The Tea Act – 250th Anniversary (May 10, 1773)

May 10, 2023 marks the 250th anniversary of the passing of the infamous Tea Act. Though a seemingly innocuous Parliamentary action, it had dire impacts in the British North American colonies. Parliament was known to enact various laws to provide guidance and management of her colonies across the globe. Some like the Stamp Act led to direct protest and eventual repeal. But the Tea Act was something totally different. It focused on the North American colonies and was meant to benefit a single entity, the East India Company. These two variables, plus the on going strife in North America over British influence led to various protests in the American colonies. This ultimately resulted in the Boston Tea Party on December 16, 1773 (and other lesser known “tea parties” in Charleston, Philadelphia and other port cities).

East India House in London, ca 1800

The East India Company was a joint stock company founded in 1600 and became one of the largest companies in the world. Tea was not their only commodity, however as they also traded spices, sugar, indigo, silk and much more. Parliament was heavily vested in the company’s success and began to enact laws that benefited the company. This included the Tea Act of 1773, passed to help the company divest itself of an over abundance of tea stored in its warehouses. The Crown and Parliament was worried that the prices of tea and the large supply would lead to serious financial strain on the company. The Tea Act also aimed to clamp down on the massive amounts of “illegal” tea that was being smuggled into the colonies. Some historians argued that men like John Hancock, who was deeply involved in smuggling, saw the Tea Act as his “rubicon” towards independence. He believed the act would impact his revenues via his smuggling. Now the American colonies were forced to purchase East India Company Tea (that could directly ship to the colonies) and which was taxed. Many colonial leaders saw this is as a backwards way to impose a tax without their consent and to force them to prop up a struggling East India Company

The road to revolution in the American colonies does not have a single starting point, but one could argue that 250 years ago the Tea Act was the last straw. It led to direct and open opposition (and destruction) of British rule and property in several ports along the Atlantic. These brazen “parties”, mainly the Boston Tea Party, led Parliament to pass the Coercive (Intolerable) Acts, which in turn united the various colonies like never before. Open armed conflict with Great Britain was just a year away.