Why Tea? The Global Story of the American Revolution

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Authored by

  • Marc Aronson

    Maplewood, New Jersey

The Colonies in Their International Context

American history and world history are inextricably bound together. Take the matter of tea. Once you look backward over the 20 years leading up to the Boston Tea Party of 1773 with a kind of bifocal gaze—paying attention simultaneously to events in North America and to the course of the East India Company in India—each of those stories alone now seems flat, two-dimensional, while taken together you begin to sense the real, three-dimensional, global history in which the American Revolution, the formation of the British Empire, and even the Wilkes riots in London are all part of one interrelated set of events.

A slight personal caveat: In writing for AP teachers, I am intensely conscious that I am not a teacher, either of high school or college students. I have neither your classroom experience (and the pressure of tests and scores) nor the imprimatur of an institution of higher learning. Worse yet, the books I write are aimed at teenagers, while the whole point of AP is to direct those readers toward college-level work. And yet my position as an independent scholar (I have a doctorate in American history) does offer some advantages. I am free to follow my own historical curiosities and to craft books that reflect my sense of how best to engage young readers with history. In the process, I believe I have come upon a new way to frame the American Revolution, placing it in its true international context.

A New Approach to History

There is no more canonical moment on the pathway to the American Revolution than the Boston Tea Party. But most standard accounts of the dramatic events begin with the arrival of ships carrying tea into Boston Harbor. Why did the British send the tea in the first place?

Benjamin Woods Labaree's The Boston Tea Party is still the best source on this event, and he recounts some of the maneuvering on the part of the East India Company that convinced Parliament to let the company ship the tea to America without having to pay the usual fee on reexported goods. Labaree's account offers what you might call the efficient cause—it explains the facts—but it poses as many questions as it answers (1).

Yet when you look at the Tea Party in world context, you can experience an almost physical paradigm shift. Suddenly new actors such as Robert Clive, who can quite meaningfully be paired with his exact contemporary, George Washington, and the Johnstone clan, whose fingerprints stained the entire empire, become extremely important. A strong case can be made that Scotland is crucial to the story of the eighteenth century, and the Scottish banker Alexander Fordyce emerges as the person most directly responsible for precipitating the Revolution. Existing studies, in particular T. H. Breen's analyses Tobacco Culture and The Marketplace of Revolution, become crucial puzzle pieces, linking histories unfolding in Asia, Europe, and North America. It is all very exciting (2).

I hasten to add here that while I discovered this for myself, you can see hints of it in Niall Ferguson's Empire, in the new book by P. J. Marshall, The Making and Unmaking of Empires; Britain, India, and America c. 1750-1783, in the second volume of Simon Schama's trilogy on the history of Britain, in Fred Anderson and Andrew Cayton's new book The Dominion of War, and in the book on the East India Company and the American Revolution that Emma Rothschild of Cambridge University is writing. The thrilling part for me is that I am writing for teenagers, so that they can get a taste of this new approach to history even as it is being crafted in the academy (3).

Following the Trail of Tea

When I began following the trail of tea, I had already written three books on the colonial period, two of which are deliberately transatlantic in their approach. The first, Sir Walter Ralegh and the Quest for El Dorado, traced the first phase of English engagement with North America and found its keynote in a marvelous passage Ralegh wrote in his account of the search for El Dorado. Ralegh simultaneously lusted after the riches of the new land and felt that the virginal Eden must be protected. That impossible mixture of feelings provides a unique insight into this early period when, to Europeans, America was as much fable as fact (4).

My second book, John Winthrop, Oliver Cromwell, and the Land of Promise, explored the period in which the fabled lands became a site of religious hope and prophecy, even as the same millennial dramas unfolded in parallel ways in the English Civil War. The focus of that book was on the transition from the religious, prophetic image of America as the Land of Promise to a more pragmatic, political discussion of how both England and New England should be governed (5).

As a teenager, I always wondered how the authors of books I read knew what they knew. Where did the information come from? Perhaps because of that, in all of my books I not only list the sources I used but also discuss what I thought of them. I try to lift up the curtain and show readers the mechanics behind the scenes, so that they get a sense of how history is constructed and feel encouraged to do their own building.

The third book, Witch-Hunt: Mysteries of the Salem Witch Trials, was entirely built around this exercise in historiography. I wanted to give my readers the interpretations I thought most compelling—Paul Boyer and Stephen Nissenbaum's account of local conflict, David D. Hall's insight into the blend of folk and scholarly religious beliefs, Bernard Rosenthal's withering skepticism, and Mary Beth Norton's exciting new insights into the impact of the nearby Indian wars—but then challenge readers to assimilate these views and develop their own (6).

