Tea and the American Revolution
BOHEA AND HYSON
Imagine it’s 1773, and you’re a guest of one of Boston’s most prosperous families. The hostess reaches into the pocket of her lace-edged linen apron for a key which she then uses to unlock her beautiful mahogany teapoy, a square box affixed atop a three-legged stand.
In the box are three compartments: one holds sugar; the second, a prized black congou, and the third contains a Hyson green. They’re under lock and key because they cost dearly, especially the sugar.
The hostess would serve the tea in porcelain or silver pots, often shaped like classic Yixing pots made of purple clay. Many of these centuries-old designs are available today, an elegant way to serve today’s versions of 18th and 19th century teas.
WHAT TEAS DID COLONIALS DRINK?
Bohea, Hyson, Singlo, and Congou, for starters. These Chinese teas were all the rage during the 18th and 19th centuries. Their names are highly familiar to tea history enthusiasts and often mentioned in novels of that era. It is difficult to imagine green teas traveling weeks, maybe months, over the seas by clipper ship and arriving as fresh and as delicate as greens as Adagio greens come to our shores today, nor can we imagine how astonished tea lovers from centuries ago would love Adagio’s oolongs and blacks made with such artful processing.
Bohea is from the Bú-î, hills in
Congou (hóngchá or gongfu) reflects the sophistication needed to make this mix of black and golden buds. Often scented with rose or osmanthus, it is a classic Fujian black tea. Gongfu means skill and patience for any task. Adagio’s Golden Spring is an elevated example with its downy golden curls.
Hyson was, and is, a green tea from the Anjui and Zhejiang provinces and have uniquely twisted leaves that unfurl into a sweet green essence. Adagio’s Gunpowder is not the classic twisted leaf style, but rolled into pellets, but its flavor is a fine example of Zheijiang’s smoky smoothness that made Hyson so coveted.
Singlo, from the Sung-lo Mountains of Anhui Province, is considered a highly fragrant and delicate green tea. Adagio’s Jade Snail reflects the sweet delicacy of this once-famous green tea.
TEA TRADE: Smugglers, Double Dipping, and Price Inequities
It is often surprising to learn that, as coveted and as expensive as these teas were, it was actually cheaper in the Colonies than in Great Britain. The price was usually 3 shillings per pound here and 6 shillings across the pond and even cheaper when purchased here from a growing number of illicit Colonial traders smuggling in tea from Dutch traders.
It all boils down to what many believe poor judgment on the part of the British Parliament which, in an effort to stave off the competition with Dutch tea traders, tried to tax the East India Company and their customers, an 18th century version of double-dipping, so to speak.The 1773 Tax Act gave the British East India Company a monopoly on the New World tea trade. It could sell tea to the Colonies duty free at the ports (yeah!) but tax the tea for the end-users the colonial tea sellers (nay!) who passed on this tax to their customers, thereby taxing the colonists twice. When you consider more than 1.2 million pounds of tea per year were sold, this was a pile of tax dollars. These efforts were so ill-advised, and so unwanted by everyone up and down the commerce highway, they left the British East India Company with millions of pounds of unsold tea and the threat of bankruptcy.
REVOLTING AGAINST TAXATION
None other than Samuel Adams and John Hancock led the protest against egregious taxation. Lest you believe their intent was totally idealistic, please note that both were into tea smuggling via the Dutch traders. They were joined by Benedict Arnold (irony bell here), Paul Revere, and Patrick Henry in the formation of The Sons of Liberty, merchants and tradespeople, who held regular meetings to devise ways to avoid taxation and assure their own financial investments.
On December 16, 1773, Adams’ group was joined by thousands of protestors at Griffin Wharf at Boston Harbor who met a trio of ships at the dock. For the moment, the Eleanor, Beaver, and Dartmouth remained in the harbor, their cargo intact. All three had been built here and were owned by Colonists although operated by the British East India Company.
Meanwhile, in the Old South Meeting House, the Sons of Liberty voted to refuse to pay taxes on tea, stop the tea from being unloaded that day and do what they could to avoid it being sold or used. The Massachusetts governor, Thomas Hutchison, countered the fervor by preventing the ships from returning to Great Britain until the tea tariff was paid and the tea unloaded. Both George Washington and Benjamin Franklin believed the tariffs should be paid but their opinions went met by disdain.
Refusing Hutchison’s orders, the Colonists, egged on by the Sons of Liberty, continued to protest at the harbor all day. At midnight, 60 to 100 men, (versions differ) boarded the three boats, each in Mohawk garb, tomahawks in hand. Participant George Hewes recalled, “We then were ordered by our commander to open the hutches and taken 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.”
The men spent three hours destroying the tea which amounted to 342 chests holding 92,000 pounds or about 46 tons of tea worth 9,659 British pounds sterling or US$18,000 which would be worth $1,700,000 today, adjusted for inflation. All the tea was loose leaf as tea bricks had no favor in the colonies, and of course, the ubiquitous teabag was yet to be invented until the 20th century. Amongst the teas tossed were 242 chests of Bohea, 15 of Congou, 10 of Souchong, 60 of Singlo, and 15 of Hyson. None of the men were apprehended but one, Francis Akeley, who was subsequently imprisoned.
THE REST IS HISTORY
King George III and the British Parliament were not pleased with this “tea party” event. In retribution, they passed the Coercive Acts (aka Intolerable Acts) which closed the Boston Harbor, ended free elections in Massachusetts (and declared the colony’s constitution void), established formal British military rule there, made British officials immune to criminal prosecution, and required colonists to quarter British troops. In effect, the British created martial law fearful their colonists would form a unified country. Their fears were justified.
The Colonists rallied to Massachusetts’ aid and plotted a response. The first was a second “tea party” in March of 1774 where a modest 30 chests were dumped from the ship Fortune into the harbor. This was followed by similar tea dumping in Maryland, New York, and South Carolina.
During 1774, colonists formed the first of several constitutional conventions, and by in October 1774, they’d written The Declaration and Resolves which formed and trained a colonial militia, declared the colonies had the right to govern themselves independently, established a boycott of British goods, and effectively censured Britain for the Coercive Acts. This resolve was approved on July 4th.
The American Revolution had begun.