The Tea Act was passed by Britain’s parliament in the spring of 1773, in order to bail out a financially ailing East India Company. It allowed the company a virtual monopoly on tea trade with the American colonies.


The Tea Act followed other divisive acts passed by parliament, such as the 1765 Stamp Act and the 1767 Townshend Acts. These policies had fuelled the grievances of many American colonists who railed at the increased taxes in contrast to the representation they had in parliament. While the Tea Act imposed no new taxes, in the eyes of many colonists it was a further attempt to assert British control and generate revenue from the colonies.

The act was a key catalyst of the event now known as the Boston Tea Party, a protest in December 1773 which saw a group of Bostonians dump 46 tons of tea into Boston Harbour.

Why was the 1773 Tea Act passed?

By the 1770s, the East India Company was losing money, and it owed hundreds of thousands of pounds in back taxes to the British government.

The company had a surplus of tea in its warehouses, and so the government passed an act that granted the EIC the exclusive right to export tea directly to the American colonies – without it passing through the hands of colonial merchants.

More like this

This meant that the EIC could sell tea at a reduced rate, making it more affordable than the tea that was sold (or smuggled) by colonial merchants.

Boston Tea Party: Igniting a Revolution

Don’t miss our HistoryExtra podcast series investigating the causes, tensions, and violent origins of the Boston Tea Party. Join leading experts as they explain the key players involved in the plan – and why tea was so important to the story.

Listen now

Why was tea so important in Britain’s American colonies?

“Tea was tremendously important in many parts of the empire, as well as in Britain itself, but very important in Boston,” explains Professor Sarah Purcell, historian and author of books including Sealed with Blood: War, Sacrifice, and Memory in Revolutionary America (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2010).

“In the growing population of Massachusetts, and of the colonies generally, the majority of people thought of themselves as British,” she explains. One of the ways that colonists expressed that identity was by participating in the consumer economy that transatlantic trade provided.

“Tea was very much seen as a drink that people desired to have each day. It was shifting from being seen as more of a luxury good, to something that the middling sort and even the poor people could have access to (though maybe less frequently than a wealthy person).”

A mid-18th century depiction of a gathering with company drinking tea
A mid-18th century depiction of a gathering with company drinking tea. "Men and women in the colonies both built a lot of their sociability around tea," says Professor Sarah Purcell. (Image by Getty Images)

Men and women in the colonies both built a lot of their sociability around tea, says Purcell. This can be seen “in the proliferation of tea tables and cups and teapots, and all kinds of material culture that is extremely refined,” she says. “The lubrication of hierarchies, friendships, business deals, and different kinds of social relationships would be cemented around the tea table.”

Purcell describes the Tea Act as a perfect storm of symbolism. “You couldn't have chosen a product to provoke people more than this,” she says, “because it was so symbolic. It had a lot to do with the way people related with one another – much more so than some of the other products like lead or paper. Those were important in other ways, but tea had this person-to-person connection and a way of speaking of people's relationships within the empire, and within the household and the community, that was really significant.

“So targeting tea, I think, was particularly laden with meaning.”

How did colonists react to the Tea Act?

By the time the Tea Act was passed in 1773, groups such as the Sons of Liberty had established a network throughout the 13 American colonies. They had coordinated much agitation and civil action – particularly in New England – to protest what they perceived as oppressive policies. In Massachusetts, several protests had already turned to violence, and leaders at a local level – such as Samuel Adams and John Hancock – were wary of further encroachment on their liberties.

“The Bostonians heard about the Tea Act in the fall of 1773, and Samuel Adams immediately smelled a rat,” explains Professor Benjamin L Carp, historian and author of books including Defiance of the Patriots: The Boston Tea Party and the Making of America (YUP, 2010). “He was probably influenced by arguments that were already being published in the middle colonies, in New York and Philadelphia.”

Adams saw the act as a measure that would reduce the cost of tea for American consumers and seduce colonists into buying tea from the East India Company for a lower price – a direct assault on the economic interests of colonial merchants.

The Bostonians heard about the Tea Act in the fall of 1773, and Samuel Adams immediately smelled a rat

“There were other problems with the Tea Act as well,” explains Carp. The act was propping up a monopoly company, and so a lot of Americans feared that if they were forced to accept direct trade of tea, they worried what would prevent parliament from setting up monopoly companies for other goods that were imported from Great Britain – like ceramics or textiles.

Protesters “feared that British merchants and parliament were just going to suck the American colonies dry, by pulling all of this money out of American colonists' pockets,” says Carp.

Samuel Adams
Samuel Adams, a prominent leader in local government and a member of the Sons of Liberty. (Image by Getty Images)

In Massachusetts, explains Carp, there was a particular grievance. “In 1772, parliament had decided that the money raised from the tea tax was going to pay for the salaries of certain government officials and judges.

“The very people who were tasked with enforcing the customs laws were now being paid from the collection of these customs revenues.”

If the officials were being paid from the British Treasury, their wages drawn from the customs duties that they collected, this made it seem as though they were only answerable to London. “And that strikes the Bostonians as very worrisome," explains Carp.

What was the importance of the 1773 Tea Act?

In a protest against the Tea Act, a group of colonists boarded three British ships – the Dartmouth, the Eleanor, and the Beaver – in Boston Harbor on the night of 16 December 1773.

They proceeded to dump more than 340 chests of tea into the harbour, in an event that would become known some 50 years later as the Boston Tea Party.

The act of defiance became a symbol of the colonists' rejection of British authority and their determination to resist unjust taxation. What might have seemed like a routine trade regulation became a catalyst for revolutionary fervour.


Professor Benjamin L Carp and Professor Sarah Purcell were speaking to Elinor Evans on the podcast series: Boston Tea Party: Igniting a Revolution. The full, ad-free series is available now to members of HistoryExtra


Elinor EvansDigital editor

Elinor Evans is digital editor of She commissions and writes history articles for the website, and regularly interviews historians for the award-winning HistoryExtra podcast