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This Day in History: The (almost) forgotten Charleston Tea Party

On this day in 1774, the South Carolina Gazette reports on the so-called Charleston Tea Party.  You’ve heard of the Boston Tea Party, of course. Charleston had one, too!

Discontent had been brewing for a while. Colonists were furious about the “unconstitutional tax” on tea. In November 1773, an editorialist wrote in the South Carolina Gazette that Parliament was determined “to raise a revenue, out of your pockets, against your consent—and to render assemblies of your representatives totally useless.”

You can imagine, then, that locals were furious when a ship arrived in Charleston harbor just a few days later—its cargo included 257 chests of tea!   A meeting was convened. Patriots such as Christopher Gadsden and Charles Pinckney convinced merchants to sign an agreement: They would not import any more of the much-hated tea.

No tea was dumped in the harbor that year, as it would be in Boston. Instead, the collector of customs came up with a plan to avoid a confrontation: He simply seized the tea in the middle of the night. The tea was brought ashore and stored.

The seizure proved to be embarrassing. Charleston was the only port to allow a shipment of tea to be brought ashore during those months. In Boston, of course, the tea had been dumped overboard. In Philadelphia, a ship bearing tea had simply been turned away.

Gadsden and other members of the Sons of Liberty were mortified, but they would soon get a chance to redeem themselves. During the spring of 1774, Parliament enacted the harsh Coercive Acts, which closed the Port of Boston and demanded that Bostonians make recompense for the lost tea.

Gadsden and others leapt into action.

“We depend on your Firmness,” Gadsden wrote Samuel Adams, “and that you will not pay for an ounce of the damn’d Tea.”

South Carolinians sent relief supplies to Boston. In fact, they contributed more than any other colony! They also worked to support the new Continental Congress that was being considered. Perhaps more satisfyingly, though, when a cargo of tea made its way into Charleston Harbor in November 1774, locals were quick to act.

A committee was convened, and the presence of the ship’s captain was demanded. Captain Samuel Ball confessed to “having the mischievous Drug on board,” but he claimed that he had not known about the cargo until too late.  

“[H]is Mate had received them in his Absence,” he swore. But “as soon as he made the Discovery, he did all in his Power to get them relanded.” Nevertheless, he was unable to get the cargo off his ship. Captain Ball must have known he was in for some trouble!  When he arrived in America, he was carrying a sworn statement that he’d had notarized in London. It certified his objection to the cargo aboard his ship, even before he departed for American shores.

Ball didn’t want everyone mad at him! He wanted the blame to lie with those merchants responsible for his cargo. Was he being genuine or just punting responsibility? Either way, it worked.

The committee called upon the importers of the tea, who indicated that they “were ready and willing to do any Thing, which the Committee should be of Opinion would most effectually contribute to preserve the Peace and Quiet of the Community.”

What was going to make Charleston Patriots most happy at this point in time? Dumping the tea overboard, of course. And that is exactly what the merchants did.

The South Carolina Gazette later reported, simply: An “Oblation was made to Neptune, of the said seven Chests of Tea.”

Presumably, it was a very satisfying outcome, given the events of the past year. The city of Charleston celebrated for days afterwards.

Primary Sources:

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