The advantage of having written these earlier books is that when I followed the leads in Labaree to the history of the East India Company, I saw that story in three dimensions. I set down the results of that research in The Real Revolution: The Global Story of American Independence. All of the books on Clive and the East India Company are by Irish and British authors. For these authors, making sense of Clive and the company also means reckoning with the British Raj, the Empire, the entire colonial exercise. The luxury of coming at this history from an American point of view is that, not burdened by the subsequent history of British rule, one can simply be curious to see how events on the other side of the world cast new light on familiar actions here (7).

European Powers' Global Reach

For example, the rivalry between England and France so familiar to American historians from Washington's early battles and what is myopically called the French and Indian War was also unfolding at the same time in parallel conflicts in India. In fact, it is precisely because these clashes were interconnected that the Seven Years' War is now recognized as the first true world war (8).

In India, English ambitions were expressed through the East India Company, just as George Washington set off in 1753 as an agent of the Ohio Company, as well as Virginia, and the crown. This cross of business and empire is especially revealing, as the vaunted greed of East India Company employees resembles nothing so much as the land hunger of Americans. The crisscrossing of these worlds is not just a matter of classroom comparison. Once you begin to trace out the lives of key actors in the East India Company, you see more direct links to North America.

Take the Johnstone clan, the sons of a Scottish baronet. George, a younger son, joined the navy in 1743 or 1744, fought in the West Indies, and, though his temper slowed his advance, demonstrated pluck and determination. When Lord Bute's former pupil became George III, the good Scotsman did all he could for his countrymen. George Johnstone, for one, was appointed governor of West Florida. But before he left to take up his post, he had some business to attend to. One brother, Patrick, had died in the Black Hole of Calcutta. Another, John, fought beside Clive at the great triumph at Plassey. John went on to use every unscrupulous means to amass a fortune. Clive's hands were far from clean, but he sincerely did want to bring order to the company, and he tried to reign in Johnstone and remove his treasure. At a crucial meeting of the East India Company stockholders, George used his considerable will and John's wealth to turn the company against Clive (9).

That fight within the East India Company between Clive and his allies and the Johnstones, allied with the Irishman Laurence Sulivan, who was the company's director at the time, went on for a decade and would have an important role in American history. The Johnstone's involvement in America played out in other ways, too. Another brother, William, married Frances Pulteney, a woman so wealthy he took her name. He came to own a great swath of western New York called the Genesee Tract. George's tenure in Florida was cut short by the same personality traits he showed in the navy. The same was true of his cousin, James Murray, whom Bute named as governor-general of Canada. George ultimately returned to North America in 1778 as one of the commissioners sent to see about negotiating an end to the war. His temper rendered that difficult mission impossible (10).

The Johnstones are but one example of what you see when you begin to take a global view. A career path involving service in the Caribbean, in North America, in India, and in Parliament—with alliances and entanglements with important figures on each stop—was not uncommon. Service around the globe was particularly appealing to outsiders, such as Scots, whose ability to rise was otherwise limited. If we simply look at these actors when they appear in North America, we are like flatlanders who perceive spheres as circles.

Events in London and Events in Boston

There is yet another crucial twist to this tale. Bute's constant goad was the rabble-rousing rake John Wilkes (a schoolmate of James, yet another of the Johnstone boys). Wilkes loved mocking Bute through his paper, the North Briton (the title itself was a dig at Scots). In issue 17, Wilkes attacked the artist William Hogarth for supporting Bute and the treaty that ended the Seven Years' War. Hogarth retaliated with a caricature of a devilish Wilkes, but his supporters liked the image anyway. Then in issue 45 he accused the king of lying to Parliament, which cost him his seat in the Commons, and he fled the country. But his faithful supporters—London's working poor and the impoverished, gin-soaked, destitute—chanted his name. From then on, in Boston quite as much as London, the number 45 stood for "Wilkes and Liberty." Rioters in Boston attacked boots—the symbol for Bute—and the Sons of Liberty proudly displayed the number 45. As Parliament and the king were intensely aware, to concede anything to Boston was also to bow to Wilkes and the London mob, and vice versa. Once again, following the story of the Stamp Act, Declaratory Act, and Townshend Act outside of the context of Wilkes and the London riots is to miss a key part of the story (11).

