16th December 1773 was the day of the “Boston Tea Party”, which is generally regarded as the opening move of the American Revolution.
It cannot be denied that the British government mishandled the colonial problems that it faced. In short, the colonies were costing more to administer and protect than they were producing in benefit for the home country. When the Seven Years War ended in 1763 the British were faced with having to maintain a standing army in the American colonies that was being paid for by taxing their own population to the hilt. The colonies had to be made to pay their own way.
The methods that the British government used to achieve this end may have seemed logical at the time but they did not go down well with the colonists who were far more concerned about their own situation than the bigger picture of the British Empire – naturally enough. The colonists saw no reason why they should pay any sort of tax to the home country, but the British parliament, equally logically, saw no reason why the colonists should expect a free ride at Britain’s expense.
A whole series of financial impositions was made on the colonies, of which the duty on tea was only one. A complicating factor was that the company that controlled Britain’s trade in tea, the British East India Company, had been given permission to send tea to the colonies tax free and charge what they wanted for it rather than going through a middleman.
This move was resented by the colonists, who saw it as a move to establish a trade monopoly, despite the fact that the tea that was being delivered to Boston in December 1773 would have been offered for sale at a lower price than previously, due to the relaxation of the full duties that would otherwise be paid, although there was a still a residual duty. It was the very fact that some duty was still payable that offended the Bostonians, because the principle was thus established that the British government had the right to levy charges on the colonists.
The whole issue of “no taxation without representation” was something of a smokescreen, because it ignored the fact that what was at issue here were duties and not taxes. It made no sense to demand seats in the parliament of a country that levied import duties on the purchasers of its goods, because this would apply to the citizens of any country doing the importing, but this was not an argument that would have cut much ice with the American colonists for whom the tea issue was the final straw.
As it was, an organised mob of about 60 Boston citizens, led by Samuel Adams, dressed themselves as Mohawks – to add an element of theatre to the proceedings – and boarded three ships in Boston Harbour to tip 342 tea chests overboard.
The British response to the incident was “overboard” in another sense, in that repressive measures were taken to force the rioters to pay for the lost tea. It was this attempt to punish the colonists of Massachusetts that really lit the fuse that would lead to revolution, rather than the Tea Party itself.
© John Welford