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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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?


Tinky said...

That IS a lot of tea. Thanks so much for the fascinating post......

kfrancher said...

Outstanding post! It really brings the Tea Party into perspective. Lots of work and lots of planning must have been required and some industrial espionage may have been involved as well.

Well done.

Robert S. Paul said...

They used their feet!?


J. L. Bell said...

The feet were one of the reasons American Whigs gave for not drinking tea. Those same feet hadn’t bothered people before the tea tax, though.

Unknown said...

Absolutely fascinating! Thank you so much! I had no idea how much tea was actually dumped.

-Avraham from http://aviscogitations.wordpress.com/

valpal said...

Is there any way I can find a copy of the document? Or would I have to purchase the book?

J. L. Bell said...

The document is in the British National Archives, so if a person who knew its catalogue number could arrange to get a digital copy. I haven’t seen it reproduced elsewhere.