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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Showing posts with label East India Company. Show all posts
Showing posts with label East India Company. Show all posts

Thursday, October 09, 2014

Portrait of the Artist as a World Traveler

On the left side of Johann Zoffany’s group portrait of the Royal Academy in 1771-72, toward the back of the crowd, is an unusual face for eighteenth-century London: a Chinese artist named Tan Chitqua.

The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography recently added an entry by Pat Hardy about this world-traveling artist:
Aged about forty Chitqua made the unusual decision to visit Europe, and was probably the first Chinese clay portrait artist to do so. He arrived in London on 11 August 1769 having travelled with a Mr Walton on the East Indiaman the Horsendon. He lodged with Mr Marr, a hatter, in premises at the corner of Norfolk Street and the Strand, London, until 1772. Here, on 21 September 1769, he met James Boswell who described ‘not a man of fashion but an ingenious artist in taking likenesses in terracotta (fine earth), which he works very neatly’. . . .

Subsequent descriptions of Chitqua included Gough’s account of a middle-sized man, about or above forty, ‘thin and lank…his upper lip covered with thin hair an inch long, and very strong and black; on his head no hair except the long lock braided into a tail almost a yard long’. . . .

In London, Chitqua worked as a modeller producing likenesses of sitters using clay that he had brought from China. His sitters were depicted wearing costumes also moulded from clay which was later coloured. Chitqua charged 10 guineas for a bust and 15 for a full-length clay figure. Some of his figures were modelled as seated; those shown standing were about 40 centimetres in height with the designs often including model chairs, trees, or rocks to support the figures. Chitqua depicted the faces of his sitters in an extremely realistic manner and the finished portraits often incorporated detachable wigs made of the subject’s own hair.
The Oxford D.N.B. also shared this video about Chitqua, showing how one of his few surviving figures in Britain fits together.

After four years in London, Chitqua returned to Canton, where he continued to create portraits for the city’s merchants. The British press reported that he took his own life in the mid-1790s.

Saturday, December 07, 2013

Environmental History Methods Panel, 10 Dec.

Starting in late 1769, there was a famine in Bengal which lasted deep into the next year. Those poor harvests, followed by shortfalls in the next two years, are blamed for ten million deaths. They also caused many people to migrate from the most affected areas, some of which turned back into tropical jungle.

The government of Bengal—which at that time was the British East India Company—had no control over the environment, of course. But many historians say the famine was exacerbated by its policies. As a profit-seeking corporation, it had pressed farmers to switch to non-food cash crops (opium, indigo), discouraged food “hoarding” for lean times, and kept raising and collecting the tax on land while harvests failed.

Even so, the East India Company remained in terrible financial straits in the early 1770s. For years gentlemen in London had been debating how to reform the company, and reports of the famine suggested that there would be no quick recovery to solve the problem. With many Members of Parliament owning stock, the East India Company was obviously too big to fail.

Lord North and his ministers came up with what they thought was a clever solution: the company could increase revenue by exporting its overstock of Chinese tea directly to North America. By cutting out middlemen, the company could increase its revenue even as it lowered the cost of tea to consumers. The tea tax, in place since 1767 and to be collected as soon as the tea was legally landed, would continue to finance the Customs service and salaries for royal governors and other appointees.

North Americans disagreed.

The connection between the Bengal Famine and the Boston Tea Party of 1773, along with other anti-tea protests in America, is a fairly obvious example of how the environment helps to drive what we usually consider economic and political history. Environmental historians are drawing out much more subtle effects with more sophisticated methods.

On Tuesday, 10 December, the Massachusetts Historical Society will host a panel discussion on “Telling Environmental History.” It will explore “different ways of presenting environmental history, including the use of G.I.S., the intersection of environmental history and planning history, incorporating visual materials, and environmental history as narrative.”

The participants will be:
  • Brian Donahue, Brandeis University
  • Karl Haglund, Department of Conservation and Recreation, Commonwealth of Massachusetts
  • Megan Kate Nelson, Brown University
  • Aaron Sachs, Cornell University
  • Anthony N. Penna, Northeastern University (moderator)
This discussion is scheduled to start at 5:15 P.M. and run until 7:30, including discussion over a light buffet afterwards. It’s part of a series on Environmental History that the society hosts. Sessions are free and open to the public; email the M.H.S. if you want a seat.

Monday, December 02, 2013

Tea Q. & A. with Bruce Richardson

On Thursday, 5 December, Bruce Richardson will speak at the Old South Meeting House on “Five Teas that Launched a Revolution”, the first of several events leading up to this year’s reenactment of the Boston Tea Party.

Bruce Richardson is Tea Master for the Boston Tea Party Ships & Museum, the other institution hosting the reenactment on 16 December. He’s also Contributing Editor for
TeaTime magazine and author of several books, including A Social History of Tea. Bruce graciously answered a couple of questions for Boston 1775.

What do we know about the tea that was thrown into Boston harbor in December 1773 and March 1774?

All the East India Company tea aboard the ships docked in Boston Harbor on the evening of December 16, 1773, was produced in China, not India. Tea would not be cultivated in India or Sri Lanka until the nineteenth century. Benjamin Woods Labaree’s The Boston Tea Party says the three tea ships contained 240 chests of Bohea, 15 of Congou, 10 of Souchong (all black teas), 60 of Singlo, and 15 of Hyson (both green teas).

It may surprise you to know that green tea accounted for about 22% of the shipments’ total volume and 30% of the value. One-third of the tea exported from China in the eighteenth century was green tea, with spring-picked Hyson being one the favorites. The first tea plucked in the spring is always the finest, which the Chinese designated yu-tsien or “before the rains” tea.

