Following the Seven Years War (1756-1763), England went through a serious financial crisis as a result of which it was obliged to impose taxes on many products. Among them in particular were goods destined for the colonies, including wine, sugar, molasses, and tea. The Stamp Act, passed in 1765, and a little later the Townshend Act enunciated these taxes, setting off a huge wave of protest. The colonists distributed tracts and organized a boycott campaign. Many newspapers published a declaration renouncing tea. The colonists replaced tea with infusions of local herbs or berries, with coffee, or with contraband tea imported mostly by Dutch merchants.
Merchants in the colonies refused to buy from the East India Company. Even though the Tea Act of 1773 reduced taxes, the agitation continued. The East India Company decided to export cargoes of tea to America, intended for sale directly to the colonists, without going through the merchants. In December, three of the company's ships, the Dartmouth, Eleonor, and the Beaver reached port in Boston. During the night of December 16, a group of 150 patriots led by the merchant John Brown, took the boats by force and threw their cargo into the sea. In return, London forbade all commerce with Boston. The other American cities joined in a united front, burning or throwing into the sea other English cargoes of tea. The stakes grew as skirmishes escalated into battles, and the United States ended up winning their independence in 1776.
It goes without saying that tea is not responsible for the independence of the United States. Nevertheless, tea was seen as a symbol of the intolerable relationship between colonies and mother country. After independence, many Americans remained faithful to coffee, and the consumption of tea would never again reach the levels attained in the preceding era.
FAREWELL the Tea-board with your gaudy attire,
Ye cups and ye saucers that I did admire;
To my cream pot and tongs I now bid adieu;
That pleasure's all fled that I once found in you.
Farewell pretty chest that so lately did shine,
With hyson and congo and best double fine;
Many a sweet moment by you I have sat,
Hearing girls and old maids to tattle and chat;
And the spruce coxcomb laugh at nothing at all,
Only some silly work that might happen to fall.
No more shall my teapot so generous be
In filling the cups with this pernicious tea,
For I'll fill it with water and drink out the same,
Before I'll lose LIBERTY that dearest name,
Because I am taught (and believe it is fact)
That our ruins is aimed at in the late act,
Of imposing a duty on all foreign teas,
Which detestable stuff we can quit when we please.
LIBERTY'S the Goddess that I do adore,
And I'll maintain her right until my last hour,
Before she shall part I will die in the cause,
For I'll never be govern'd by tyranny's laws.
©1996: Centre d'histoire de Montréal
Picture source: Centre d'histoire de Montréal