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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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.


Benjamin Carp said...

Thanks, J.L. Can I clarify one thing? The Board of Customs Commissioners definitely did want to see the tea landed, but by early December they had fled to Castle William (along with the consignees), so they were basically out of the picture.

It was the Port of Boston's collector (Richard Harrison, one of the victims of the 1768 Liberty riot) and comptroller (Robert Hallowell) who were there at the "moment of truth" on December 14-15: they, not the commissioners, were the ones who denied Francis Rotch a clearance for the Dartmouth. The Whigs then forced Rotch to ask Hutchinson for a permit to let his ship leave the port anyway, which Hutchinson denied. And the rest...

At the same time, it is true that the presence of the Board of Commissioners contributed to Boston's importation of more legal tea (between 1770 and 1773) than was the case in New York or Philadelphia. (The Boston Whigs actually had lots of excuses.)

J. L. Bell said...

Thanks for the additional detail. I was seeing the Customs Commissioners as (a) setting policy for the men under them, and (b) an element in the conflict that set Boston apart from other ports. And I suppose I also used them as a synedoche for the entire Customs apparatus.

So it sounds like once officials went to Castle William, they had little communication with the town. I’d always wondered about the extent of traffic between those places, and how isolated (as opposed to safe) the people in the Castle really were.

So was Richard Harrison related to Joseph Harrison, the former collector? I know Robert Hallowell was brother of Commissioner Benjamin Hallowell. No wonder the Whigs could complain about monopoly.

historian said...

Richard Acklom Harrison was the son of Joseph Harrison. I've done a lot of research on this family and would welcome any contributions.