Hyson [shown here, as sold through Bruce’s store, Elmwood Inn Fine Teas] was a favorite tea of both George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson ordered it from his tea purveyor in Philadelphia and his apothecary in Williamsburg.

Singlo green tea was picked later in the season and the leaves were a bit larger. It tended to spoil sooner than other teas and was not widely known in the colonies. It was only included in the ill-fated shipment because the East India Company had quite a bit of stock that needed to be liquidated before it became undrinkable. They wanted to introduce the tea to the colonies in hope that American’s would develop a taste for it. A few chests were aboard all seven ships which left London bound for Boston, New York, Philadelphia and Charleston in late summer 1773.

But the bulk of the tea that westerners consumed was common black tea known as Bohea (boo-hee), a corruption of the name for the Wuyi mountains, one of the oldest tea growing regions of China. The tea was so popular that the word “Bohea” became the slang term for tea.

One London publication described Bohea as infusing a dark and dull brownish red color which, on standing, deposits a black sediment. The liquor is sometimes faint, frequently smoky, but always unpleasant. The superior form of Bohea is known as Congou. Seventy percent of the tea imported by the East India Company was Congou (kung-foo). It brewed a deep transparent red liquor with a strong and pleasant bitter flavor. The addition of milk surely added to the enjoyment of this beverage.

Souchong is a classic style black tea from the Wuyi Mountains of Fujian province. The original term souchong (xiaozhong) means “small leaf variety,” and refers to a family of tea cultivars that existed in this famous tea-growing region of Fujian since 1717. The souchong teas drunk by early colonists would have had a very slight smoky aroma which the tea leaves picked up during the drying process. Most of today’s souchong exports are intentionally smoked with smoldering pinewood and are called lapsang souchong. Twelve chests of Souchong weighing a total of 684 pounds were aboard the ships in Boston Harbor.

Certainly, all the teas tossed overboard would disappoint a modern tea drinker because they were way past their prime. The Boston teas were plucked in 1770 and 1771, transported by ship to London warehouses where they sat for a couple of years, and finally placed aboard ships bound for the colonies in October 1773.

Forget taxation! The colonists should have been more offended by the slight regard King George showed toward their good tastes.

You can check out Bruce Richardson’s tea blog for a little more information.

TOMORROW: A second cup.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Dr. Nassir Ghaemi at Boston Public Library Tonight

I’m going outside the eighteenth century to mention that Dr. Nassir Ghaemi will speak at the Boston Public Library this evening at 6:00 P.M. about his new book, A First-Rate Madness.

Two years back, when I was at the Organization of American Historians meeting in Seattle, I attended a session where Dr. Ghaemi spoke. His topic was the intersection of modern psychiatry and history—specifically, the case of Gen. William T. Sherman of the Union Army, and his history of depression.

As I noted a year later, Dr. Ghaemi had a broader argument: that bipolar/manic-depressive disorder and schizophrenia are found at a fairly steady rate across all societies, so they most likely have a biological rather than cultural basis, and we should assume those conditions appeared with the same frequency in the nineteenth century—or the eighteenth.

In addition to Sherman, A First-Rate Madness looks at Lincoln, Churchill, Gandhi, King, Kennedy, and others from the last hundred and fifty years. It posits that at times those men’s psychological challenges made them better leaders by enhancing their “realism, empathy, resilience, and creativity.” Here’s the Boston Globe’s review (and an interview with Dr. Ghaemi about his own reading).

Are there similar examples from the eighteenth century? Unfortunately, most of our sources on people of that period describe their moods only when they’re debilitated one way or another, like Lt. Neil Wanchope or Samuel Dana. We know less about mood changes they got through without so much difficulty.

Thus, it’s easy to say that former Massachusetts Attorney General Jonathan Sewall was severely depressed when he didn’t come out of his bedroom for several months straight after the war. But was depression also why he went unusually silent during the Boston Massacre trials of 1770, and the Massachusettensis-Novanglus debate of 1774-75?

Did manic energy, empathy, and a clearer sense of risks help Robert Clive build the British Empire in India? Did depression contribute to his suicide in 1774? And did earlier personal problems—or the loss of his leadership—produce the British East India Company’s fiscal disaster in the early 1770s, which in turn led to a new tea tax and then the Boston Tea Party?

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Fichter to Speak on So Great a Proffit

Prof. James R. Fichter of Lingnan University in Hong Kong is speaking at three New England historic sites this month on his book So Great a Proffit: How the East Indies Trade Transformed Anglo-American Capitalism. Here’s a review in The New Republic.

Britain started trading with east Asia through the East India Company in the 1600s, and that economic and political link eventually led to major battles on the subcontinent in the Seven Years’ War and War of American Independence, and to the Boston Tea Party.

After independence, American merchants found themselves shut out of the British Empire’s trading system. (Some of them had apparently not thought through what “independence” would mean.) Among the risky new business ventures they tried was the China Trade.

Fichter’s first venue is the Salem Maritime National Historic Site’s visitor center on Sunday, 13 June, at 2:00 P.M., which makes sense since Salem was a center of America’s China Trade. Among the pioneering merchants was Elias Hasket Derby, who had marched with the Essex County militia on 19 Apr 1775, arguing the whole way with his colonel, Timothy Pickering, about whether they should march faster.

On Wednesday, 16 June, at 7:00 P.M., Fichter will speak at the Forbes House Museum in Milton, in an event co-sponsored by the Shirley-Eustis House Association. That Milton mansion was built by Robert Bennet Forbes, who started work for his opium-trading uncle Thomas Handysyd Perkins in 1816 at the age of twelve. The lecture is free, but seating is limited, so the organizers request an R.S.V.P. There will be refreshments supplied by Prof. Fichter’s publisher, Harvard University Press.

