Put Your Big John Here: The Boston Tea Party

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This is a true story about smuggler that we’ll call “Big John.” The time was Colonial America. Tea was king. It was the drink of the people after alcohol and mead. Coffee was just starting in the new world but was largely for the highfalutin Loyalists and upper crust. Tea was money. And there was no bigger loving tea town than Boston.

Tea found its way to Beantown two ways initially. From Jamaica, ships brought the spicy Caribbean brown. But the colonists, because of the Dutch influence over there in New Amsterdam, now renamed New York, loved their tea leaves from the Netherlands.

Big John, the benefactor of marrying a very rich Brit who succumbed to the flu early in the marriage, took his fortune and became a very successful importer of, really, whatever was needed and most profitable to ship to thriving Boston, his hometown. Big John also moved molasses, paper, iron and spices along with his main cash cow, tea, to a wanting buying public.

Because America was so teeny-tiny at this point, the official point of entry to the colonies was one pier in Boston where customs held their office. Many resourceful colonists took this opportunity to launch into the world of tariff-free commerce. If you had the money or a boat, after scoring your goods in England or Amsterdam, it then was just a matter of knowing a deep harbor or dumping the load to a waiting tender. Of course if you had the money, like the widower Big John, you build your own dock for off-loading. Once you have infrastructure and employees, that’s when you know you have arrived as an empire or cartel.

With an exploding market demanding grey market goods unavailable at Ye Old Trader’s Joe, it was just a matter of time before Big Pharma, in this case the East India Company, got involved. The E. I. C.’s days of pushing opium were numbered.

The British-based conglomerate, that counted the colonies as their’s to control, figured it was time to take control of the new wilderness’ tea trade. At the time, the colonists were paying roughly 7-10 cents for a bag. Taking a piece of parchment out of the Sam Walton playbook, the East India capitalists thought that if they charged just a penny a bag but made the tea merchants pay a special tax of 3 cents on top of their penny, they could hit the market at 4-5 cents for sack of some good China green. At almost half the going price of the brew, the geniuses back in London thought the bargain rate would be a no-brainer.

The British weren’t fooling around when it came to herbal domination. To show who was in control, they arrested and impounded one of Big John’s ships that was caught trying to off-load in tiny Marblehead. Big John had the money for a good attorney, but was pissed when customs kept his cargo. A little thing the law can do at their discretion called asset forfeiture.

Even though the locals favored their herb from Amsterdam, Big John worried that, with his ships being stopped and the British running the piers and customs dock, he could lose business if he stayed out of the game for too long.

Taking advantage of the colonist’s growing dissatisfaction with being ruled by an over-reaching government across the soup, a clandestine meeting was organized. Big John whooped the Bostonians into frenzy. “Not only governed by an unseen hand, that hand is laying down some major taxes on us. Only to go back to the King!”

Directing the mob’s anger into a tax issue completely played into Big John’s plan. The tea smuggler wondered aloud, “What would be the best course of action against the British and their attempt to bully us with taxes? What product of theirs could we…I don’t know…dump overboard into water, spoiling whatever it is we’re dumping to prove a point, and possibly disrupt their commerce.”

“What about East India’s ship of tea sitting in the harbor?” A man in a smart tri-corner hat drinking a Sam Adam’s with Sam Adams offered.

A patriot from South Boston says, “Yeah, we could disguise ourselves as escaped slaves. Get some burnt cork for blackface, dress down, do the whole nine yawds. Blame it on the Blacks.”

“I think it be easier if we went native,” Carl the barrel-maker suggests. “We dress like savages, very little make-up, just a few feathers and a loin-cloth. We dump the tea in the harbor; change back into our frocks and stiff clothing waiting on the dock. We’re home by 11 blowing out the candles with no fuss.”

Big John and the riled activists did exactly that. Dressing up like Indians, they boarded the British ship in the cloak of darkness and unloaded bales and bales of the conglomerate, East India Company’s, tea into the Boston harbor.

Big John’s plan worked perfect. His tax-free smuggling operation was back in business. Once again Big John was the boss of the herb game, raking in some major duckets until a Starbucks opened in Cambridge. Big John did so well, he went into politics and helped shape a nation.

You can see Big John’s signature at the bottom of the Declaration of Independence. Of course, it’s the name written most boldly on the document.

John Hancock, statesman and tea smuggler.

Image from the collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society.