Tea for Two

By Joe Craig, Park Ranger

Americans are often insular about their history, in particular, the War for Independence. The rest of the world seems to have been “out there” and far removed from the events here. Perhaps it’s the notion that the 18th Century world was a “bigger place” and communication was painfully slow, especially compared to the present.   Maybe it’s the American version of national “exceptionalism” that makes it seem like the US was created in a sterile laboratory environment, uncorrupted by lesser countries, safe in our covered Petrie dish.

Thanks to our display of national colors in the visitor center, people are reminded of the contributions and roles played by various nations during the war for Independence. Often a visitor contact in the VC lobby becomes a chance to start some “remedial history”.

Recently, a new flag was added to the lineup: the Republic of India. When visitors notice its inclusion, it certainly gives them some pause. After all, how could a nation clear on the other side of the world have had any influence on the war for American Independence in an age before the instant gratification of the internet?

The fact is that despite enormous distances, Britain’s North American colonies were involved in complex networks of trade that reached to the Caribbean Islands, Europe, and notoriously, the coast of West Africa. These trade networks reached beyond that: all the way to Asia for a variety of commodities. Among those commodities was tea.

It was expected that any tea consumed in British colonies would be provided within British trade networks, that is, sources and shippers all had to be “approved”. But such approval assumes that other sources or shippers will sit by and meekly starve. Not likely.

Smuggling in the 18th century was a major enterprise which kept many individuals gainfully, if illegally, employed. It also kept the British Government and Royal Navy quite busy trying to control or extirpate it both on its own coasts and those of the North American colonies. The success of their efforts can be measured by the career of one John Hancock whose wealth owed a great deal to illegal trading activity, dodging import duties all along the way.

So what was the “approved” source for tea? The British East India Company (EIC), of course. This worthy organization was founded in 1600, and by the eve of the War for American Independence had become a large and powerful entity on the Indian sub-continent and Asia. The EIC then provided a variety of commodities for the international markets.

Although a large operation, the EIC was facing financial problems. Partly these problems sprang from being undersold by smugglers’ prices. Others came from some questionable monetary practices.

In addition to these headaches, the British East India Company suffered further losses due to a natural phenomenon. Each year the monsoons bring a “rainy season” to southern Asia, bringing much needed moisture to a parched land. Every so often there is a skip in the pattern and the monsoons do not come in strength. The result in 1768 was a crippling drought in the Bengal region.

In an appalling sequence, the drought brought crop failure and crop failure brought famine with all its horrors including epidemics. By mid 1770, when the drought loosened its strangle hold, ten million people had died in Bengal.

Besides trade, the East India Company depended upon land tax rates, which as the death toll mounted meant fewer people paying. As responsibilities to EIC investors trumped considerations of starving Indian peasants, that tax was raised during the height of the famine adding further misery to the disaster.

The cumulative losses caused by being undersold, a nightmarish situation in India and its own greed had the EIC reeling. Things got so bad that even the British Parliament took notice. A “Select Committee” was formed in the House of Commons, headed by one Major General John Burgoyne. The committee’s hearings provided no solution.

As the East India Company tottered, in 1772 the fallout drove some twenty important financial houses in Britain into bankruptcy. In hopes of shoring up a very dangerous economic situation, Parliament passed the Regulating Act of June 1773. Essentially it loaned the EIC a substantial amount of money (with stringent restrictions on payment of dividends to investors until the debt was paid), allowed their continued governances of most of Bengal and licensed the EIC to ship tea to the North American colonies.

About a month earlier, Parliament passed the Tea Act, designed to ensure that EIC tea would undersell the established smugglers. Indeed the tax was so low that buying EIC tea was notably cheaper than that offered by John Hancock and his associates. All told, the Tea Act would help a corporate entity “too big to fail”, outflank the smugglers with tea cheaper than they could provide and assert Parliament’s authority with a pittance of a tax.

Unfortunately for the hopes of Parliament, the more radical leaders recognized the move as a threat on the “Rights of an Englishman”; perhaps more importantly the threat to their rights as a bunch of profit-seeking smugglers. Their response was a riot and destruction of East India Tea, enshrined in American history and folklore as the Boston Tea Party. British reaction would eventually lead to a shooting war.

India and the EIC would have a role during the resulting shooting war. The Sub-continent became a battle ground as the Maratha Kingdom fought the armies of the East India Company. France assisted with arms, troops and a fleet.

The Maratha leader, Hyder Ali, was not only a formidable foe, but his enmity toward Britain was known in North America, and noted in a diplomatic correspondence such as this letter from John Adams to the Continental Congress in June 1780:

“…the English are threatened with more considerable in India, where the natives of the country begin to be weary of the vexation of foreigners, who come from Europe to subject them to the yoke. The Emperor of Mogul threatens them in Bengal, the Marattas at Bombay, and the famous Hyder Aly upon the coast of Coromandel, and the domestic troubles which have arisen in the bosom of their establishments may put them out of a condition to defend them. All Europe prays for the liberty of the seas, and waits with impatience the effects of the union of the maritime powers, which must put a bridle upon the violent and arbitrary proceedings of the English.”

While it would perhaps be expected that a well-informed diplomat like Adams would have something of a world view, it appears that Hyder Ali was known in other circles. Hyder Ali’s name was borne by a Continental Navy corvette in a successful battle against the Royal Navy.

Ironically, 18th century Americans with painfully slow communication recognized the world-wide aspects of their War for Independence, while their present day globally-linked descendants do not. But we’re working on correcting that.

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