The Truth about the Boston Tea Party
quoted from Thom Hartmann's book <B>What Would Jefferson Do?</B>
The truth about the Tea Party
In elementary school we learned the story that the Revolutionary War was a struggle between the colonists and the king, but a larger story often goes untold until one reaches college history classes. That story is about the instrument of power the king wielded (or which wielded the king's power): a transnational corporation named the East India Company.
It turns out the Boston Tea Party wasn't about tax increases at all. It came about because a crony of the Crown, the East India Company, got a tax cut on its tea in the Tea Act of 1773, and this put all other small merchants at a disadvantage.
The East India Company got its way because it was so huge and powerful.
The early history of the times
We learned that the Pilgrims arrived in America in 1620 on a boat named the Mayflower, but few of us know that they'd chartered the boat from the East India Company, the world's largest and most powerful multinational corporation. The Mayflower, in fact, had already make the crossing between England to North America three times when the Pilgrims chartered it.
The East India Company was most responsible for the rise of England from a weak still-feudal state in the late 1500s to an international powerhouse by the mid-1600s. The Company was Queen Elizabeth I's second attempt to use a corporation to catch up with the other European seafaring powers.
Queen Elizabeth I was the largest shareholder and funder of the Golden Hind, Sir Francis Drake's ship that accidentally (he had planned to travel up the Nile) circumnavigated the globe between 1577 and 1580. Drake returned home with a mind boggling array of treasures looted from various lands, including 26 tons of silver, so all of the investors, including the queen, saw a minimum 5,000 percent return on their investment.
Drakes success helped make Elizabeth willing to fund a new transnational trading company that- on behalf of the British Crown- would compete with the very successful Dutch trading companies. Thus, on December 31, 1600, she authorized a group of 218 noblemen and merchants from London (plus herself) to charter the East India Company.
A significant example of corporate cronyism is that in 1681, King Charles II and Parliament (nearly all of whom were stock-holders) pass "An Act for the Restraining and Punishing Privateers & Pirates." This law required a license to import anything into the Americas (and other British-controlled parts of the world). The incenses were so expensive that they were rarely granted to anybody except the East India Company and other large British corporations. Anybody operating without a license was labeled a privateer and was subject to the death penalty "without the benefit of clergy."
For the next 90 years, the trade provisions of the law were only spottily enforced, mostly because the offenders were usually small, entrepreneurial ships from America and the British navy didn't consider them worth chasing. The Company, facing British reluctance to enforce the law, created its own security force. The Company hired the infamous Captain Kidd to chase America private merchants, until the Company discovered that the good captain was secretly important his seized tea, spices, and other goods into North America. They had him hanged in 1701, and for the next half-century drew more heavily on British irregulars to protect their interests.
The East India Company: History's first Wal-Mart
By the mid-1700s, the East India Company had become, to North America, the Wal-Mart of its day. It imported into North America vast quantities of products, including textiles, tools, steel, and tea, and exported to Europe tons of fur and tobacco, as well as many thousands of Native American slaves. Protesters and competitors were put down ruthlessly, and the Company worked so closely with the British military that they hired General Cornwallis after he lost the Battle of Yorktown in 1781 and put him in charge of much of its lucrative business in India (which they were beginning to rule as a corporate colonial power).
The late 1760s and early 1770s brought a crisis for the East India Company. Most of the easily found gold and other wealth around the world was now safely in Europe. The period between 1760 and 1773 brought a severe recession for both the America colonies and Britain, and demand for the Company's products went flat. Credit was tight, cash was tight, and as the colonies increasingly developed their own industries to manufacture things of steel, silver, and fabric, demand for imports from Europe slowed to a trickle, mostly of tea and spices.
The tea business with North America was still profitable, propping up many other sectors of the Company. As tea became more important, though, the Company also found itself facing increasing numbers of competitors.
Small entrepreneurs up and down the East Coast were building, buying, or chartering small private ships to sail to other parts of Europe or India to buy tea below the prices the Company was selling it for in North America. Nearly ever block in most America cities had a teahouse, which dispensed the colonists' favorite drug of choice and also served as a local social center. Most of these teahouses were small businesses, and by the late 17670s the majority were buying their tea from local entrepreneurial "private" importers.
Fighting the privateers-even with the penalty of death as a weapon- had proved a waste of time. Rarely did the booty seized from a small entrepreneur's ship equal to the cost to track, board, and seize the ship.
A legislative maneuver to quickly sell 17 million pounds of tea.
