January 14, 2009

Brewing Revolution

Historian Benjamin Carp’s latest project is a book on the Boston Tea Party, and he’s taking a global perspective

By Marjorie Howard

Every school child learns the story of the Boston Tea Party: how the colonists, dressed as Indians, boarded ships in the dead of night and threw huge chests of tea overboard into the Boston Harbor. “Taxation without representation” was the battle cry—or so we’re told.

Benjamin Carp says he will push readers to discover for themselves if the Boston Tea Party “was an unalloyed act of bravery and principled heroism or a lawless act of terrorism.” Photo: Alonso Nichols

The Tea Party took place 235 years ago on December 16, not in the dead of night, as the stories say, but early in the evening, says Benjamin Carp, an assistant professor of history. Carp is writing a book, Teapot in a Tempest: The Boston Tea Party of 1773, to be published by Yale University Press next year. Carp hopes his book will provide a fuller and richer account than is taught to most school children, while putting the event into a larger context.

Teaching at Tufts—a subway ride from where the event occurred—Carp wants to give the Tea Party its due as a local incident, while showing how it fits into a larger worldwide picture.

“I’m at a university and a department that takes the idea of studying things globally very seriously, and it’s actually shaped the way I’ve thought about this book,” he says. “During the period when the Tea Party took place, everything was being knit together in an exchange of goods, people and ideas, and the Boston Tea Party was part of that.”

The myth-making may have started with the name. The phrase “Boston Tea Party” wasn’t used until after 1820, says Carp, and it may not have been intended to denote a celebration at all, but merely a way of describing a group of people, as in “a party of men who boarded the ship.”

Some accounts suggest that as few as 20 to 30 people dumped the tea overboard, Carp says, though many more are claimed by their distant relatives today. “Some people may have witnessed the Tea Party, and their families say they participated,” says Carp. “In some cases, though, the person wasn’t even in Boston at the time. It’s like Woodstock—more people say they were there than actually were.”

In his effort to make his history even more thorough, Carp is bringing the Tea Party to the classroom, assigning his Tufts students to do original research to document who actually participated in the raid, which he will reference in the book. He gave his students the names of people who supposedly boarded the ships and has them scouring 18th-century newspapers, town records and other manuscripts at the Massachusetts Historical Society and the Boston Public Library.

“I’m asking them to find out everything they can about these people,” he says. “I want them to begin to think about the individual lives and local circumstances and what led them to protest the tea.”

The World Was Flat Then, Too

While the Tea Party took place in Boston, Carp sees it as a demonstration of how the world was interconnected even several hundred years ago. The tea itself, he points out, was grown in East Asia, sweetened with sugar harvested by Afro-Caribbeans, and poured and savored by East Asians and Europeans.

He also notes the connections between a British company with financial stakes on the other side of the world and the American colonists. The British East India Company was the main purveyor of tea to Europe and to the American colonies. The company did business in Bengal, where it was blamed for making a devastating famine worse by hoarding rice, resulting in price increases.
“The company was getting rich off Bengal and behaving poorly,” Carp says. “Americans knew about this and worried they would be next.”

The British East India Company also plays a role in what Carp theorizes is one of the causes of the Tea Party, namely peer pressure from the other colonies. While taxation without representation was, in fact, an important factor, by the time the Tea Party took place, the colonists had been living with a tax on tea for six years.

Carp notes that smugglers were competing with the East India Company, which had overestimated how much tea it could sell profitably and was stuck with 17.5 million pounds of tea in its warehouses. The British Parliament, some of whose members owned stock in the company, passed the Tea Act, exempting the company from duties, which allowed it to ship tea to America at a cheaper price than anyone else, and compete with the smugglers.

According to Carp, Bostonians didn’t have as good smuggling connections as did colonists in New York and Philadelphia, who drank contraband tea. “New York and Philadelphia didn’t trust Boston, saying, ‘If you accept tea coming from the East India ships, all potential for us to unite against Parliament will be lost. It’s up to you guys.’ ”

When the East India ships entered the harbor, the Bostonians were determined to prevent the tea from being taken off the ships. While young students often learn that dozens of people disguised as Indian tribesmen threw tea chests overboard, in reality the disguises were minimal, in some cases merely a smudged face and a blanket. No tea chests were thrown overboard by hand, as illustrations often depict, because they would have been too heavy. Instead, the participants used ropes and pulleys to hoist crates from the holds to the decks, where they chopped open the crates and shoveled loose tea into the harbor.

The colonists destroyed what would be the equivalent today of $1.8 million worth of private property. Back in Britain, an angry Parliament quickly passed the Coercive Acts, which limited town meetings and curbed some of the powers of the colonial assembly and judicial system.

In addition, Boston’s port was shut down until the city paid restitution for the destruction of the tea, which threatened the livelihoods of many city residents. And in response to British troops occupying Boston, colonists formed Minutemen companies, which served as fast-response militias.

Instead of isolating Boston from the other colonies, the Coercive Acts united the colonies behind Boston, making the Tea Party a catalyst for the American Revolution.

“If Parliament had taken a more conciliatory approach after the Tea Party, the American Revolution might not have happened,” says Carp.

In his book, Carp will also explore the legacy of the Tea Party. He notes that it has been cited as an inspiration by people of many political stripes, from Gandhi, the leader of the non-violent resistance movement in India against the British in the 20th century, to the current-day Arizona Minutemen, a vigilante group that patrols the U.S. border with Mexico.

“Considered a dangerous, disruptive and disorderly event by some,” says Carp, “the Tea Party is viewed as a noble and patriotic act by others, serving as a model for civil disobedience around the world. I hope to help readers understand its mixed legacy and think about whether it was an unalloyed act of bravery and principled heroism or a lawless act of terrorism.”

Marjorie Howard can be reached at marjorie.howard@tufts.edu.

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