In the early 1770s, the patriot movement was slowly gaining steam in the colonies. People like Samuel Adams were looking for ways to bolster the movement and resist what they saw as English tyranny.
The Boston Non-Importation Agreement — in which area merchants pledged not to buy certain goods from Great Britain, including tea — had collapsed. Massachusetts Governor Thomas Hutchinson, whose salary as Governor was augmented by bribes for allowing the smuggling of tea in addition to the British Parliament-imposed tax on tea, wanted to capitalize on the tea business even more. Estimates at the time indicated Americans consumed between 3 million and 6.5 million pounds of tea each year.
Hutchinson owned considerable stock in the East India Company in 1771. But the company, once second in size only to the Bank of England among Britain’s financial institutions, was near bankruptcy. So the company raised the price on tea to 3 shillings a pound. Then, in 1773, Parliament rewarded the company by granting it a monopoly, allowing it to handle both the shipping and the sales of tea to the colonies. While this would lower prices, English and American traders would be stripped of a great source of revenue. Hutchinson, his two sons and his son-in-law were granted exclusive rights to trade the tea in the colonies.
Colonists were outraged, and Adams had a new drum to beat: If the Crown could apply this new method of favoritism to tea, it could apply it to all commodities.
In late November 1773, three cargo ships carrying tea arrived in Boston Harbor. A couple of weeks before, a group of patriots and merchants called the North End Caucus had voted to deny any landing of tea shipped by the East India Company. A confrontation was looming.
Boston patriots had no desire to hurt the ship owners. Their beef was with the Crown and the East India Company. They encouraged the owner of one of the ships, 23-year-old Francis Rotch, to take his tea cargo elsewhere. But, once docked, the Custom House would not allow the ship to leave until the duty was paid on the tea. Rotch petitioned the customs officer and Hutchinson for relief numerous times to no avail. He was stuck.
If he tried to leave, he told the patriots, the British Navy would either sink his ship or confiscate it and its load. Either would ruin him. However, a deadline was drawing near. Rotch had until Dec. 17 to pay his duty or His Majesty’s warships would intercede.
On Dec. 16, Adams suggested Rotch appeal to Hutchinson one more time. When Rotch returned unsuccessfully late that afternoon to Old South Church, where a group of Bostonians had gathered, Adams gave a signal, and a war whoop sounded from the gallery. Forty or 50 men dressed as Indians burst inside and began shouting, “The Mohawks are come!” and “Hurray for Griffins Wharf!” Those who knew the evening’s plan shouted “Boston harbor a teapot tonight!”
They headed toward the wharf and along the way were joined by dozens of others, some dressed as Indians with faces darkened and others with no disguise at all. They boarded three vessels and began breaking open boxes of tea and throwing them over the sides.
At anchor a few hundred yards away, British sailors watched the destruction from their ships. The “Mohawks” didn’t know the admiral had no orders to stop them and feared harming innocents if he fired his guns in the direction of the wharf. They worked methodically, but quickly, and destroyed all the tea on board the three ships.
When news of the destruction reached Great Britain, even America’s oldest friend in Parliament, William Pitt, was appalled. He considered it a criminal act.
But back in the colonies, tea agents resigned and tea began rotting in cellars. A complete ban on the sale and consumption of English tea in the colonies was in place.
Source: Patriots: The Men Who Started the American Revolution, by A.J. Langguth