Finally, Fichter will cross state lines on Thursday, 17 June, at 5:00 P.M. and talk at the Rhode Island Historical Society’s John Brown House Museum at 52 Power Street in Providence. In 1787 Brown sent the General Washington to Canton with a cargo of “anchors, cannon shot, bar iron, sheet copper, ginseng…, tar, spermaceti candles,” and several types of alcohol, thus launching Rhode Island’s direct trade with east Asia.

Friday, April 23, 2010

“Two Nations, Shared History” in Lexington, 30 April

On Friday, 30 April, at 7:00 P.M., the Lexington Historical Society will host a program called “Two Nations, Shared History” with two professors from Tufts University: Benjamin Carp, who specializes in early America, and Kris Manjapra, who studies the history of India (and Germany).

The pre-1776 British colonies in North America are now often called “the first British Empire.” After losing the most populated of those territories, the Crown began to build the “second British Empire” by taking over the troubled East India Company’s holdings in South Asia. In the 1800s Britain planted colonies there, in Africa, and elsewhere around the world. In the twentieth centuries those countries gained their independence, taking some inspiration from American history but also having to create their own path. It looks like this program will compare and contrast those colonial histories.

Another connection between the histories of U.S. of A. and India shows up in Carp’s upcoming book, Teapot in a Tempest, about the Boston Tea Party.

This event is co-sponsored by the Indian Americans of Lexington. It will take place at the Lexington Depot, and is free and open to the public.

Friday, December 18, 2009

How Much Was the Tea in the Tea Party Worth?

Charles Bahne, author of The Complete Guide to Boston’s Freedom Trail wraps up his timely look at the Boston Tea Party with an analysis of the financial cost.

The account reproduced yesterday itemizes the East India Company’s cargo by ship and by kind of tea. In all, as you can see, the losses came to a grand total of £9,659/6/4—that is, 9,659 pounds sterling, 6 shillings, and 4 pence. (For you uninitiated out there, there were 12 pence in a shilling, and 20 shillings in a pound before British currency was “decimalised” in 1971.)

According to another document reproduced in the same booklet, Catalyst for Revolution, this “Invoice Amount” includes the American duty of 3 pence per pound of tea, and a commission of 8%, which was presumably to be paid to the local consignees.

But how much does that figure mean in terms that we 21st-century Americans can understand?

Three years earlier, in 1770, Paul Revere purchased his house at 19 North Square for £213/6/8. Do the math, and you’ll find that the destroyed tea was worth more than 45 times the price that Revere paid for his 7-room house. This wasn’t a mansion; it was an older house and the rooms were small. But the Revere home was probably typical of the housing stock for an average working-class family in Boston.

Out in the country, Abigail Adams paid £600 for the finest house in Braintree (now Quincy) while her husband John was away on diplomatic work in 1787. The tea was worth more than 16 times the price of this mansion.

(If you visit those houses, note that Revere’s house today is smaller than it was in his time, while Adams’s house is considerably larger than it was when the family bought it.)

After the American Revolution, in Massachusetts at least, British pounds were converted to U.S. dollars at a rate of £3 to $10, or £1 = $3.333333.... Applying that exchange rate, the East India Company’s losses amounted to $32,197.72—in 1773 dollars.

And if we want to factor in inflation over the last 236 years, two different websites offer data that we can use. Measuringworth gives us an inflation factor of 27.5 for a present-day value of $885,000; while Oregon State University Prof. Robert Sahr offers a factor of 26.3 for a modern value of $847,000.

Lastly, we can go to our local supermarket to see the present-day price of tea. I found a 100-bag box of Salada tea (official co-sponsor of Old South’s events this year) at $3.99. Based on the earlier calculations about the number of tea bags the cargo would fill, that’s about $739,000. Which might show that tea has become less of a luxury good than it was back then.

Of course, fancier blends cost more, just as Hyson cost more than Bohea in 1773. The best supermarket deal I found on Earl Grey, for example, came to $26.26 per pound. At that rate the Tea Party cargo would be worth more than $2.4 million today. Then again, that’s retail, not wholesale.

Thanks, Charlie! Knowing how much that tea was worth sure helps to explain the anger of the Parliament in London.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

How Much Tea Was Destroyed in the Boston Tea Party?

Charles Bahne, author of The Complete Guide to Boston’s Freedom Trail, continues his stint as Boston 1775’s guest blogger today, discussing how this document from 1774 sheds light on the Boston Tea Party.
The history books tell us that 342 chests of tea were destroyed in Boston on the evening of December 16, 1773. But how big was a chest? What was the total weight of tea leaves consigned to the fishes?

We can find answers in the document shown here. As I described yesterday, it was annexed to a petition from the East India Company to Parliament, dated February 16, 1774. This reproduction is from Catalyst for Revolution: The Boston Tea Party, 1773, written by Benjamin W. Labaree and published by the Massachusetts Bicentennial Commission in 1973.

The third column of the account lists the weights of tea, by kind and by ship. No totals are provided in the original document, but we can add up the numbers ourselves. They come to a grand total of 92,616 pounds avoirdupois of that pernicious herb! That’s more than 46 tons in the U.S. system of weights (“short tons” in the U.K.’s old measure); or, for you metric aficionados, it’s 42,009.9 kilograms.

In terms that the tea drinker can understand, there are typically 100 tea bags in a half-pound box sold in the supermarket today. So that comes to 18,523,200 cups of tea!

There were about 16,000 inhabitants living in Boston then: we’re talking three cups of tea a day, for every man, woman, child, and infant in the town, every day for more than a year.

