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#AndrewSingerChina Newsletter Vol. 2, Issue 20

Chinese Tea. American Ships. British Trade. Boston Harbor. A Faraway King. A Falling Out. An Upcoming 250th Anniversary. Please join me today for a look back to mid-December, 1773, in the volatile Province of Massachusetts Bay.


The Eighteenth-Century Destruction of Chinese Tea in Boston Harbor

“Can we go see where they threw the Chinese tea into Boston Harbor?”

We were heading to Boston for a recent weekend overnight when my Chinese fiancé asked me this question out of the blue. A Google search later, I had a game plan.

A short walk from the heart of Chinatown brought us first to a historical plaque at the presumed former location of Griffin’s Wharf, site of the tea dumping, and then onto the nearby Boston Tea Party Ships & Museum.

Little did I know that we were about to enter a live-action re-creation of that stormy winter night in 1773 when anywhere from five to twelve dozen American colonists, supported by a cast of thousands, took their first indelible step in a long dance toward revolution against the yoke of the English monarchy.

There are a lot of myths about the Boston Tea Party in paint and print (including on the plaque mounted near the base of the Evelyn Moakley Bridge). The Museum helps clear those cobwebs (accompanied by a strong jolt of national pride).

Tea was China’s exclusive domain for most of history prior to the mid-nineteenth century. It was then that Robert Fortune, a Scottish botanist and plant hunter, was able to pull off the heist of the millennium. Disguised as a Mandarin in flowing robes, he snuck deep into China to surreptitiously study the tea making process, abscond with precious tea seeds and plants, and steal China’s secrets so that the British could begin successfully cultivating tea in India.

The American colonies had been head over heals for tea since the 17th century. That tea was thus from China. The tea came into the American colonies from two sources – the official imports taxed and controlled by Britain (which was loaded at Canton for initial shipment to London) and much vaster quantities through rampant smuggling. By the early 1770’s, estimates of American colonial tea consumption were in the neighborhood of six million pounds per year.

Back to December 1773. Yes, there was a tax on “British” tea coming to America, and yes, the colonists were indeed upset about “taxation without representation.” The leaders who organized this gathering at the Old South Meetinghouse, however, had a much bigger concern on their minds than tea. As with most things in the world, the real sore point boiled down to money, power, and control.

The 1773 Tea Act that set off the fireworks was not about the cost of tea. Rather, it was about the British government throwing a lifeline to its greatest economic engine, the British East India Company (EIC). The EIC was near bankruptcy after almost 200 years and was sitting on close to twenty millions pounds of aging tea in its London warehouses. The Tea Act authorized the EIC to sell (dump) 544,000 pounds of this old tea in America at a bargain price, without taxes, and directly to colonists.

American merchants, middlemen, smugglers, and leading citizens were fearful of a slippery slope leading to the monopolistic EIC setting its future solvency on controlling American society and the economy as it had so much of Britain’s wider empire.

This was the tinderbox awaiting seven ships that set out from London loaded with 2,000 chests of Chinese tea in late September 1773. The ships were American (not British) under contract to the EIC’s private cargo. At least two of the ships were whalers. Four of the ships headed to Boston, but one sank in a gale off my future home of Cape Cod. The Dartmouth, Eleanor, and Beaver sailed into Boston Harbor in late November carrying 342 wooden chests (about 90,000 pounds) of loose Chinese tea.

On the re-created night during the tug-of-war over what was to become of the cargo, we found ourselves sitting on wooden pews in the packed colonial meeting hall. We “Sons of Liberty” listened as Samuel Adams roused us to respond to the tyranny of the British throne and the actions of his complicit British Governor of Massachusetts.

I was William Molineaux, a hardware merchant and close friend of Samuel. I am a leader in opposing the tea monopoly of the British East India Company. My fiancé was Edward Proctor, a prominent citizen and military officer. She (he) is an importer of Dutch West India goods and is soon to command the boarding party on one of the ships docked at Griffins Wharf.

After voting that enough was enough, we stormed down the gangway and boarded a replica of the 18th century ship, Eleanor. The original Sons of Liberty were dressed as Native Americans, reportedly in homage to their independent spirit as well as because the colonists wanted to mask their criminal identities and donning “crossdressing” disguises when protesting was a custom in 18th century England. One of the boarding party was Thomas Melville, grandfather of future whale chasing author, Herman Melville.

We “ran amuck” smashing and throwing crate upon crate of Chinese tea into the gloomy waters of the harbor. Prized Hyson and Singlo green tea made up more than 20% of the chests. The early Spring Hyson tea was said to be favored by both Thomas Jefferson and George Washington. The Singlo came from the Sunglo Mountains in Fujian Province. The remainder of the tea was black Bohea (Oolong) tea, both Congou and Souchong, from the Wuyi Mountains. Most of these leaves had been picked in 1770 and 1771 and were well past freshness, particularly the green tea which had a shorter shelf life.

The coolest item in the Museum has to be the Robinson Half Chest. This is the only known surviving tea chest from the night of December 16, 1773. The Sons of Liberty took great pains to splinter and destroy the chests along with dumping the tea. The Robinson example somehow escaped the carnage and was scavenged from the sandy shores of the harbor by a local teenager the next day.

The chest survived the Revolutionary War hidden in a storage space underneath a set of stairs. Between then and being donated to the Museum a decade ago, it served many purposes in the Robinson family. Flowers were painted on the side at some point. A game board was carved onto the outside of the bottom panel. It was used as a doll house, a box for storing school supplies, and a bed for a litter of kittens.

Passions were high after the tea dumping. Inside the Museum, King George III and Samuel Adams hold a vigorous (and technologically innovative) debate. Their differences were clearly irreconcilable. We also watched two holographic 18th century women, a pregnant Patriot and a prim Loyalist, take sides on what the men had done the night before.

The events of this evening were known simply as the destruction of tea in Boston Harbor until the new phrase, Boston Tea Party, came into being in the mid-1820’s. The incipient revolt, however, quickly spread to almost a dozen other American coastal cities. In response, the British crown enacted new punitive measures (the 1774 Intolerable Acts) which blockaded the port of Boston, replaced Boston’s elected leadership with crown appointees, and forced colonists to allow British soldiers to stay in their private homes. These actions (and the anger they generated) steamrolled and sixteen months later led to the first shots of the American Revolution ringing out in Lexington and Concord, Massachusetts.

Postscript. The night before learning about the Chinese tea, we attended a performance of the Boston Ballet’s interpretation of Cervantes’ Don Quixote. For a Cervantes connection to Beijing, see here.


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