The Boston Tea Party 16th Dec 1773 (Commemmorative Speech)
It was the most infamous tea party in history. British warships could only stand and watch. Officials waited to see what would happen next. The raiders removed their shoes to shake out any loose tea that might identify them as perpetrators. They had accomplished their goal. Ensuring that they had not harmed any other thing, they simply marched defiantly back through town.
The Boston Tea Party would change history. When news reached the English King and his Parliament, there would be outrage at the act of vandalism and ‘theft’. There would be demands for justice, recompense and punishment for those Bostonians responsible. The act of ‘spoiling’ the cargo of tea would be considered a glove thrown down to the English by the colonists. The ensuing rebellion, would become the American Revolution. From it, the most powerful nation on the face of the earth would be born.
To understand why such an act could be considered heroic, we need to understand the relationship that existed between England and its colonies in America. In the second half of the 18th century, the English economy was in the doldrums. Seven years of war had put an almighty pressure on its finances. Its monarch, King George the third, relied on his prime minister to balance the books and afford him his own luxuries. A solution was to place tax after tax on the American Colonies.
These taxes were loathed by the colonists. They seethed at the thought that Americans should have to pay tax to a government they had no say in. It was called tax without representation. Yet squeezing the colonists, was seen as a way of raising valuable revenue, some of which helped run the governing of the territories.
In 1764, the Sugar Act was passed by Parliament. This introduced tax on sugar, coffee and wine. The Stamp Act of 1763 taxed all printed matter from newspapers to playing cards. The Townsend Act of 1767 added tax to glass, paints, paper and tea. It is difficult to appreciate quite what an importance tea had assumed since its discovery. Regarded as a luxurious and valuable item, the growing and importing of tea had become a huge business. A tax imposed on its import into the colonies was a red rag to a people already fed up with being taxed by the English government. Already there were movements uniting in opposition. Speakers of dissent called for a revolt and an uprising against such taxes and even government.
The Boston Massacre in 1770 had shown that the situation in the colonies was volatile. Yet Boston, remained a separate colony, a spark would be needed to ignite ferment and unite the colonies. Already the good people of Boston in protest had boycotted ‘English’ tea in favour of coffee and other herbal infusions. In fact an astonishing 900,000 lbs of tea had been imported in 1769. Three years later that figure had fallen to 237,000 lbs. Imported duty free Dutch teas were effectively smuggled in through American Merchants. Yet the English government decided to try to force the Colonies to accept the highly taxed tea piling up in warehouses of the British East India Company. Parliament passed the infamous Tea Act. It handed that corrupt and ailing company the sole rights to export tea to the Colonies. At the same time it reduced the tax, assuming the colonies would tow the line.
Yet this forced imposition, indicating an acceptance of the right to tax to colonies was a step too far. It outraged the citizens up and down the coast of the American Colonies. It undercut the existing merchants. Indignantly the newly arrived ships carrying tea, were turned away in New York and Philadelphia. In Charleston the tea was loaded into warehouses and allowed to rot. In Boston with feelings running high, three ships, the Beaver, the Eleanor and the Dartmouth sat in the harbour unable to unload their cargo.
A crowd of 5,000 watched as meeting after meeting was unable to solve the impasse. The Patriots would not allow the ships to unload. Governor Thomas Hutchinson would not permit the ship to sail from the harbour without paying its duty. A fleet of warships decreed that if the tea were not allowed ashore, it would force the same under their guns the following day.
Fifty patriots assumed their disguises and armed themselves with axes. Calling themselves the ‘Sons of Liberty’ watched by the crowd they boarded the ships and demanded the keys to the hold. They may have been rebellious but they were orderly. They were disciplined and intent on one objective only. All the while expecting to be challenged they worked quickly, hacking open the chests and spilling the tea into the harbour. Eventually the entire cargo had been pitched overboard. Having swept the decks they ensured that no further damage was undertaken. The next morning they attempted to sink any remaining tea, to ensure that it was spoiled and put beyond use. All in all ten thousand pounds worth of tea was ruined. It would be the equivalent of millions of dollars today.
The King of England was outraged. Up and down the coast other colonies followed suit. Such a brave act of defiance could not go unchallenged. In March Parliament had passed the Boston Port Act. This effectively shut the port to Bostonians until they had made good the damage they had caused. The government were going to try to make an example of Massachusetts. Instead the defiance increased and an uneasy English government tried too late to offer a peaceful solution. Through this one single act of courage and defiance, the colonies were becoming united.
A month later a skirmish on the Lexington Green between the new governors’ troops and patriots turned a crisis into the beginning of a war. It was a war that England could neither afford, control nor win. It had been taught a tidy lesson. It was a lesson that had begun on the wharfs of Boston, with a tea party that changed the world.