That’s a lot of tea.

So how big were those chests? Were they bigger than a breadbox, as the saying goes?

They certainly were. The bulk of the tea, 84,880 pounds or 91.6% of the cargo by weight, was Bohea, the lowest-priced grade of tea, invoiced at 2 shillings per pound including duty and commission. The Bohea was shipped in 240 so-called “full chests” which contained an average of 353 pounds per chest. The chest itself, made of wood and lined with lead, added another 80 or 90 pounds, thus the total weight of each chest was well over 400 pounds.

Not something that you would casually pick up—it required several men to lift a full chest, and blocks and tackle to hoist them up from the vessels’ holds.

The higher-priced grades of tea were shipped in “quarter chests” which were, as you might guess, about a fourth the size of a full chest.

There were 40 chests of “Singlo (1st sort),” invoiced at 2/8 (2 shillings, 8 pence) per pound, totalling 3,233 pounds and averaging more than 80 pounds per chest.

“Singlo (Hyson Skins)” amounted to 20 chests, all on board the Eleanor, 1,389 pounds at 3/- (that is, 3 shillings) per pound, for 69 pounds per chest.

The highest-priced grade was Hyson, at 5/- per pound, just 15 chests comprising 1,134 pounds, for an average of 75 pounds a chest.

Congou accounted for another 15 chests, 1,296 pounds at 2/3 per pound, or 86 pounds per chest.

And there were 10 chests of Souchon, 684 pounds at 3/- per pound, or 68 pounds of tea per chest.

As you can see, even the smaller chests of more expensive tea would have required substantial manpower to heft overboard.

Contrary to what some people have claimed, the tea was not shipped in bricks. The leaves were loose in the chests, but they were very densely packed, allegedly pressed under workers’ feet as they were loaded in the wooden boxes. It probably took some effort for the “ruffians” to break up the compressed clumps of tea leaves with their bare hands.

There is, by the way, an interesting discrepancy revealed by this document from the House of Lords archives. Most history books say that 342 chests of tea were destroyed in the Boston Tea Party. That figure appears as early as the December 20, 1773, issue of the Boston Gazette that first reported the event. But the East India Company’s numbers add up to only 340 chests—114 chests each on the Eleanor and Dartmouth, but only 112 chests on board the Beaver. Where did the other two chests come from? Or were they just a miscalculation by the Gazette?

TOMORROW: Charlie addresses the £9,600 question: how much was that tea worth in real money?

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Charles Bahne on “the Consequences of Such an Insurrection”

Many histories of the Revolution report that on the night of 16 Dec 1773, Bostonians destroyed 342 chests of tea by throwing it in Boston harbor. On this anniversary of the Boston Tea Party, I’ve invited Charles Bahne, who literally wrote the book on Boston’s Freedom Trail, to add more detail about that tea and why it meant so much.

After the Boston Tea Party, the East India Company went to the Parliament in London with a petition that itemized the damages that the Company had suffered from the “violent and illegal Proceedings” in Boston, and sought indemnification for its losses.

After explaining how the company had shipped its tea under the new Tea Act to Boston, as well as other American ports, the petition concludes:

[The] lawless Rabble went on board on the Arrival thereof, and stoved & threw into the Harbour the whole of the said Cargoes of Tea, after forcing the Officers of the Customs on board of the said Ships to quit the same & go on Shore, whilst they perpetrated their violent and illegal Proceedings.

That the East India Company’s Loss on this account, together with the Freight which they are obliged to pay, will amount, according to the said annexed account, to the Sum of Nine Thousand Six Hundred Fifty Nine Pounds Six Shillings and four Pence, and as it was not in your Memorialists’ power, who were carrying on a fair & legal Trade, to prevent the Consequences of such an Insurrection,

Your Memorialists, on behalf of their Constituents, beg leave to request of Your Lordship to lay their Case before His Majesty, & that His Majesty will be graciously pleased to pursue such Measures, or give such Directions, for the Indemnity of the East India Company, respecting their said Loss, as to His Majesty, in His great Equity and Wisdom, shall seem meet.

East India House
London 16th Febry 1774.
I found this document reproduced in a booklet which I purchased many years ago at the Boston Tea Party Ship when it was berthed in Fort Point Channel. The booklet, Catalyst for Revolution: The Boston Tea Party, 1773, was written by Benjamin W. Labaree, who was also the author of the classic scholarly volume The Boston Tea Party (1964). The smaller booklet was originally issued in 1973 by the Massachusetts Bicentennial Commission, although my copy appears to be a later reprint.

Along with its petition, the East India Company included an “annexed account” which contains in one place answers to several questions not generally found in most popular—or scholarly—studies about the Tea Party:
  • How big was a chest of tea?
  • What was the total weight of tea leaves consigned to the fishes?
  • And how much was it worth altogether?
TOMORROW: Charlie starts to lay out those vital statistics.

Monday, August 10, 2009

The Edes Punch Bowl (now in color)

The Massachusetts Historical Society recently featured this photograph of the Edes family punch bowl, one of the historic objects in its collection. In the accompanying essay, curator Anne Bentley puts the porcelain bowl in its contexts: the career of printer Benjamin Edes, the political crisis over tea in 1773, and the consumption of alcohol in British North America. I quoted Peter Edes’s letter describing the night of the Tea Party at his father’s shop at more length back here.

One theme of recent Tea Party scholarship, as in Marc Aronson’s The Real Revolution and Benjamin Carp’s upcoming Teapot in a Tempest, is the global dimensions of the event. The Tea Act of 1773 that got the eastern coast of North America all upset had its roots in Londoners’ investments in Indian transshipment of an agricultural product from China. This porcelain punch bowl from China, which had made its way to a middling family in Boston, is another sign of that global trade.

