Reading the Tea Leaves

The Boston Tea Party occurred on this day in 1773, brought to a boil by a handbill posted all over Boston several weeks earlier:

Friends! Brethren! Countrymen! — That worst of plagues, the detested tea, shipped for this port by the East India Company, is now arrived in the harbor; the hour of destruction, or manly opposition to the machinations of tyranny, stares you in the face. Every friend to his country, to himself and to posterity, is now called upon to meet at Faneuil Hall, at nine o’clock THIS DAY (at which time the bells will ring), to make united and successful resistance to this last, worst, and most destructive measure of administration.

The meeting on November 29th created solidarity within the tax resistance movement and led directly to, as one of those who stormed the ships put it, “the idea of making so large a cup of tea for the fishes.” Almost 250 years later, says Benjamin Carp in his recent Defiance of the Patriots, we are still “reading the tea leaves at the bottom of Boston harbor” in order to “see the American character itself taking shape.” Some, such as Chief Justice Peter Oliver, a contemporary Loyalist and a tax supporter, thought that “all this struggle and uproar arose from the selfish designs of the merchants,” who happily dressed their entrepreneurial objections in patriots’ clothes. Others, says Carp, saw themselves striking a blow for world freedom:

Tyranny and liberty were locked in a constant struggle, and the dissident Bostonians knew which side they supported. The story of the Boston Tea Party was not just a local story, but a global story: the British East India Company, which was gaining territorial control over more and more South Asians, made much of its profit selling tea, a product grown by East Asians. When Europeans and Americans drank tea, they mixed it with sugar, farmed by enslaved Africans in the Caribbean. When the Bostonians dumped this tea in the harbor, to protest the actions of the East India Company and the British Parliament, they dressed as Native Americans. These were just some of the historical currents swirling around the Boston Tea Party.

Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.