J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Tuesday, August 28, 2018

“Expose so considerable a property to inevitable destruction”


Yesterday we left Capt. Benjamin Lockyer in New York City, having arrived on 20 Apr 1774 after a long, stormy voyage from London with 698 chests of East India Company tea.

He in turn had left his damaged ship Nancy floating outside the official harbor area, beyond Customs jurisdiction, while he tried to figure out if he could land that tea as he had been hired to do.

A large committee of New York citizens was determined to keep the tea out. The 25 April New-York Gazette reported that “The Committee conducted him to the House of the Hon. Henry White, Esq; one of the Consignees.”

According to documents printed in Francis S. Drake’s Tea Leaves, back on 27 Dec 1773 White and his colleagues had written a letter to be delivered to Lockyer before he entered the inner harbor. (It’s not clear whether this letter actually reached him; if it did, he didn’t believe it.) The New York consignees reported that they had heard the tea sent to Boston had been destroyed, the tea sent to Philadelphia had been turned back, and the tea sent to Charleston had been impounded. They concluded:

We therefore think it is a duty we owe to the said Company, as we can neither receive the tea or pay the duty, to apprize you of your danger, and to give you our opinion, that for the safety of your cargo, your vessel, and your persons, it will be most prudent for you to return, as soon as you can be supplied with such necessaries as you may have occasion for on the voyage.
They sent a letter with similar recommendations to the board of the East India Company in London.

The paper trail continued on 20 April. Lockyer wrote a short note to the consignees stating that he was ready to unload. White and colleagues wrote back reiterating that such an effort “would not only be fruitless, but expose so considerable a property to inevitable destruction. Under these circumstances it would be highly imprudent in us to take any steps to receive your cargo.” Everyone thus covered their asses as best they could in writing.

Lockyer then announced to the committee: “That as the Consignees would not receive his Cargo, he would go to the Custom-House, and would make all the Dispatch he could to leave the City.” The Whigs chose a “Committee of Observation…to go down in a Sloop to the Hook, to remain there near the Tea Ship till she departs for London.”

The committee also arranged for a handbill to be printed, urging the populace to convene at the waterfront on Saturday morning when Lockyer was planning to leave to demonstrate “their Detestation of the Measures pursued by the Ministry and the India Company, to enslave this Country.”

That alleviated the threat of the Nancy with its 698 chests of tea. But that night another captain arrived from London confirming the earlier report that Capt. James Chambers was bringing in “18 Boxes of Fine Tea.” On Thursday the new arrival even showed the committee “a Memorandum in his Pocket Book, which he took from the Cocket in the middle of Capt. Chambers’s File of Papers in the Searcher’s Office at Gravesend.” (A cocket was a certificate from the Customs service warranting that its staff had inspected and cleared certain goods.)

On Friday the 22nd at noon, Capt. Chambers’s ship London was spotted at Sandy Hook. A pilot boarded and asked the captain if it carried any tea. He declared he had no tea.

Two members of the Committee of Observation watching the Nancy went on board and told Chambers they had heard otherwise. They “demanded a sight of all his Cockets, which was accordingly given them.” There was nothing about tea in those documents or the ship’s manifest.

Accordingly, the pilot brought the London into the wharf, arriving about 4:00 P.M. The ship “was boarded by a Number of the Citizens.” They asked Chambers again about tea. Again, he denied there was any tea on board.

The committee men then said: “it was vain to deny it, for there was good Proof of its being on board; for it would be found, as there were Committees appointed to open every Package, and there he had been be open and candid about it; and demanded the Cocket for the Tea.”

On which Capt. Chambers said, more or less, “Oh, you mean that tea,” and handed over the paperwork for eighteen chests.

Eighteen chests which had now come all the way into New York harbor and were therefore subject to Customs regulations.

TOMORROW: Party time.

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