Sunday, July 05, 2009

The Myth of the Professor’s Flag

Often the legend of the “Speech of the Unknown,” retold yesterday, is paired with another legend of an unidentified man advising the Founders, in this case about the American flag. To the conspiracy-minded, these two men must be the same. To anyone concerned with history based on contemporaneous documents and primary sources, the stories are equally ludicrous.

The oldest version of the flag story appeared in Our Flag, or the Evolution of the Stars and Stripes including the Reason to Be of the Design; the Colors, and Their Position, Mystic Interpretation Together with Selections Eloquent, Patriotic and Poetical, published by Robert A. Campbell in 1890. An extract appears on this webpage. It sets the scene this way:

In the fall of 1775, the Colonial Congress, then in session at Philadelphia, appointed Messrs. [Benjamin] Franklin, [Thomas] Lynch and [Benjamin] Harrison as a committee to consider and recommend a design for the Colonial Flag. General [George] Washington was then in camp at Cambridge, Massachusetts; and the committee went there to consult with him concerning the work in hand.
The Continental Congress did in fact appoint those three delegates as a committee to consult with the commander, but not on the flag. They met in a council of war, which also included other top generals and representatives from the New England colonies, at Washington’s headquarters on 23-24 Oct 1775. Congress’s records show that Lynch and Harrison were back in Philadelphia accepting new committee assignments in early November.

Campbell’s book differs, saying that “The committeemen arrived at Cambridge on the morning of December 13th.” And it describes three more participants in the discussion between Washington and the Congress delegates: “one of the patriotic and well-to-do citizens” of Cambridge, who hosted the visitors; that man’s wife; and
a very peculiar old gentleman who was a temporary sojourner with the family. . . . Little seems to have been known concerning this old gentleman; and in the materials from which this account is compiled his name is not even once mentioned, for he is uniformly spoken of or referred to as “the Professor.”
Since there were few colleges in North America at the time, there were very few professors, and those gentlemen were all very prominent. This man, in contrast, seems to have been some sort of anonymous professor.

After a great deal of detail that makes one wonder if Campbell was trying to fill out pages, he states that the group formed themselves into a committee to discuss the flag. Naturally, the one woman at the table becomes the secretary—this is a late nineteenth-century story, after all.

The mysterious Professor addresses the needs for a flag:
“Comrade Americans: We are assembled here to devise and suggest the design for a new flag, which will represent, at once, the principles and determination of the Colonies to unite in demanding and securing justice from the Government to which they still owe recognized allegiance. We are not, therefore, expected to design or recommend a flag which will represent a new government or an independent nation, but one which simply represents the principle that even kings owe something of justice to their loyal subjects. . . .

“General Washington, here, is a British Subject; aye, he is a British soldier; and he is in command of British troops; and they are only attempting to enforce their rights as loyal subjects of the British Crown. But General Washington will soon forswear all allegiance to everything foreign; and he will ere many months appear before his own people, the people of these Colonies, and before the world, as the general commanding the armies of a free and united people, organized into a new and independent nation.

“The flag which is now recommended must be one designed and adapted to meet the inevitable—and soon to be accomplished—change of allegiance. The flag now adopted must be one that will testify our present loyalty as English Subjects; and it must be one easily modified—but needing no radical change—to make it announce and represent the new nation which is already gestating in the womb of time; and which will come to birth—and that not prematurely, but fully developed and ready for the change into independent life—before the sun in its next summer’s strength ripens our next harvest. . . .”
Having predicted the future—without any apparent response from the officials around him—the Professor then goes on to describe the ideal source for the Continental Army’s flag:
“I refer to the flag of the English East India Company, which is one with a field of alternate longitudinal red and white stripes, and having the Cross of St. George for a union. I therefore, suggest for your consideration a flag with a field composed of thirteen equally wide, longitudinal, alternate, red and white stripes, and with the Union Flag of England for a union.”
So the same company that American Patriots were lambasting as a source of corruption just two years before, during the tea crisis, would be the best source for the new national emblem?

It’s true that the East India Company’s red and white stripes (shown above in one version) looked a lot like the stripes that would eventually be on the American flag. Almost half a century after Our Flag appeared, Sir Charles Fawcett made the same connection. However, since the company’s ships were in the Indian Ocean, not many Americans had seen that flag. (For Peter Ansoff’s interesting detective work on how the company’s flag came to appear in an engraving of the Philadelphia waterfront in 1754, scroll down this page to the American Revolution Round Table’s 4 Mar 2009 event.)

Back to Campbell’s fictional Professor. He expounds on the symbolism of the banner he’s designed:
“Such a flag can readily be explained to the masses to mean as follows: The Union Flag of the Mother Country is retained as the union of our new flag to announce that the Colonies are loyal to the just and legitimate sovereignty of the British Government. The thirteen stripes will at once be understood to represent the thirteen Colonies; their equal width will type the equal rank, rights and responsibilities of the Colonies.

“The union of the stripes in the field of our flag will announce the unity of interests and the cooperative union of efforts, which the Colonies recognize and put forth in their common cause. The white stripes will signify that we consider our demands just and reasonable; and that we will seek to secure our rights through peaceable, intelligent and statesmanlike means—if they prove at all possible, and the red stripes at the top and bottom of our flag will declare that first and last—and always—we have the determination, the enthusiasm, and the power to use force, whenever we deem force necessary.