Desperate for cash, the Company reached out to its stockholders- which included King George III and most of the members of the House of Lords- and asked them for an Enron-style tax cut that would allow them to undercut the prices of the small business people of the colonies.
Parliament complied with the Tea Act of 1773, which not only cut the taxes on the East India Company's tea but also gave the Company a multimillion-pound rebate on taxes already paid on tea in inventory that would one day be shipped to North America.
American colonists, facing the destruction of their local small businesses by the East India Company, rebelled. The tax cut was so unfair that it revived the battle cry, "No taxation without representation."
As the Encylopaedia Britannica notes in its 2001 online edition, the 1773 Tea Act was a "legislative maneuver by the British ministry of Lord North to make English tea marketable in America" by helping the East India Company quickly "sell 17 million pounds of tea stored in England."
A new firsthand account of the Tea Party is discovered.
There are few books in print about the Boston Tea Party. Most are children's books, and the event is mentioned only briefly in many histories of the time. One of the reasons is that the men who participated swore a 50-year oath of silence, and few of them were alive 50 years later.
One, however, survived and went on to write a memoir that was published by a small New York press, S. S. Bliss, in 1834. To the best of my knowledge, it's the only existing account of the Boston Tea Party by an eyewitness, and it's been out of print for over 160 years. Discovering this, I set out on a search to find a copy and located one at a rare bookstore: I was thrilled to read this extraordinary first-person account.
The book is by George Robert Twelvetree Hewes and is title Retrospect of the Boston Tea Party with a Memoir of George R.T.Hews, a Survivor of the little Band of Patriots Who Drowned the Tea in Boston Harbor in 1773. It was old, tattered, printed on a handpress with pages of slightly different sizes and hand-set type.
George Hewes was no stranger to scraps and fights on behalf of the colonists against the British in the 1770s. Originally a fisherman, he'd apprenticed as a shoemaker around the time of the Tea Party and appears repeatedly in Esther Forbes's class 1942 biography of Paul Revere. Forbes notes that when young Paul Revere went off to join the Continental army in 1756, Hewes tried to join him in Rachard Gridley's regiment. But, she notes, "All must be able-bodied and between seventeen and forty-five, and must measure to a certain height. George Robert Twelvetree Hewes could not go. He was too short, and in vain did he get a shoemaker to build up the inside of his shoes."
In anecdotes that recall how small the American communities were in that day (New York City had only 30,000 inhabitants at the time of the Revolutionary War), Forbes chronicles Hewes borrowing money from John Hancock and having dinner with George Washington. "Hewes says that, 'Madam Washington waited upon them at table at dinner-time and was remarkably social,'"
Reading the hand-typeset brittle pages of Hewes's memoir brought the Boston Tea Party (a phrase which he apparently coined- prior to his book, it was referred to as "that incident in Boston harbor") and the struggle of the colonists against corporate rule fully to life. Hewes notes that weak enforcement of the Act for Restraining Privateers "rendered the smuggle of [tea] an object and frequently practices, and their resolutions against using it, although observed by many with little fidelity, had greatly diminished the importation into the colonies [by the East India Company] of this commodity. Meanwhile an immense quantity of it was accumulated in the warehouses of the East India Company in England. This company petitioned the king to suppress the duty of three pence per pound upon it introduction into America."
Like Wal-Mart, the East India "super-ships" destroyed smaller competition.
Thus came about the Tea Act- a giant corporate tax cut- as Hewes notes: "The [East India] Company, however, received permission to transport tea, free of all duty, from Great Britain to America," allowing it to wipe out its small competitors and take over the tea business in all of America. "Hence," Hewes said, "it was no longer the small vessels of private merchants, who went to vent tea for their own account in the ports of the colonies, but on the contrary, ships of an enormous burthen, that transported immense quantities of this commodity.... The colonies were now arrived at the decisive moment when they must cast the dye, and determine their course."
But it wasn't just the America tea merchants who were upset. England was filled with small business people who wanted to import and sell their own tea, and they offered encouragement to the colonist in letters published in newspapers. "Even in England individuals were not wanting, who fanned this fire; some from a desire to baffle the government, others from motives of private interest, says the historian of the event, and jealousy at the opportunity offered the East India Company, to make immense profits to their prejudice."
Hewes continues: "These opposers of the measure in England [the Tea Act of 1773] wrote there fore to America, encouraging a strenuous resistance. They represented to the colonists that this would prove their last trial, and that if they should triumph now, their liberty was secured forever; but if they should yield, they must bow their necks to the yoke of slavery. The materials were so prepared and disposed that they could easily kindle."