There is yet another actor to add to this increasingly global story: the London and Amsterdam stock markets. In 1765 Clive came to an agreement with the Mughal emperor that made the company the effectual ruler of Bengal, Bihar, and Orissa, the richest parts of India. At once, he notified his agent to begin buying company stock. And as soon as word spread, East India Company stock soared (12).

The rise in East India Company stock brought life to the global stock market, which had collapsed after the end of the Seven Years' War (the second collapse in the century, after the South Sea Bubble in 1720). As the stock began to rise, it became the center of all trading. Scottish merchants holding the debts of Virginia tobacco farmers used every pound they had, and many more that they borrowed, to buy company stock. Clive and Sulivan marshaled great syndicates to buy company stock to take control of the company, driving the stock higher. Government ministers, such as Charles Townshend, bought stock, tying government policy to company needs. Within a year, the price for what had been 100 pounds' worth of East India stock rose to 273 pounds (13).

In 1769 came the first sign of trouble: a strong Indian leader threatened Madras, and the stock began to fall. The next year came the real blow: famine. When the regular monsoon rains did not come, people in Bengal began to die. Taxation was carried out in Bengal by Indians, who showed neither compassion nor concern for the dying. But the company was no better. Instead, it hoarded rice and even increased the tax on land by 10 percent as thousands, hundreds of thousands, perhaps 10 million people died. Company rule was a disaster—as the radical writer Thomas Paine fervently insisted (14).

Parliament, though, was reluctant to act. To govern the affairs of a corporation was an infringement on liberty. For once, the Boston radicals, ever protective of their own sense of "liberty," agreed. But then matters were taken out of Parliament's hands. Alexander Fordyce was one of those Scottish bankers who had plunged heavily in company stocks, using borrowed funds. In the summer of 1772, he thought he saw the trend and shorted his stock. Just then, in June, it rose slightly. Seeing his ruin, he fled to France with all of the Ayr Bank's assets. This set off the third credit crisis of the century, ruining banks across Scotland, forcing them to call in the debts of Virginia planters, sending shock waves of bankruptcy across the colony, threatening even the Bank of England and the Amsterdam exchange (15).

Though Fordyce and the Ayr Bank are forgotten today, one crucial observer was playing close attention at the time. The Johnstone brothers, especially William, were part of the circle of Scottish thinkers that included David Hume and Adam Smith. Smith could see, directly in front of his eyes, how world finance was developing. As he weighed out the question of paper currency in Wealth of Nations, he began by reviewing the story of the Ayr Bank (16).

The East India Company had been second only to the Bank of England as a financial power in England. But the company was entirely dependent on trade. The wealth it gathered in India was useless unless the Indian goods it could then buy were either highly valued in Europe or could be traded for Asian products that had their own eager buyers. As banks collapsed in England, the market for Asian luxuries diminished, and this stellar company was in real trouble. Company directors, who realized what was happening and had their own fortunes tied up in company stock, scrambled to hide the state of affairs, to dump their stock, and, finally, to get a government bailout. The company needed about 1.4 million pounds to avoid bankruptcy (17).

The government was willing to loan the company money, but with strings attached. It wanted control over Bengal. Forced to agree, the company gave the crown the cornerstone of the British Empire. It also had one asset that did not depend on the market for Indian luxuries: Chinese tea. In fact, by one calculation, if the company could dump 11,500,000 pounds by weight of that tea in North America by underselling the smugglers, it would earn 1.45 million pounds—just enough to cover the loan (18).

A Global Context for a Local Story

We are back at Labaree—with Parliament debating the loan and the tea. But how different the story looks now: the same financial crisis that sent tea to Boston had radicalized Virginia planters, influenced the ideas of the inventor of modern economics, and established the British Empire. And there is yet one more twist. Parliament, where three of the Johnstone brothers now held seats, actually wanted more than control and money, it wanted blood. The anti-Clive cohort in the company now acted through Parliament, making him the scapegoat for all of the company's problems. Two committees went after him, one in public and one, chaired by the ambitious John Burgoyne, in private.

According to a frequently recounted story, Clive was being groomed to come to America, to oppose Washington in the approaching conflict. But Clive did not cross the Atlantic. Though he was ultimately cleared, and even honored, by Parliament, the ordeal was too much. On November 22, 1774, he killed himself (19).

What a perfect place to compare and contrast: Washington who would establish the United States, Clive who laid the foundation for the British Empire. In Edward Penny's 1773 painting of Clive collecting funds from Mir Jafar, an Indian ruler, to give to English widows and orphans (which can be found on the British Library site below), his resemblance to Washington is striking. The point is not to praise one and condemn the other but to see in the two men two sides of the same story unfolding in related but different ways. The need to do so becomes all the more clear when you look at the end of the war that might have been contested by the two generals. After Lord Cornwallis surrendered at Yorktown, he was still in high favor with the king. That is why George tapped him to take control of the crown's new territories in India.

