Their journeys began with little fanfare. After selling their whale oil in London, two Rotch ships (Dartmouth and Beaver) loaded a return freight containing British East India Company tea to sell at market. But the timing couldn’t have been worse. The Sons of Liberty had been stirring opposition to the dreaded “Tea Act” and protesters refused to allow the ships to offload their controversial cargo. Determined to crush the resistance, Governor Hutchinson refused to allow the ships to leave port without paying the tax due to the Crown. Francis Rotch spent nearly three weeks pleading with both sides for compromise, but the Rotch ships were destined for history. On the evening of December 16, scores of disguised men boarded three ships and “turned Boston Harbor into a Teapot!”
Desperate to prop up the flailing British East India Company, Parliament decreed that any American ship selling goods at in London had to purchase tea as part of its freight for the return trip to the colonies. Thus, the captains of the Rotch-owned Dartmouth and Beaver dutifully loaded a cargo of tea for their journey back to Boston. The former arrived first at port on November 28th. The latter had been quarantined by an onboard small-pox outbreak, but arrived at Griffin’s Wharf on December 15th. British law required the tea clear customs and the tax be paid in full within 20 days of docking. The Sons of Liberty called the first large-scale meeting on November 29th to discuss how to proceed. Samuel Adams estimated there were over 5000 people in attendance, the vast and vocal majority of whom agreed the tea should be sent back to London with the tax unpaid. But Governor Thomas Hutchinson refused to allow any of the ships to leave Boston Harbor without a pass and would not grant one until the tea was offloaded and the tax was paid. The tea consignees desperately searched for a compromise that would allow them to recoup their outlay and – more importantly – save their ships. Francis Rotch, representing the family firm in person, scrambled back and forth between American protestors and British officials. Another public meeting December 14th adjourned without a definitive plan of action. Finally, the morning of December 16th (the day before the tax was due), all parties agreed that Francis would first demand a pass from the customhouse (which was not authorized to grant one). Then, he would make a personal plea to Governor Hutchinson (which everyone knew would be denied). The thousands gathered – more than 1/3 of Boston’s population – waited until evening for Rotch to return from his negotiations. When word reached the crowd of Hutchinson’s firm and final “no,” the Sons of Liberty moved ahead with their secret plan to “make Boston Harbor a teapot!” The tea destroyed that night was worth £10,000, though it is noteworthy that the participants did not damage any of the ships. The protestors targeted only the tea and supposedly even swept the decks after the action, a courtesy that supported reports at the time suggesting that many colonists were sympathetic to the plight of the merchants unwittingly caught in the middle of an imperial struggle. Francis Rotch immediately sailed to Britain where declared his unwavering loyalty to the Crown and tarried before Parliament for years attempting to recoup his family’s losses. The British infamously responded to the renegade Bostonians with the Intolerable Acts, but no one in the Rotch family could have known that their revolutionary saga too was only just beginning.
Published as part of a series
- Before the Rockefellers, there were the Rotches
- For those who fail at business…there’s always politics
- The Tea Party: bad for business
- A different kind of sunken treasure
- The Falkland gambit
- “No step between being clear, and death”
- Patriotism…and false flags?
- America’s first trade war: bad for business
- You can run but you can’t hide (in France)
- Whaler, traitor, coward…spy?
- Can you ever go home again?
- Post-script: Jefferson’s accusations and Adams’s
- Adams’s revenge