The Boston Tea Party: Why was tea so important?

Posted on November 17, 2011. Filed under: American history, Revolutionary War, Truth v. Myth | Tags: , , |

In part 2 of our series on the Boston Tea Party, we ask, why tea? Why was this commodity so symbolic, the one which American patriots chose to make a political stand over?

Until the 1700s, tea was a luxury item, very expensive and looked on with a little suspicion. But  by 1765 tea trade represented 70-90% of the imports of the powerful British East India Company. For a very interesting description of the EIC, its role in the British government, and the debt that threatened to destroy it, all of which have a large role to play in the Boston Tea Party, see Benjamin’s Carp’s Defiance of the Patriots: The Boston Tea Party and the Making of America, an invaluable book to which this Truth v. Myth series is deeply indebted.

Tea came to the Americas legally, through the EIC, and illegally, through American smugglers. By the mid-1700s, the price was low enough to move tea from exotic luxury to daily drink, but it retained its mystique. Tea-drinking was the center of domestic rituals in households high and low, and owning all the accoutrements of tea-making and drinking was to have status—status that was recognized on both sides of the Atlantic. As Carp describes it,

“During the eighteenth century, tea became the drink of respectable British and colonial households everywhere. The wealthiest families adopted tea ceremonies first, giving tea immense cultural cachet. …tea was a regular family event. …The woman of the house oversaw the  making of tea and assigned a series of tasks and errands to other family members, bringing the family together under her direction. …Tea became a ritual of family solidarity, sustenance, and politeness. To master the tea ceremony was to announce your own virtue… The striving ‘middle class’ of tradesmen, professionals, and landowners couldn’t resist the chance to partake in this elite pastime. You didn’t have to have a hereditary title, or even be particularly wealthy, to sip respectably at the tea table. …tea had become a new necessity. Addictive, stimulating, lightweight, and easy to prepare, [tea] could conquer sleep and thereby make a person more productive: in this way tea was contributing to the growing empire’s economy.” [55-6]

We see, then, that tea was many things: it was classy; it was a shared experience; it was family togetherness; it was caffeine addiction; it was a way for people of all economic classes to show their respectability. Poor families drank tea to get them through the long work day and to show they, too, could appreciate the finer things. Middle-class families drank tea to show the rich that they were sophisticated, too. Wealthy families drank tea with expensive porcelain tea services from Europe or China itself (where the tea came from) and silver utensils to show that they were just as good as people in England, too. All this sophistication was important to Americans, who were always self-conscious about looking provincial in front of their cousins back in England. Americans wanted to show that they were just as good as English people, just as trendy, just as well-mannered.

Of course, there were naysayers. Pamphlets were published on the negative effect tea had on people’s morals, as they did whatever they had to do to pay for tea and the sugar that went with it, and basically sold their souls for fancy tea-sets. Doctors deplored spending money on something that had no nutritional value. Tea, like gin, was seen as a gateway drug to a life of laziness, vanity, vice, and immorality. Valuing any material thing so highly was bound to cause trouble.

On the political side, some Americans worried about contributing so much money to the East India Company. They knew about the Company’s track record in India, where the lives and economy of the native people were held in little regard. American suspicions about the EIC were confirmed in 1769, when a famine hit Bengal, India, which was controlled by the Company. Over 1 million Bengalis died of starvation, the EIC  refused to share its stockpiles of food, and actually raised taxes on the survivors to make up for lost revenue. “As Chatterji wrote, ‘People could die of starvation, but the collection of revenue didn’t stop.’ Warren Hastings, the new governor of Bengal in 1772, reported to London in chilling terms that revenue collection had been ‘violently kept up to its former standard.'” [Carp 11-12]

Such was the source of tea in America, and there were Americans who hesitated to put their own country in thrall to the EIC. (News of the famine and the EIC’s response to it would fan the flames of anti-tea rebellion during the 1773 protests against the Tea Act.) What would happen if America, too, became “enslaved” (as they put it at the time) to the Company? It was not as far-fetched a notion as it seemed. To pay off its mounting debts, which threatened the British government itself (because the government was heavily invested in the EIC and depended on its profits for a large part of its operating budget), the Company shipped more and more tea to the colonies. Europe and England had already had their markets saturated. Now tea rolled into America in ever-larger amounts, which brought the price down nicely for consumers, but also threatened American security because the option to purchase tea was seeming more and more like an obligation to do so. Ships that came into port carrying tea were legally required to unload that cargo—it was illegal to ship the tea back to England. It had to be sold. American commissioners, men who had signed contracts with the EIC to sell imported tea in America, were legally obligated to fulfill those contracts. If they failed to do so, the governor himself had to issue a clearance to send the tea back, but the governor would not do this without receiving clearance from the customhouse that said there was something wrong with the tea. If the tea was fine, there was no option but to unload it for the commissioners to sell. If the commissioners would not accept the tea, it was seized, along with the ship it came on—a ship usually owned by the commissioner himself. So men selling tea in America were in a bind: if they did not accept and sell the tea in America, they would lose their commission to sell tea in the future, lose their valuable ship, and lose the money they had spent to get the tea.

This smacked of coercion to many Americans. Did they really have no choice but to buy EIC tea? What would the Company do to them if they refused to buy the tea?

Granted, much, perhaps most tea for sale in America was illegally smuggled by traders unaffiliated with the EIC, men who had no commission from the British government to sell tea (legally, only the EIC was authorized to sell tea to the Americas). You didn’t have to buy Company tea. But as the Company fought for its life financially, a crackdown on smuggling began. Now Americans faced the prospect of being forced to turn in smugglers to the Company or being punished by the British government. They had to help the EIC maintain a monopoly on American tea sales, strengthening a company that had no respect for human life, as Americans saw it, and which would not hesitate to destroy America as it had destroyed Bengal if necessary. If the Company had a complete monopoly, what price might it begin to charge for tea, which was now seen as a necessity? What political power might it be given in America?

So we see why tea became the flashpoint for rebellion in America. When the 1767 Townshend Acts first put a tax on tea, it was seen as outrageous for a few reasons: a) tea was a necessity and raising the price through a tax would put it out of the reach of many; b) the Company was already making a good profit on tea; c) the new tea tax went to pay the customs officials who forced tea to be unloaded and sold in America.

Americans boycotted tea to protest the Townshend Acts. By now you realize what a huge move this was. Giving up tea was very difficult. It threatened the status of the rich and the energy of the poor. On the most basic level, the boycott led to caffeine-withdrawal headaches that confirmed peoples’ notion that tea was medicinal (since drinking tea again would soothe the headache). Given all this, it is telling that although smuggled tea was available, people did not drink it on principle. Violence escalated, and in 1768 Boston was occupied by British troops, whose presence led eventually to the 1770 Boston Massacre (more on violence in Boston in the next post).  The Townshend Acts were partially repealed, but the tax on tea remained because the EIC was sinking further into debt (in part because it had flooded every market for tea). It had 18 million pounds of unsold tea in its warehouses that it could not sell. And so the Tea Act of 1773 was introduced, on top of the existing tea tax, mandating that the surplus tea be shipped to America and sold at a steep discount. Americans who were trying to keep the tea boycott alive, who knew that many Americans were dying for a chance to return to tea-drinking, were furious. They knew that if the American market was flooded with extra-cheap tea Americans would not be able to resist it, the boycott would end, and the tea tax would be entrenched—the first, perhaps, of many harmful taxes that offered no services to the colonies but simply helped the British control them more tightly. America would be enslaved to the EIC after all.

Now it was paramount to overthrow this tea scheme. In the next post, we’ll see how protest began.

Next time: a tradition of violence

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