The Royal Colony of South Carolina

The Tea Act and its Consquences in the Carolinas

May 1773

The Tea Act gave the East India Company a monopoly on the trade in tea, made it illegal for the colonies to buy non-British tea, and forced the colonies to pay the tea tax of 3 cents/pound. Click Here to read the entire Tea Act.

The Tea Act, passed by Parliament in May of 1773, would launch the final spark to the revolutionary movement in the colonies. The Act was not intended to raise revenue in the American colonies, and in fact imposed no new taxes. It was designed to prop up the East India Company which was floundering financially and burdened with eighteen million pounds of unsold tea.

This tea was to be shipped directly to the colonies, and sold at a bargain price. The Townshend Duties were still in place; however, and the radical leaders in America found reason to believe that this Act was a maneuver to buy popular support for the taxes already in force. The direct sale of tea, via British agents, would also have undercut the business of local merchants.

Colonists in Philadelphia and New York turned the tea ships back to Britain. In Charles Town the cargo was left to rot on the docks. In Boston the Royal Governor was stubborn and held the ships in port, where the colonists would not allow them to unload. Cargoes of tea filled the harbor, and the British ship's crews were stalled in Boston looking for work and often finding trouble. This situation lead to the Boston Tea Party.

North Carolina responded to the Tea Act of 1773 by creating and enforcing non-importation agreements that forced merchants to drop trade with Britain. In the following year, when Massachusetts was punished by Parliament for the destruction of a shipload of tea in Boston Harbor, sympathetic North Carolinians sent food and other supplies to its beleaguered northern neighbor.

In the fall of 1774, the women of Edenton, North Carolina took a political stand on the Tea Act. On October 25, 1774, fifty-one leading women of the Albemarle region declared their devotion to the cause of liberty by resolving to not use East India tea. This act is thought to be the earliest recorded political activity by women in the American colonies. A replica of the Edenton tea pot is located near the town green.

The Tea Act once again inflames the radicals, in spite of the fact that it was supposed to lower tea prices. If the Americans accepted the lower tea prices, they would also have to accept the duties (taxation without representation), and put many of the founding fathers out of business smuggling tea. Throughout the colonies, "tea parties" were held where men turn back ships or boarded them and tossed packaged tea into the harbors. One of these tea parties was held at the harbor in Charles Town, South Carolina.
The British opinion of South Carolina’s opposition to the Tea Act in 1773 was summed up by the Earl of Dartmouth in his letter to Lieutenant Governor William Bull: “What passed at Charles Town . . . although not equal in criminality to the proceedings in the other colonies can yet be considered in no other light than that of a most unwarrantable insult to the authority of this Kingdom.”
In 1773, citizens of Charles Town met in the Great Hall to protest the Tea Act. Rather than watching the tea get dumped in the harbor as had happened in Boston, British authorities seized the tea and locked it up in the cellars of the Exchange Building. Later, American patriots took possession of the tea and sold it to benefit the cause of liberty. 

A meeting at the Exchange Building was called on December 3rd because 257 chests of East India Company tea had arrived in Charles Town two days before in Captain Alexander Curling’s ship, the London. George Gabriel Powell was elected chairman of the meeting, and it became apparent in the ensuing debate that most of the citizens present favored absolute non-importation of teas subject to tax. The East India Company consignees, who were present at the meeting, received the thanks and applause of the assembly when they promised not to accept the tea.

If this had been the full extent of the meeting’s historical importance, it would be an interesting, but hardly remarkable event. Strangely enough, however, the present government of the state of South Carolina traces its lineage to this anti-tea rally. As historian David Duncan Wallace points out, the colonial Assembly was the predecessor, but not the parent of the modern legislature. The meeting of December 3rd led without a break to subsequent meetings and then to the General Committee, the Provincial Congresses, and finally the state General Assembly.

On December 22, 1773, Robert Dalway Haliday, the collector of customs for Charles Town, had the tea shipment seized, unloaded, and stored in the warehouse under the Exchange Building for non-payment of duties. Since the consignees refused to receive the tea, it became liable to seizure by the Crown after twenty days in port. A second meeting of the citizens on December 17th had resolved that the tea should not be landed, and Captain Curling received several anonymous letters threatening damage to his ship unless it was moved away from the wharf.

When Lieutenant Governor William Bull was informed of the threats, he called an emergency meeting of the Executive Council at his home. The sheriff was instructed by the Lieutenant Governor to assist the Collector of Customs if necessary, and to arrest anyone who attempted to obstruct the landing of the tea. Accordingly, the customs officers began moving the chests into the Exchange Building warehouse at sunrise on December 22nd, and at noon their task was almost finished. The Patriots were taken completely by surprise, but they declared themselves satisfied as long as the unpopular merchandise remained under lock and key.

The tea remained in the Exchange Building until the government of the province fell into the hands of the Patriots, and it was sold in 1776 to provide funds for defense against the British.

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