Andrew Roberts

The myth of the Boston Tea Party

(Getty)

At 6.30 p.m. on Thursday 16 December 1773, a group of between 100 and 150 Americans raided three East India Company merchantmen moored in Boston and threw 92,000lb of tea (worth $1.7 million in today’s terms) into the harbour. A central part of the American founding story, the 250th anniversary of the Boston Tea Party is being commemorated this month as a key moment when patriotic Americans fought back against the greedy British and their oppressive taxation policies that forced up prices on commodities such as tea, which in turn led to the American Revolution.

The ‘Sons of Liberty’ were essentially the henchmen of the rich smuggler-barons who were faced with ruin

But the truth is more complex, interesting and nuanced, especially regarding the motivation of the ‘Patriots’, as the Americans who destroyed the tea described themselves. Far from increasing the price for American consumers, the taxed East India tea was going to be sold for about half the $1 that they were then paying for a pound of tea. The only people who were going to lose out were the smuggler-barons of Boston, New York and Pennsylvania who employed the ‘Patriots’ who attacked the vessels. As the historian Charles Arnold-Baker has pointed out, ‘The Boston Tea Party was essentially a private operation for the benefit of racketeers’, rather than the action of selfless citizens. 

This is borne out by recent research into the individuals who attacked the ships, including eight who were employed by one radical Boston merchant-smuggler alone. The fear that the East India tea, once unloaded and sold, would undercut the smugglers’ prices meant that it was in their interests to destroy it before it could be landed. 

‘Have you tried prompting him?’

When the first of the three ships carrying tea arrived at Boston harbour on 28 November 1773, the merchant-smugglers had no trouble in whipping up a mob, largely made up of their own employees, to prevent the tea being offloaded, which by law had to happen within 20 days of docking.

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