The first confrontation between the colonists and the corporations appeared as if it would happen in Pennsylvania and New York.
"At Philadelphia," Hewes writes, "those to whom the teas of the [East India] Company were intended to be consigned, were induced by persuasion, or constrained by menaces, to promise, on no terms, to accept the proffered consignment.
"At New-York, Captain Sears and McDougal, daring and enterprising men, effected a concert of will [against the East India Company], between the smugglers, the merchants, and the sons of liberty [who had all joined forces and in most cases were the same people]. Pamphlets suited to the conjecture, were daily distributed, and nothing was left unattempted by popular leaders, to obtain their purpose"
The broad consensus was that boycotts and acts of civil disobedience would be enough to make the British rescind the tax breaks and rebates that were now allowing the East India Company to sell its tea below market value. But as newspapers began to expose the ways the East India Company has used monopoly control in other nations where it had put all the local small companies out of business, anger rose. Consider this pamphlet, which appeared on trees and buildings all over Philadelphia and Boston in the fall of 1773. It was titled The Alarm and signed by an enigmatic patriot who called himself only "Rusticus."
Are we in like Manner to be given up to the Disposal of the East India Company, who have now the Assurance, to step forth in Aid of the minister, to execute his Plan, of enslaving America? Their Conduct in Asia, for some Years past, has given simple Proof, how little they regard the Laws of Nations, the Rights, Liberties, or Lives of Men. They have levied War, excited Rebellions, dethroned lawful Princes, and sacrificed Millions for the Sake of Gain. The Revenues of Mighty Kingdoms have centered in their Coffers. And these not being sufficient to glut their Avarice, they have, by the most unparalleled Barbarities, Extortions, and Monopolies, stripped the miserable Inhabitants of their Property, and reduced whole Provinces to Indigence and Ruin. Fifteen hundred Thousands, it is said, perished by Famine in one Year, not because the Earth denied its Fruits; but [because] this Company and their Servants engulfed all the Necessaries of Life, and set them at so high a Rate that the poor could not purchase them.
The pamphlets and newspaper stories galvanized the populace, who succeeded in turning back the Company's ships when they tried to land in New York and Philadelphia harbors. "In Boston," Hewes wrote, "the general voice declared the time was come to face the storm.... Now is the time to prove our courage, or be disgraced with our brethren of the other colonies, who have their eyes fixed upon us, and will be prompt in their succor if we show ourselves faithful and firm."
Hewes adds, "This was the voice of the Bostonians in 1773. The factors who were to be the consignees of the tea, were urged to renounce their agency, but they refused and took refuge in the fortress. A guard was placed on Griffin's wharf, near where the tea ships were moored. It was agree that a strict watch should be kept: that if any insult should be offered, the bell should be immediately rung; and some persons always ready to bear intelligence of what might happen, to the neighbouring towns, and to call in the assistance of the country people."
"Rusticus" added his voice in the May 27, 1773, pamphlet saying: "Resolve therefore, nobly resolve, and publish to the World your Resolutions, that no Man will receive the Tea, no Man will let his Stores, or suffer the Vessel that brings it to moor at his Wharf, and that if any Person assists at unloading, landing, or storing it, he shall ever after be deemed an Enemy to his Country, and never be employed by his Fellow Citizens."
A new edition of The Alarm, published on October 27, 1773, said, "It hath now been proved to you, That the East India Company, obtained the monopoly of that trade by bribery, and corruption. That the power thus obtained they have prostituted to extortion, and other the most cruel and horrible purposes, the Sun ever beheld."
But despite the protests, on a cold winter day the Company sailed its ships into the port of Boston.
"On the 28th of November, 1773." Hewes writes, "the ship Dartmouth with 112 chests arrived; and the next moring after, the following notice was widely circulated:
Friends, Brethren, Countrymen! That worst of plagues, the detested TEA, has arrived in this harbour. The hour of destruction, a manly opposition to the machinations of tyranny, stares you in the face. Every friend to his country, to himself, and to posterity, is now called upon to meet in Faneuil hall, at nine o-clock, this day, at which time the bells will ring, to make a united and successful resistance to this last, worse, and most destructive measure of administration.
The pamphlet galvanized the citizens of Boston. Hewes write, "Things thus appeared to be hastening to a disastrous issues. The people of the county arrived in great numbers, the inhabitants of the town assembled. This assembly which was on the 16th of December, 1773, was the most numerous ever known, there being more then 2000 from the country present."