Teachers, I realize that you are bound by the straightjacket of tests, and though I think it would make an ideal essay question, I doubt your students will soon be asked to defend or contest the proposition that Alexander Fordyce was responsible for the Revolution. Nonetheless, I hope that this brief account of my explorations will suggest some of the riches that await you and your students when you begin to link American and world history. Since I've been talking about tea, take the matter of sugar...


Another interesting and more recent book that deals with the Boston Tea Party is Alfred F. Young, The Shoemaker and the Tea Party: Memory and the American Revolution (Boston: Beacon Press, 1999). While it centers on an account of the events by a participant and is especially useful for stripping away the mythology of the Party, the book is really more about historical memory than the event itself.

I found Bence-Jones to be the best modern biographer of Clive, though his book is out of print and may be hard to find. He is skeptical of many stories that are otherwise loyally passed along from one biographer to another. The source of many of those tales of Clive's life is the brief nineteenth-century study that still casts a shadow over all English writing about Clive, Thomas Babington Macaulay's completely dated but still vivid essay "Lord Clive" from The Edinburgh Review, 1840, and reprinted in, among other books, Macaulay's Essay on Lord Clive (Whitefish, Montana: Kessinger Publishing, 2004). It is worth reading for its literary style and its place in English historiography. And your students may enjoy it for its Indiana Jones-style flair and thrilling but distorted tales of heroism. On page 240, Bence-Jones uses the once-acceptable phrase "nigger in the woodpile"; in context it clearly reflects no racial attitude on his part, but I could imagine that a student might not be familiar with the term, misread it, and take offense. Spear's book is also out of print, also good, has more and better illustrations, and will more than satisfy any reader's hunger for details of military life in India. Lawson's survey is particularly valuable as it not only outlines all of the key moments in the history of the company but also carefully describes the historiography. For a coffee table history of the East India Company that features wonderful illustrations and whose tone is not at all defensive, see Antony Wild, The East India Company: Trade and Conquest from 1600 (New York: Lyons Press, 2000).

Fabel's book on George Johnstone is the only full-length study of any of the brothers. John's traces can be found in any book on the East India Company in this era, though his life remains entirely unexamined. A useful primary source is the Autobiography of the Rev. Dr. Alexander Carlyle, Minister of Inveresk (Boston: Ticknor and Fields, 1860). A contemporary of the Johnstone brothers, Carlyle relates several telling anecdotes linking them to such figures as Charles Townshend, John Wilkes, and Adam Smith. Sutherland's fine book is not only thorough but also marvelously well written, a treat for anyone researching this subject. Bowen is also useful and recent, though more academic in tone.


(1) Benjamin Woods Labaree, The Boston Tea Party (New York: Oxford University Press, 1964; reprint Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1979; page citations are to the Northeastern reprint edition), 58-79.

(2) T. H. Breen, Tobacco Culture: The Mentality of the Great Tidewater Planters on the Eve of Revolution (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1985; 9th ed., with new preface, 2001); Breen, The Marketplace of Revolution: How Consumer Politics Shaped American Independence (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004).

(3) Niall Ferguson, Empire: The Rise and Demise of the British World Order and the Lessons for Global Power (New York: Basic Books, 2004); Simon Schama, A History of Britain, Volume II: The Wars of the British, 1603-1776 (New York: Talk Miramax Books, 2001); P. J. Marshall, The Making and Unmaking of Empires; Britain, India, and America c. 1750-1783 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005); Fred Anderson and Andrew Cayton, The Dominion of War: Empire and Liberty in North America, 1500-2000 (New York: Viking, 2005).

(4) Marc Aronson, Sir Walter Ralegh and the Quest for El Dorado (New York: Clarion, 2000).

(5) Marc Aronson, John Winthrop, Oliver Cromwell, and the Land of Promise (New York: Clarion, 2004).

(6) Marc Aronson, Witch-Hunt: Mysteries of the Salem Witch Trials (New York: Atheneum, 2003); Paul Boyer and Stephen Nissenbaum, Salem Possessed: The Social Origins of Witchcraft (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1974); David D. Hall, Worlds of Wonder, Days of Judgment: Popular Religious Belief in Early New England (New York: Knopf, 1989); Bernard Rosenthal, Salem Story: Reading the Witch Trials of 1692 (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1993); Mary Beth Norton, In the Devil's Snare: The Salem Witchcraft Crisis of 1692 (New York: Knopf, 2002). Dr. Rosenthal is preparing a new edition of the surviving pretrial transcripts, which will certainly be a necessary tool for all future research.

