Featuring 1776

A Brief Primer on the ‘Cursed’ Tea

Why the revolution? Part 5 of 8

1776 May Episode

Tea had not been imported by the colonies until 1720, but by the 1760s some one million pounds were being consumed annually, most of it a black tea from the Bohea Hills of China. Tea was an easily smuggled item, stuffed in here and there among the hogsheads and barrels. Boston importers were horrified at losing their lucrative and illegal market, as Lord North had proposed shipping the tea only to favored merchants who were still importing goods from Britain. The merchants against importation of British goods sensed the way the wind blew when two of Governor Thomas Hutchinson’s sons were appointed tea designees. If they lost their tea business, the merchants reasoned, what commerce would go next? The tea drinker in the street simply saw it as a bribe to undermine colonial rights by the offer of cheap tea. Undaunted, the East India Company by October 1773 had 1,253 chests at sea on the way to Charleston, New York and Philadelphia. And Boston. At Charleston the tea was cautiously impounded in a government warehouse and later auctioned off to help pay for the Revolution.

In Boston, of course, it went into the harbor. Invitation to the Boston Tea Party was to come dressed as a Mohawk Indian and give a password followed by a countersign. One uninvited gentleman was spotted in a canoe salvaging tea from the water, and young John Hooton, an apprentice oar maker, capsized him “in the twinkling of an eye.” Carpenter Josiah Wheeler returned late from the party, pulled off his boots and some tea spilled on the floor. “Save it,” said a neighbor who had been sitting up with Mrs. Wheeler. “Don’t touch the cursed stuff,” she cried and swept it into the fire.

New York subsequently had a tea party as did Greenwich, New Jersey. At Annapolis a luckless shipper was forced to burn his own ship by an angry crowd. “All Americans in a flame!” wrote William Eddis, a minor Crown official from Annapolis. “The colonists are ripe for any measure that will tend to the preservation of what they call their natural liberty.”

George III was understandably aflame, too, and even Franklin thought the colonists should pay for the damage. “We must master them or totally leave them to themselves and treat them as aliens,” said the King to his dumbfounded first minister; North then dashed over to Parliament which on March 25, 1774, passed the Boston Port Bill, closing the town effective June 1, to all shipping until the East India Company had been compensated, and the revenue officers repaid for the lost duty.

The colonial word of mouth had been increasingly active since the burning of the Gaspee, a revenue cutter on June 9, 1772, by Rhode Islanders irate over importation taxes. Colonial lines of communication really began humming when news of the port bill reached Boston on May 11, 1774. Paul Revere raced off to New York and Philadelphia, and even royal Governor Hutchinson was shocked. Why this reaction over tea when the burning of the ship Gaspee had been given only a token investigation? Again the British parent insisted too late on obedience from a child grown much too large.

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