“The alternation of the red and white stripes will suggest that our reasons for all demands will be intelligent and forcible, and that our force in securing our rights will be just and reasonable.”
Our Flag states that this design was instantly adopted, with “General Washington and Doctor Franklin giving especial approval” (since no one in 1890 really cared what Harrison or Lynch might have thought). The book describes the debut of the Professor’s first flag in Cambridge on 2 Jan 1776—Washington “with his own hands” raising the standard and the Congress delegates still on hand. (More standard accounts discussed starting here.)

In Flags of the World, Past and Present (1915), W. J. Gordon called Campbell “greatly daring” for having claimed to reproduce the Professor’s long speech verbatim, especially since it contained historical errors about the British and East India Company flags. But Gordon nevertheless retold the story—and put that speech into Franklin’s mouth!

TOMORROW: Campbell’s legend continues—in Philadelphia.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Worse Than Bunker Hill

The British army’s worst day during the American War was the first pitched battle and its first victory, Bunker Hill, which we commemorated last week. Out of about three thousand Crown officers and enlisted men sent into the fight, more than one thousand were casualties: 226 killed and 828 wounded.

But was that the worst British loss of the global conflict? I was surprised to learn that it wasn’t. We never hear of the more costly battle in American history because it didn’t take place in America.

After France and Spain declared war on Britain in 1778 and 1779, respectively, the three empires started to spar all over the world. For example, for almost four years Spain and its French ally tried to wrest Gibraltar back from Britain. The garrison survived that siege, a hugely important campaign for the British government. Yet hardly any Americans were involved, so we don’t study it.

India was a relatively new battlefield for the rival European empires, and the region’s kingdoms were still strong enough to tip the scales by allying with or resisting those outside powers. That produced another theater of war for the British military during the Americans’ fight for independence. The British East India Company, backed by the imperial government, attacked the French outpost at Mahé.

The French had a powerful ally in Hyder Ali, ruler of Mysore, who declared war on the British. In the Battle of Pollilur, on 10 Sept 1780, an army commanded by Hyder’s son, Tippu Sultan, met the British forces and inflicted a devastating defeat. As the Tiger and the Thistle website explains, the British fielded 3,853 men. The officers were mostly European, the enlisted men mostly locals, or sepoys. And the casualties at the end of that day?

Of the 86 European officers, 36 were killed or died of wounds, 34 were taken wounded, and only 16 taken unhurt. The whole of the sepoy forces [over 3,300 soldiers] were either killed, captured or dispersed, and only about 200 Europeans, most of them wounded, were taken alive by the enemy.
Even if most of the British sepoys survived by deserting, that army was simply erased. And the casualty rate among the group the Crown paid the most attention to—European officers—was over 80%.
In 1784, the Treaty of Mangalore ended the Second Mysore War, a clear victory for Tippu Sultan. (He had come to power after his father died from a carbuncle or cancer on his back.)

But the British Empire came back in 1790 and forced Tippu to give up half his territory two years later. The successful commander in that Third Mysore War was Gen. Cornwallis, making up for his surrender to French and American forces at Yorktown.

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Seeking Meaning in Tea Parties

Prof. Benjamin Carp of Tufts is at work on a thorough new study of the Boston Tea Party. He’s been mulling over the connections and disconnects between that 1773 crowd action and the recent political protests that invoke it. It’s been interesting to watch his considerations evolve.

On 10 April he wrote on the Publick Occurrences blog:

I think the easiest thing to do would be to start picking out all the bad historical analogies and use it as an excuse to guffaw at the “Tea Party” movement that’s scheduled to demonstrate on April 15, 2009 (tax filing day). But I’m not going to do that–instead I’m going to try and be even-handed about this, and see if there’s anything to this grassroots conservative invocation of the Boston Tea Party.

Unfortunately, the ideology behind all of this seems rather vague. . . . There’s not much there: the protesters are in favor of “basic free-market principles” and “freedom.” (Well, me too!) The site doesn’t say how the government is ignoring the Constitution, exactly–and if you dig a little further, it all goes back to Rick Santelli’s displeasure with the stimulus plan and the budget.
I believe Santelli’s displeasure actually focused on a single aspect of the Obama administration’s economic policy—the plan to keep people from losing their homes when they can pay only part of their mortgage bills. I doubt he would have gotten much support from his audience of Chicago commodities traders if he’d widened his criticism to, say, the vastly more expensive financial-industry bailouts. (Which is not to say that others didn’t protest those bailouts, at the “tea party” events and elsewhere.)

Ben shared further thoughts on 19 April in the Washington Post after observing one protest in New York:
Although I study early American history, I wasn’t trying to check the protesters’ creative interpretations against my footnotes. Instead, I tried to appreciate the bizarre nature of a day that began for me with work on a chapter on tea boycotts for my new book and ended with a modern crowd’s interpretation of the historical period I study. It was a great reminder that the original Tea Party had made this civilized re-enactment possible and, ultimately, anti-climactic by comparison. . . .

In Boston in 1773, the men who boarded the tea ships had to conceal their identity or risk punishment—perhaps even being hanged for treason. Last week, the merry protesters chatted with journalists about their complaints, then folded up their “Welcome to the Second American Revolution” signs and went home. The original Tea Party had helped make free speech possible, but these modern protests didn't seem likely to change the world just yet.
That editorial also had the most to say about historical parallels—and historical perpendiculars—between the issues of 1773 and today. Back then, Parliament deemed the East India Company too big to fail, for instance. But the fundamental disconnect is that today we have a representative government with wide public support. “Taxation without representation” is no longer a national issue. In addition, the current economic crisis affects far more than a single well-connected company.