(7) Marc Aronson, The Real Revolution: The Global Story of American Independence (New York: Clarion, 2005); Mark Bence-Jones, Clive of India (London: Constable and Company, 1974); Percival Spear, Master of Bengal: Clive and His India (London: Thames and Hudson, 1975); Philip Lawson, The East India Company: A History (London: Longman, 1993).

(8) Fred Anderson, Crucible of War: The Seven Years' War and the Fate of Empire in British North America, 1754-1766 (New York: Vintage, 2001). For a vivid depiction of the global scope of the war, see map 1, xxviii-xxviv.

(9) Robin F. A. Fabel, Bombast and Broadsides: The Lives of George Johnstone (Tuscaloosa, Alabama: University of Alabama Press, 1987) for his naval life, governorship, and early involvement with the East India Company, 1-24. For the battles within the East India Company and their connections to contemporary politics, see H. V. Bowen, Revenue and Reform: The Indian Problem in British Politics 1757-1773 (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1991). Dame Lucy Sutherland, The East India Company in Eighteenth-Century Politics (Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1952).

(10) For a brief biography of William Pulteney and information on his role in western New York, see http://clanjohnston.org/pulteny.html. For Johnstone's and Murray's temperaments and the consequences to their North American careers, see Anderson, 730-31. For Johnstone's role in the 1778 mission, see Fabel, Bombast, 100-119.

(11) For the Hogarth, Wilkes, North Briton contretemps, see Sheila O'Connell, London 1753 (London: British Museum Press, 2003), 200-02; George Rudé, Wilkes and Liberty: A Social Study of 1763 to 1774 (Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1962). For the link between Wilkes and the Americans, see Pauline Maier, From Resistance to Revolution: Colonial Radicals and the Development of American Opposition to Britain, 1765-1776 (New York: Knopf, 1972; Norton paperback, 1991), 161-83. For the pun of boot and Bute and the American rioters, see Edmund S. Morgan and Helen M. Morgan, The Stamp Act Crisis: Prologue to Revolution (Chapel Hill, North Carolina: University of North Carolina Press, 1953; rev. ed. with new preface, 1995), 129.

(12) For a detailed account of Clive's negotiations with the emperor, see Spear, Master, 145-48. There is a handy, annotated chart of the share price of East India Company stock in Ferguson, Empire, 52.

(13) For the boom in East India Company stock in the context of previous credit bubbles, see David Glasner, ed., Business Cycles and Depressions: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland, 1997), 112-23. For the responses of the Virginia planters, see Breen, Tobacco, 160-203.

(14) W. W. Hunter's contemporary account of the famine can be found at http://etext.library.adelaide.edu.au/f/fiske/john/f54u/chapter9.html. Thomas Paine, "Reflections on the Life and Death of Lord Clive," Pennsylvania Magazine, March 1775, available at http://oll.libertyfund.org/Texts/Paine0030/Writings/HTMLs/0548-01_Pt01_P....

(15) John Phillip Reid, The Concept of Liberty in the Age of the American Revolution (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988). The Bostonians' agreement with the East India Company stockholders is mentioned on 86. Sir John Clapham, The Bank of England: A History (New York: Macmillan, 1945), 245-49; Charles Wilson, Anglo-Dutch Commerce & Finance in the Eighteenth Century (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1941; reprinted New York: Arno Press, 1977), 170-71; Richard B. Sheridan, "The British Credit Crisis of 1772 and the American Colonies," Journal of Economic History, volume XX (June 1960): 161-86.

(16) Adam Smith, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, 472-76, available at http://oll.libertyfund.org/Texts/LFBooks/Smith0232/GlasgowEdition/Wealth....

(17) For the East India Company's troubles, see Bowen, Revenue, 119-39.

(18) For the amount of tea the company needed to sell, see Labaree, Boston, 67.

(19) For the rumor that Clive was slated to fight Washington, see Bence-Jones, Clive, 296.

Marc Aronson earned his doctorate at NYU. He is an editor and author of books for teenagers. His biography of Sir Walter Ralegh was awarded the first-ever Robert F. Sibert prize for setting a new standard of excellence in nonfiction for younger readers, as well as the Boston Globe-Horn Book Award for nonfiction.