In some countries, it was salt - the French Cahiers de doleances famously illustrated the unpopularity of the gabelle tax, which eventually contributed to sparking the French Revolution -, in others it was sugar, in some it was tea.
Interestingly, since both played a role in a revolution, salt and tea have had a similar history. According to an Arabian traveler, duties on salt and tea were the main sources of revenue in 9th Century Canton, China. After having established a trading port in Macau, in 1557, the Portuguese discovered and reported the existence of a Chinese drink called “chá”, but it is only in the early 17th century that a Dutch East India Company ship returning from China brought back the first green tea leaves to Amsterdam - an event which eventually contributed to the development of the tea culture in Europe.
It was a Portuguese princess, Catarina de Bragança, who, when she married King Charles II of England in 1662, brought to the English court the habit of drinking tea. Promoted as a medicinal beverage or a tonic, tea rapidly gained popularity in aristocratic circles.
Back in China, the tea trade was controlled by two monopolies: the Chinese Hongs and the British East India Company. Trade between Britain and China was going strong, but ships bringing English-made fabrics to India and China were returning only partially full. Tea had obvious potential and the East India Company initiated a campaign that popularized tea throughout Britain, making it a viable return cargo.
While the tea trade rapidly grew in England between 1690 and 1750, the cane sugar trade was facing a similar increase. A sweetened tea cup quickly became a daily necessity, resulting in rival companies being established to import tea from the East Indies.
In 1698, the East India Company was granted monopoly over tea importation, while the British colonies were required by a 1721 Act to exclusively import their tea from Great Britain, thereby ensuring a steady source of income through the duties imposed on tea. This income was however challenged by smuggled Dutch tea which was serious competition to the highly-taxed legal tea.
Looking for additional revenue, the Parliament decided to enact a law allowing direct taxation on the colonies, including on tea. Colonists did not have direct representation through elected Parliament members: taxation without representation was rapidly perceived as unfair. Protests and boycotts started, with many colonists pledging to abstain from drinking British tea, while alternatives were being sought.
In spite of protest, additional tax legistlation was passed, including the 1767 Townshend Revenu Act: it was repelled in 1770, with the exception of duty on tea. Tea imports continued and Boston quickly became the largest colonial importer of legal tea: meanwhile the smuggled tea trade was also flourishing.
A 1772 change in taxes brought yet another burden on the tea trade, with a new Tea Act, enacted on 10 May. With that, the market value of legally imported tea had become cheaper than smuggled tea by one penny per pound. The Act called for a system of consignees, colonial merchants who received tea on consigment and would sell tea for a commission, who were appointed in New York, Philadelphia, Boston and Charleston. Monopoly of the tea trade was given to the East India Company.
A protest movement, led by Whigs - who sometimes called themselves the Sons of Liberty - quickly developed against the Tea Act, and in Philadelphia and New York, consignees were forced to resign, while tea shipments were being returned to England.
In Boston, however, Governor Hutchinson convinced consignees, two of whom were his sons, not to resign. Samuel Adams, a Whig leader, convened a mass meeting at Faneuil Hall on 29 November 1773. The meeting called for the Captain of the tea-carrying Dartmouth and two other ships to go back to England without delivering the tea and paying the import duty, which normally would have to be paid within 20 days of arrival. The Governor forbade the Captain to leave without paying the duties. On December 16, the issue was resolved when, following another meeting convened by Adams, a group of men - some of whom were disguised as Mohawks - boarded the ships and dumped the tea in the harbour.
Punished with the closing of the Boston harbour and the passing of the Coercive Acts, the event served to unite all parties in Britain against the colonies. Meanwhile, the reaction in the colonies varied: while Benjamin Franklin suggested that the value of the destroyed tea be repaid, others rallied around the fight for independence, which eventually led to the adoption in 1776 of the Declaration of Independence.
Famous patriot and silversmith Paul Revere, the son of French Huguenot Apollos Rivoire, produced for Bostonian wealthy families numerous silver services that included teapots, milk pots, tea spoons and tea tongues. Interestingly, in the portrait of Revere painted by his friend John Singleton Copley in 1768, it is a teapot that Copley decided to feature as the most emblematic of the silversmith’s craft, while that year, in support of the tea boycott, Revere only crafted one teapot.
It is only in 1778 that the Tea Act was repealed with the Taxation of Colonies Act.
The Boston Tea Party is one of the more famous episodes of the fight against unfair taxation. In 1930, following the Indian salt protest campaign, Gandhi used duty-free salt to remind the British Viceroy of the Massachusetts event.