Most recently, on 23 April, Ben wrote at the Oxford University Press blog:
it’s true that many (though not all) of the conservative protesters were invoking the “tea party” mostly as empty symbolism and not as an explicit historical parallel. But such unthinking (not to say cheap) symbolism can be potentially dangerous. After all, the actual perpetrators of the Boston Tea Party destroyed over £9000 worth of goods (the equivalent of between $1 and $2 million dollars in today’s money), and this was after weeks of threatening the British tea agents at their homes and places of business.

Perhaps we might agree today that the colonists were forced to resort to violence and destruction because they suffered under a “tyrannical” empire that ignored their arguments—but in a representative government, we have other alternatives. Despite the signs calling for “tarring and feathering,” in New York City, the strong police presence probably discouraged any real thoughts of violence. But will those protesters who were calling for “rebellion” be content with civil disobedience in the future? . . .

Certainly the tea party protests weren’t primarily populated by hate groups or domestic terrorists—but we still might want to be wary of “heritage” groups who take their revolutionary rhetoric too far. There were plenty of angry left-wing groups when the left was out of power, and now there are plenty of angry right-wing groups now that the right finds itself out in the cold. The vast majority of this anger will never be channeled into violence; but when protesters begin using “tea party” talk, we have to hope they’re not taking the analogy to an extreme.
I think American extremists are no different from any other American political group in seeking to link their causes and methods to the nation’s founders. But the shift to a republic produced a fundamental disconnect between the Revolutionaries and the dissatisfied voters of later generations. After 1776, American white men with property could no longer complain they had no say in their government. Well, they could still complain, and some do, but those complaints hold less water than a teacup.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Profile of Tea Party Historian

This month the Tufts Journal ran an article on the university’s early American historian Benjamin Carp (also one of the earliest and most supportive readers of Boston 1775). Ben’s working on a book about the Boston Tea Party.

The article highlights the global reach of that local topic:

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.”
I hadn’t considered this aspect of the tea crisis before hearing Ben talk about it, but Customs records show that in the early 1770s Boston merchants were legally importing, and thus paying the tax on, more tea than their counterparts in Philadelphia and New York.

Many histories of the Revolution present Bostonians as inveterate smugglers; certainly that’s how Loyalists like Peter Oliver described them. In this case, however, the Boston merchants might have been in trouble for not smuggling. In the eyes of Philadelphians and New Yorkers, they were helping the London government raise revenue even as they complained about Parliament’s taxes and where that money was going.

Ben suggests that in 1773 the Boston Whigs felt pressure to make no compromise over refusing to land the tea. Meanwhile, Gov. Thomas Hutchinson and the North American Customs Commissioners, based in Boston, were more insistent than the royal authorities elsewhere that the tea must be landed. (Hutchinson also had financial and family interests in the tea business.) That set the stage for a direct, all-or-nothing confrontation in Boston harbor while merchants and officials in other ports found ways around the issue.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Missing the Points in Sons of Liberty

In assessing the history in Sons of Liberty, a graphic novel for young readers by Iowa historian Marshall Poe and comics artist Leland Purvis, I’ll start with the good stuff.

The book quotes directly from George R. T. Hewes’s account of the Boston Tea Party and from Paul Revere’s narrative of his midnight ride when depicting those events. Even in edited form, that gives young readers a sense of early American language, and of how first-hand accounts inform our understandings of the past.

Purvis was obviously careful to use visual references: we can recognize Old South Meeting-house, the Boston peninsula, and other settings. There are small glitches with clothing: women not wearing caps, boys outside without hats and waistcoats. But there aren’t any men with beards, women wearing fashions from half a century later, or similar missteps I’ve seen in other history comics.

The story, however, has some real historical anomalies. The first conflict is a mob attack on British soldiers who have confiscated John Hancock’s ship Liberty. The British government stationed soldiers in Boston after that riot, precisely because Customs officials said it and earlier fights showed they weren’t safe.

Most baffling is this explanation of the tea crisis of 1773, put into the mouth of none other than George III:
What’s the phrase I’m looking for? Oh, yes. Utterly and completely wrong.

The East India Company tea was taxed. That’s why most American colonists objected to it. It was taxed in such a way that as soon as the tea was landed on shore, the duty could be collected in London; the tea agents expected to repay themselves by selling the tea, and since that was a desired and untraceable commodity they probably could have. Meanwhile, the tea revenue went to salaries for the Customs service and other royal officials, thus insulating them from popular opinion in the colonies. That was why the tea was so controversial.

Some colonial merchants were selling tea smuggled in from Holland, and their business would have taken a hit from having to compete with East India Company tea sold at rock-bottom prices. But those merchants didn’t “have to charge higher prices” because “they have to pay taxes on their goods,” as the king says above. No one paid taxes on smuggled tea. That was the point of the smuggling.

The tea conflict is complex; back here I argued that such a tempest over tea makes sense only if we consider all the earlier “taxation without representation” debates that led up to it. It would take some effort to summarize that history for kids. But the depiction in Sons of Liberty is simply bass-ackwards.

As reviewed here, Marc Aronson’s The Real Revolution is a much better grounded, heavily illustrated, and nonfiction history of the tea conflict for young people. Not a graphic novel, but highly recommended.

Friday, May 18, 2007

What Sort of Tea Was Thrown into Boston Harbor?

The Boston Post-Boy of 16 Nov 1767 offered this verse for caffeinated young ladies concerned about the new Townshend duties on, among other, less consequential things, imported tea:

Throw aside your Bohea and your Green Hyson Tea,
And all good things with a new fashion duty;
Procure a good store of the choice Labradore,
For there’ll soon be enough here to suit ye.
Labrador was an herbal tea made from a plant found growing in Canada. (Loyalist judge Peter Oliver later claimed that “it brought on Disorders of Health; & among the rest a Vertigo, as fatal as that which they had brought upon theirselves with Respect to Liberty.”)

