British practice of high tea didn’t take hold until the Victorian Era in the mid-19th century, and Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, with its famous “Mad Hatter’s Tea Party,” wasn’t published until 1865.
7. After Boston, there were other ‘tea parties.’
During the Philadelphia Tea Party, which took place just nine days after Boston’s, no tea was destroyed, but the captain of a ship carrying the largest delivery of East India Company tea was threatened with being tarred and feathered if he didn’t return the “wretched weed” to England. Which he did.
In Charleston, South Carolina, a ship arrived in November 1774 carrying tea, but the captain swore that he was unaware of the controversial cargo. Angry residents blamed local merchants who had ordered the tea and forced them to dump it in the harbor themselves.