J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Saturday, November 28, 2015

The Tea Party in Review

Old South Meeting House and the Boston Tea Party Ships & Museum are hosting their annual reenactment of the first Boston Tea Party on Wednesday, 16 December, starting at 6:30 P.M. (Doors open at 5:45.) Tickets are still available through this website.

I attended last year’s reenactment on a media pass, trying not to block paying customers’ views by standing behind a video camera (see photo). So it’s about time I reviewed that presentation.

The first act of the event takes place at Old South, the exact site of mass meetings about the tea in November and December 1773. Its main floor and first gallery are filled with people, Revolutionary reenactors mostly at the center and the public everywhere else. As people enter, they receive cards with remarks on the controversy over the East India Company’s tea monopoly and how Boston should respond.

At the start, some of the reenactors use first-person interpretation (i.e., portraying individual figures from 1773 Boston) lay out the basics of the debate. Then the gentleman presiding over the meeting opens the floor to other voices—folks in the audience. Everyone who wants to participate can line up at one of the microphones and read an argument from his or her card. As those lines wind down, sea captain Francis Rotch returns to report that Gov. Thomas Hutchinson has refused to permit him to sail away with the tea. Some of the reenactors whoop and head outside.

The audience is then led through the streets (rain, shine, or chill) to a viewing area across the channel from the well-lit Boston Tea Party Ships. From there they watch Sons of Liberty arrive on the ship, demand the keys to its hold, and start breaking open tea chests and throwing the cargo overboard. Finally, there’s a short spoken presentation by performers from the Tea Party Ships about what the tea destruction will lead to.

The tea crisis is a tough political confrontation to explain. The action in Old South lays out the issue on the highest level—Parliament has enacted a tax and granted a monopoly without North American subjects having any say in the matter. It also explains the lowest level—if the tea stays in those ships one more night, the royal authorities win. But the combination of laws, regulations, and circumstances that links those levels is still murky.

But these sorts of public presentations aren’t meant to lay out every detail of a historical event. They’re designed to give the public a vivid experience—in this case, hearing the arguments about the tea in Boston in late 1773 and then watching men destroy that tea on the night of 16 December. If everything works, the visuals the reenactment provides and the emotions it evokes are strong enough to entice people to learn more.

TOMORROW: Historical facts to keep in mind.


Dan Cornette said...

Thanks, JL. I also attended last year's Tea Party reenactment. I found the repetitive comments for and against the tea a bit annoying but that frustration was vastly outweighed by the seeing the enthusiastic participation of many students. I can't think of a better way to make history come alive for young patriots and loyalists.

I wonder whether there may have been a few participants who hadn't committed to to one side or the other. For the record, I was the moderate shopkeeper (neither completely patriot nor loyalist) who went off script. I said just wanted to maintain my livelihood by continuing to sell British goods including tea and not ready to choose sides.

J. L. Bell said...

Yes, I thought a lot about how the system could be designed to avoid repetition, and I couldn’t see any way to do it and still welcome participation by everyone.

I agree that there would have been more moderate Whigs at Old South who opposed the Tea Act but weren’t in favor of such drastic measures as breaking the law or destroying the tea. And there might have been some merchants inclined to support the royal government who were nonetheless miffed to be shut out of the tea-importing business. So there should be a range of opinions expressed.

Mantelli said...

I am curious about the tea itself. Was it, to be thoroughly authentic, Chinese tea, or was it Indian? Tea wasn't even grown in India at that point, yet historical novelists and "reenactments" keep making that mistake.

J. L. Bell said...

The tea was from China, but it came to North America through India, ships of the British East India Company, and warehouses in Britain.

For more on the specific types of tea, see this interview with Bruce Richardson.

J. L. Bell said...

For more on the value of the tea, see this guest posting from Charles Bahne.