Hewes continues: "This notification brought together a vast concourse of the people of Boston and the neighbouring towns, at the time and place appointed. Then it was resolved that the tea should be returned to the place from whence it came in all events, and no duty paid thereon. The arrival of other cargoes of tea soon after, increased the agitation of the public mind, already wrought up to a degree of desperation, and ready to break out into acts of violence, on every trivial occasion of offense....
"Finding no measures were likely to be taken, either by the governor, or the commanders, or owners of the ships, to return their cargoes or prevent the landing of them, at 5 o'clock a vote was called for the dissolution of the meeting and obtained. But some of the more moderate and judicious members, fearing what might be the consequences, asked for a reconsideration of the vote, offing no other reason, than that they ought to do every thing in their power to send the tea back, according to their previous resolves. This, says the historian of that event, touched the pride of the assembly, and they agreed to remain together one hour."
During that hour, there was a strong and vigorous debate about whether or not they should take on the world's mightiest corporation, back up by the greatest military force the planet had ever seen.
And then came a call for a vote: "The question was then immediately put whether the landing of the tea should be opposed, and carried in the affirmative unanimously. Rotch [a local tea seller], to whom the cargo of tea had been consigned, was then requested to demand of the governor to permit to pass the castle [return the ships to England]. The latter answered haughtily, that for the honor of the laws, and from duty towards the king, he could not grant the permit, until the vessel was regularly cleared.
"A violent commotion immediately ensued; and... a person disguised after the manner of the Indians, who was in the gallery, shouted at this juncture, the cry of war; and that the meeting disolved in the twinkling of an eye, and the multitude rushed in a mass to Griffin's wharf."
What really happened at the Tea Party itself?
Much like some modern antiglobalization protesters, the group had voted to pass the point of no return and make a clear and unflinching statement, in this case a million-dollar act of vandalism. Hewes wrote:
"It was now evening, and I immediately dressed myself in the costume of an Indian, equipped with a small hatchet, which I and my associates denominated the tomahawk, with which, and a club, after having painted my face and hands with coal dust in the shop of a blacksmith, I repaired to Griffin's wharf, where the ships lay that contained the tea. When I first appeared in the street after being thus disguised, I fell in with many who were dressed, equipped and painted as I was, and who fell in with me and march in order to the place of our destination.
"When we arrived at the wharf, there were three of our number who assumed an authority to direct our operations, to which we readily submitted. They divided us into three paries, for the purpose of boarding the three ships which contained the tea at the same time. The name of him who commanded the division to which I was assigned was Leonard Pit. The names of the other commanders I never knew.
"We were immediately ordered by the respective commanders to board all the ships at the same time, which we promptly obeyed. The commander of the division to which I belonged, as soon as we were on board the ship appointed me boatswain, and order me to go to the captain and demand of him the keys to the hatches and a dozen candles. I made the demand accordingly, and the captain promptly replied, and delivered the articles; but requested me at the same time to do no damage to the ship or rigging.
"We then were ordered by our commander to open the hatches and take out all the chests of tea and throw them overboard, and we immediately proceeded to execute his orders, first cutting and splitting the chests with our tomahawks, so as thoroughly to expose them to the effects of the water.
"In about three houses from the time we went on board, we had thus broken and thrown overboard every tea chest to be found in the ship, while those in the other ships were disposing of the tea in the same way, at the same time. We were surrounded by British armed ships, but no attempt was made to resist us.
"We then quietly retired to our several places of residence, without having any conversation with each other, or taking any measure to discover who were our associates; nor do I recollect of our having had the knowledge of the name of a single individual concerned in that affair, except that of Leonard Pitt, the commander of my division, whom I have mentioned. There appeared to be an understanding that each individual should volunteer his services, keep his own secret, and risk the consequence for himself. No disorder took place during that transaction, and it was observed at that time that the stillest night ensured that Boston had enjoyed for many months.
Hews and his associates destroyed and threw overboard 342 chests of tea - enough to make 24 million cups of tea- worth over a million dollars in today's money. Instead of realizing that that was an uprising that could be handled by allowing the colonists to have their own small businesses, Parliament passed the Boston Port Act, which closed the port until Boston's citizens had repaid the Company for the tea. The colonists refused, leading to increasing tensions and leading, some say, directly to Paul Revere's April 18, 1775, ride that called out 77 Minutemen to face 700 British regulars (Redcoats) the next day on the Lexington Green.
The war was on, and a predatory multinational corporation had triggered it.
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