But Labrador isn’t the topic of this posting. I’m wondering about what type of tea Americans drank at the time of the Boston Tea Party? Were Bohea and Hyson the most popular kinds, as that verse implied, or were those names simply a lot easier to fit into a rhyme than “Lapsang Souchong”? A 16 Sept 1736 Boston News-Letter advertisement listed several types—Bohea, Congou, Pekoe, green, and fine imperial—with green and Bohea the cheapest and Pekoe the most expensive. (For more about some of those varieties, see TeaMuse’s article on “Teas of Yore.”)

We know that American colonists didn’t import tea bricks, though those things are so quaintly historic and easily displayed that some small museums say they did. Instead, as Ebenezer Stevens recalled and other sources confirm, the tea emptied into Boston harbor came in canvas-covered wooden boxes that had to be chopped open. The Boston Tea Party Museum (now in drydock) displays a possible surviving example of those boxes on its website. And what sort of tea was inside them?

Last week my eye fell on a passage from the diary of John Tudor, a deacon in the North End. After describing how “a number of Resolute men” had destroyed the East India Company tea, Tudor wrote:
The Tea was worth ’tis said at least 25,000 £ sterling, as a great deal of it was green Tea.
So on the day after the Tea Party, Bostonians saw a lot of the tea in their harbor as green tea. Tudor’s remark about the value of the tea also implies that green tea is one of the more expensive kinds.

Benjamin Woods Labaree’s The Boston Tea Party says, “About one-third of the tea exported from China in the eighteenth century was green tea,” with green Hyson “the choicest of all.” But the bulk of the tea that Europeans, and thus European-Americans, consumed was black tea from the Bohea mountains. And Labaree’s Table IV has the exact answer to my question above: the three tea ships at Boston contained 240 chests of Bohea, 15 of Congou, 10 of Souchong (all black teas), 60 of Singlo, and 15 of Hyson (both green teas). Green tea accounted for about 22% of the shipments’ total volume, and 30% of the value.

Was Tudor’s perception that “a great deal of it was green Tea” shaped by what people saw in the harbor the next day? Not all the leaves thrown overboard had sunk. Men went out in boats to beat the remaining shoals of leaves under the water. And perhaps the green tea was the biggest problem. A commenter on this British webpage says, “I've noticed that my Chai teabags (more smaller particles), sink faster than my green tea teabags (larger leaf particles). I suspect it is because the smaller particles get saturated fast than the larger ones.” As a “living history” experiment, does green tea take longer to sink in saltwater than black tea?

Thursday, February 15, 2007

The Problem with Elihu Yale's Potrait

The Hartford Courant has reported that Yale University will remove a portrait of early benefactor Elihu Yale (1649-1721) from a meeting room because it “shows the wealthy merchant being waited on by a black man with a silver collar around his neck—an unmistakable symbol of bondage.” The college will hang another of its many portraits of Mr. Yale instead. (It seems there isn’t a big market for them outside New Haven.)

The problematic portrait isn’t on public view, nor can I find it on Yale’s website. (ADDENDUM: Until the alumni magazine reported on this move, that is; the image on the left comes from that magazine’s site.) The painting hung in an administrative building, in the room used by the board of trustees for their occasional meetings. Apparently undergraduate Tom Frampton took a photograph of the painting after slipping away from a press conference a couple of years ago.

(Frampton also slipped into the 2004 Republican National Convention in New York and was arrested by the Secret Service as he yelled at Vice President Dick Cheney. As happened with well over 90% of other protesters arrested during that convention, prosecutors later dropped all charges against Frampton.)

Frampton’s photo has circulated as Yale and other old Ivy League colleges discuss how to address their historical links to slavery in America. Several of Yale’s residential colleges (its fancy word for dorms) are named for men who either held slaves or made pro-slavery arguments in the early republic. Brown University issued a lengthy report on slavery in its history in October 2006. Many other institutions founded in the colonial period, especially by or for the wealthiest men in American society, have connections to slavery—as the Hartford Courant (published since 1764) even reported about itself.

Ironically, there’s no evidence that Elihu Yale ever owned African slaves or participated in that trade. He was born in Boston, but left at the age of four and never returned to North America. So why did someone paint an enslaved man into this portrait? I think the answer lies far away—on a different continent.

Mr. Yale spent most of his career in India, serving as governor of the British East India Company’s outpost at Fort St. George in Madras (Chennai) from 1687 to 1694. That was his most prominent public post. It would make sense, therefore, for a formal portrait of the man to allude to that work. The window behind him shows ships in a harbor, a reference to trading. A better reproduction might show whether that port is Indian.

I wonder if the kneeling figure in Mr. Yale’s portrait was meant to represent not an enslaved African but a subservient Indian—perhaps enslaved, perhaps not. I don’t know enough about Indian society at that time to guess at his level of freedom. The unknown artist may have intended that man as a symbol of Mr. Yale’s wealth, or as a symbol of a conquered region, but almost certainly not as an individual.

The portraitist may not have known or cared how to distinguish an Indian from an African, but the kneeling man wears a long banyan-like robe rather than European-style livery, as in portraits of American slaveholders. I suspect we North Americans might be assuming too quickly that that man represents the form of subservience we’re most familiar with.

As for the what to do with the portrait, I think the real problem was how it was hidden away to all but Yale’s governing body and some staff. As with the university’s Calhoun College (named for the ante-bellum Senate’s major defender of slavery) and other old names and artifacts, it seems wiser to display it as a reminder to students of how easily otherwise charitable people accepted an exploitative system when it benefited them.