Defying the King: The Charleston Tea Party Protest

In October 1773, seven ships set sail for the American colonies loaded with cargoes of taxed tea from Great Britain’s East India Company. Not all of them went to Boston.
A painting of Charleston Harbor, S.C.

A view of Charles-Town, the capital of South Carolina / painted by Thos. Leitch ; engraved by Saml. Smith.

The Tea Act of 1773, passed by the British Parliament in May of that year, was one of several taxes and duties imposed on the American colonies in the lead-up to the Revolution, as the British government tried to recoup serious financial losses resulting from the French and Indian War. In 1765, the British government had passed the Stamp Act, the first direct tax on the 13 colonies, but it was repealed after colonists strongly objected, labeling it “taxation without representation.” Even so, Parliament did not give up its claim to having the authority to tax or impose laws upon the colonists. As a result, the Townshend Revenue Acts were passed in 1767, placing duties on several types of imported goods coming to the colonies, including paper, paint, glass and tea. Resentments flared once again, and boycotts of English tea were put into place by angry colonists, including those in Charleston. Three years later, most of the Townshend Act duties were repealed. The notable exception was the duty on tea. This was retained to make the important symbolic point that Parliament believed it retained complete authority to tax and legislate the colonies. 

While some colonists gave up their personal boycott, many others turned to smuggled Dutch teas that had no duties. This put a financial strain on the East India Company, and Parliament was eager to bail it out, perhaps because many members of Parliament also had investments in the company. The Tea Act of 1773 effectively reinforced the East India Company’s state-sanctioned monopoly on tea sales to the American colonies, and allowed the company to ship directly to the colonies and to commission authorized agents to sell it there. Ironically, cutting out the middleman reduced the cost of tea in the colonies, but that did not slow the growing ire of many colonists. A writer calling himself Junius Brutus warned in the November 15, 1773, edition of the South Carolina Gazette that the Tea Act would “establish a precedent for subjugating you to future impositions equally unjust and impolitic — to raise a revenue out of your pockets, against your consent — and to render assemblies of your representatives totally useless.” This same edition reported that a large cargo of East India tea was en route to Charleston and was expected to arrive in the coming weeks.

Old Exchange and Provost Building, Charleston, S.C.
Old Exchange & Provost Dungeon, Charleston, S.C. Rob Shenk

On December 1, 1773, the ship London sailed into Charleston Harbor carrying 257 large chests of East India Company tea consigned to merchants Roger Smith, Peter Leger and William Greenwood. The next day, concerned Charlestonians posted notices and circulated handbills inviting all inhabitants to assemble in the Great Hall of the Exchange Building at 3:00 in the afternoon of December 3. Colonel George Gabriel Powell, a fair-minded and respected member of the colonial assembly from the South Carolina backcountry, was selected to chair the community meeting and the ones to come, as debates continued for months. According to some accounts, the issue was hotly debated in the meeting, but Peter Timothy, publisher of the South Carolina Gazette, reported that “After some time spent in calm deliberation, it appeared to be the sense of the people, that the gentlemen in trade should be requested to enter immediately into a written agreement, not to import any more teas, that would pay duties, laid for the UNCONSTITUTIONAL purpose of raising a revenue upon us, WITHOUT OUR CONSENT.” 

The East India Company consignees were asked to come forward, and according to Lieutenant Governor William Bull, they were, by “threats and flatterys,” convinced to give up their shipment. The account in the Gazette was a bit milder, noting that after being advised that their receipt of this and future East India tea “would be exceedingly disagreeable to their fellow-citizens, and the body of inhabitants of this province,” the merchants agreed, with one of them even claiming to an appreciative crowd that he had already decided weeks before its arrival to refuse the cargo. The ship’s master, Captain Alexander Curling, also appeared at the meeting. He was in something of a bind, as he was obliged by law to satisfy the customs officer by paying duties and unloading his cargo within 20 days, since the ship had technically docked, and he was also engaged to take on another cargo in Charleston before departing. He was told by the inhabitants that, nonetheless, he should sail out of Charleston with his ship full of tea and return to England.

At the conclusion of the meeting on December 3, a select committee was established that included planters Charles Pinckney, Charles Cotesworth Pinckney and Thomas Ferguson, as well as mechanics (artisans) Christopher Gadsden and Daniel Cannon. They were charged with contacting the merchants around town to secure their signatures on a petition agreeing not to import or sell any teas subject to the Tea Act duties. The Gazette reported that within a few days they had received the signatures of 50 merchants. The codified petition read: 

WE the undersigned, inhabitants of this province, being new fully convinced, that we have vainly flattered ourselves, with hopes of the repeal of an act of parliament of Great-Britain, passed in the year 1767, imposing a duty on tea imported from thence, for the purpose of raising a revenue upon us, in America, without our consent, DO hereby solemnly promise and agree, each for him or herself, that we will not, either directly or indirectly import, buy or sell, or any way encourage or countenance the importation, buying or selling, any teas that will pay the aforesaid duty: And that we will not purchase any goods of any person or persons whosoever, that shall hereafter import, buy or sell any such teas: And this we do, because we conceive, that the payment of such duties, will be acknowledging a power which the British Parliament hath assumed, and which we deny them to have under our excellent constitution, “to tax us against our consent.” 

The basement where the 1773 tea was stored at the Old Exchange. Rob Shenk

While the committee was made up of planters and mechanics, the town’s merchants were not included, and as a somewhat conservative group, they were concerned about recent events regarding commerce and trade. On December 9, “a General Meeting of the Gentlemen in Trade” was held at Mrs. Swallow’s Tavern at the northeast corner of Church and Broad Streets, just a short walk from the Exchange Building. This meeting was the formation of the Charleston Chamber of Commerce. Known today as the Charleston Metro Chamber of Commerce, it is the oldest city commercial chamber in the country, and its formation speaks to the complicated nature of business and politics at this pivotal time. 

Debate over the London’s cargo continued until December 22, when the customs clock expired. By law, Collector of Customs Robert Halliday was required to seize the tea if no duties had been paid within 21 days after a ship’s arrival. This was done quickly and efficiently, and all 257 chests of tea were confiscated and stored in the basement of the Exchange Building. This mild response embarrassed some of Charleston’s more ardent patriots, especially once news of Boston’s energetic December 16 Tea Party reached South Carolina. However, as the Earl of Dartmouth commented in a letter to Lieutenant Governor Bull, “What passed at Charles Town in consequence of the arrival of Captain Curling, Altho’ not equal in criminality to the Proceedings in other Colonies, can yet be considered in no other light than that of a most unwarrantable Insult to the authority of this Kingdom.” Another insult for Britain was to come, as several years later, in September 1776, the stored tea was sold to raise funds for the American cause for independence.