December 16 marks the anniversary of one of the most iconic events in American history. On that night in 1773, about 150 men disguised their faces and tossed 340 chests of tea from three ships docked in Boston Harbor.
The already contentious relationship between the colonists and their English overseers deteriorated even further until, on April 19, 1775, shots were fired at Lexington and Concord and the American Revolution was fully underway.
Here are Five Facts About the Boston Tea Party you might have missed in American history class.
1) All of the East India company’s tea came from China, not India.
The British East India Company shipped Chinese teas from the port of Canton to their London docks and warehouses. From there, the tea was transported to American cities along the Eastern Seaboard.
Tea gardens in India and Ceylon would not be planted until the mid-1800s and Japanese tea would not be exported commercially until 1859.
2) 22% of the tea tossed overboard was green tea.
Both the English and Americans drank great amounts of green tea from the time the exotic beverage first appeared in London coffee houses in 1657.
One of the two green teas aboard the Boston ships was Hyson, a favorite early-spring green tea favored by Thomas Jefferson and George Washington. The other green tea was Singlo, which originated in the Sunglo mountain area of Fujian.
3) The East India Company was the first company deemed “too big to fail.”
Elizabeth I issued the charter for the East India Company (EIC) in 1600, allowing the corporation a monopoly on all imports and trade from the areas east of Africa. In exchange, Parliament received as much as 6% of their annual budget from commissions received from the sale of East India goods. Only tea from Britain’s East India Company was officially allowed to be imported – all taxed, of course.
Unfortunately for King George III, his taxes on goods imported by The EIC into the Colonies led to wide-spread smuggling by the Dutch East India Company and declining revenue for both The EIC and Parliament. By 1772, the aging tea stored in London warehouses were spoiling and the world’s most powerful company was about to fail.
The EIC pleaded its case that the British economy would come crashing down if The Company was allowed to fail. Parliament granted The EIC a reprieve in 1773, allowing them the opportunity to ship 544,000 pounds of aging tea to the Colonies with no commission paid. The scheme was a clearance sale designed to save the first company deemed too big to fail.
4) Boston was one of four American cities commissioned to receive the tea shipments.
On September 27, 1773, seven chartered ships laden with two-thousand chests of East India Company tea left London. Four were heading to Boston aboard while the other three were destined for New York, Philadelphia, and Charleston. Three ships, the Dartmouth, Eleanor, and Beaver, eventually docked in Boston two months later while one Boston-bound ship, the William, was lost in a gale off Cape Cod.
The Polly landed in Philadelphia on Christmas eve and was turned around, fully laden, for a return voyage to London. The chests of tea aboard the ship London were off-loaded in Charleston and held in the damp basement of the Customs House where the tea quickly spoiled. The ship Nancy ran into horrendous storms, was blown off-course, and arrived in New York in April 1774 where it was met by resistance. The captain of the Nancy was persuaded too to head back to London with tea aboard.
5) The tea rebellion in Boston was not originally called a “tea party.”
The rebellious act of tossing tea into Boston harbor would not be called a “tea party” until 1829 when the Providence Patriot reported the death of a ninety-seven-year-old resident by the name of Nicholas Campbell, who “was one of the ever-memorable Boston Tea Party, who committed one of the first acts of resistance to British oppression.”
It is worth noting that another member of the raiding party that night in Boston was Thomas Melville, grandfather of Moby Dick author Herman Melville.
The Five Chinese Teas aboard the ships in Boston Harbor were:
Abigail’s Blend, the official tea designed by Bruce Richardson for Abigail’s Tea Room, Boston Tea Party Ships & Museum. Tea Maestro Bruce Richardson serves as Tea Master for the Boston Tea Party Ships & Museum. Read more about the Boston Tea Party and tea’s impact on culture, commerce, and politics in A Social History of Tea, Pettigrew & Richardson, Benjamin Press.