January 5, 2006

Tea Time

Boston patriots dump the 'bainfull weed' in their harbor, 232 years later, though one teen suggests an alternative: nuke the Brits' ships.

Elizabeth Sargent

If there is one thing that Boston loves—besides the Red Sox—it is a commemoration. With the city celebrating its 375th anniversary, 2005 was a banner year. From spring to summer to fall, there were endless events sponsored by the mayor's office to justly venerate the history of the city. Rap artists Big Daddy Kane and MC Lyte performed, neighborhoods celebrated, people rode in hot-air balloons, and the representatives of Boston's international sister cities convened. (The city's newest sibling is Sekondi-Takoradi, Ghana.) In late September, the festivities concluded with a fireworks display the likes of which the city had not seen since the Revolution.

Yet Boston is not a city that honors its history only with large, flashy events. Indeed, it often prefers to commemorate past glories with smaller, more dignified gatherings. And so it was on December 11, when the staff and supporters of the Old South Meeting House, in the heart of Downtown Crossing, threw open its doors and invited the public to witness and participate in the annual reenactment of the Boston Tea Party. These devoted historians, as well as Old South's Tea Party Players, were determined that the famous debate between Loyalists and Colonists about taxation and representation, and the subsequent dumping of 45 tons of tea into the Boston Harbor, could and should not go unnoticed on its 232nd anniversary.

The Debate
Elizabeth Sargent
The debate is in session.
The attendees of the Boston Tea Party reenactment were, by all accounts, a disparate crew. As they waited for the debate to begin, tens of volunteer re-enactors in colonial garb mingled with hundreds of bundled-up modern-day folk amidst the building's pew-like seats. This juxtaposition, paired with the building's slightly crumbling interior, lent a surreal air to the scene. Yet once the executive director of the Old South Meeting House earnestly called the reenactment to order, differences fell to the wayside in the excitement of reliving history.

First on the agenda was a re-creation of the debate between the Tories and the Sons of Liberty. Since Americans and their speaking habits have come a long way in 232 years, Byron Rushing, a state representative whose district covers parts of Boston and nearby Cambridge, gave the audience a tutorial on how to debate colonial-style: "To cheer, say 'huzzah' (that's with a 'z,' not an 'r')! When you want to say yes, say 'yea'! And if you don't agree with a statement, say 'fie'!" He also notified the audience that they could join the debate, in the roles they were assigned when they purchased tickets, by lining up at several conveniently-located microphones.

With the groundwork duly laid, the likes of Samuel Adams and John Hancock kicked off the debate about the "bainfull weed" floating in their harbor. For the first few minutes the crowd watched respectfully, occasionally emitting an inadvertent "huzzah." However, spurred by an especially vocal group of high-school students ensconced in the balcony, the energy behind the cheers soon began to rise. Sensing the shift in the room, the re-enactors stepped aside and let the audience join in. First adults and teenagers, then children, stepped up to the microphone to plead the case for and against the tea levy. A wayward British tourist—appropriately, a Tory—came forward to defend his government, and was later commended for his accent. In those brief minutes, the two-party debate reasserted itself as a foundation of democratic society.

The one uncomfortable moment, as is inevitable in reenactments, came when one teenager cried out in frustration that we should "nuke their ships." A moment of silence ensued as the audience communicated their dismay over the unwelcome intrusion of modernity, broken only when another teenager wryly cried "Genius!" The debate henceforth never gained the same momentum. Perhaps sensing that the audience's interest was fading quickly, the moderator abruptly adjourned the meeting and said no more. Faced with the evening's second awkward moment, the high-school students again came to the rescue, crying, "March to the harbor!"

Old meets new
Elizabeth Sargent
Old meets new.
Unsure how to proceed, the audience members slowly spilled out of the meeting house onto Milk Street. The program notes had indicated that the march would be a kind of parade, with Prescott's Battalion Field Musick leading the way, but the band left early and was nowhere to be seen. Without a clear leader, the sparse band of patriots decided to follow the blue-and-white lights of the police cars protecting them from traffic. Thankfully, candle-bearing re-enactors soon overtook them, providing much needed guidance. They soon proved that they were indeed volunteers and not professionals, however, as they fell out of character to conduct an au courant debate about renewable energy, their candles flickering. One was fervently pro-solar, and proclaimed that he was in the process of putting panels all over his house. The other retorted that he had bought 30 acres of land upon which to build a windmill. Both agreed that it was time to be freed from the tyranny of oil.

Confused by the non-historical nature of this discussion, and realizing that the harbor was now much further away due to centuries of infill, the participants' enthusiasm began to flag. As they crossed the barren zone that was once the Central Artery and were berated by the horns of angry Boston drivers, they wondered if rebellion was really worth it. But 100 yards later, as they passed through the domed arcade of Rowes Wharf, the water came into sight. There, nestled amongst luxury condominiums and the Boston Harbor Hotel, the lights of Logan Airport gleaming in the background, was the historic ship Poincare and its stockpile of tea.

As the diminished group of patriots slowly gathered round, the Sons of Liberty—disguised as Mohawks—grabbed their hatchets and jumped aboard the ship. Amidst loud cries and the curious looks of nearby residents, they overcame the crew on board, threw several cardboard boxes into the harbor, and declared victory. Cheers went up from the crowd and the band suddenly appeared, playing an upbeat fife-and-drum tune. The jubilant insurgents disembarked and joined the crowd, savoring the moment. Minutes later, as the band played on, the tired re-enactors performed their last duty, crying, "To your homes!" Obeying their cry for a final time, the crowd looked back to see volunteers hoisting the boxes from the harbor with ropes, safe for another year, as planes took off into the night sky. Rebellion in the modern age somehow wasn't as poignant.

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- Government
- posted on Sep 08, 09
Sally "Sam" Chetwynd

On behalf of Prescott's Battalion Field Musick, I believe it is proper to offer a correction to your January 5, 2006,report on the Boston Tea Party reenactment.

When the crowd spilled out into the street to follow our music company to the harbor, Prescott's Battalion Field Musick had not left early at all. We were there; the crowd was very large and did not pay us any mind at all. We began to play and march down the street, but the crowd out-ran us and galloped to the waterfront ahead of us, leaving us in their dust. We continued to march and to play as we marched, and continued playing when we got to the harbor.

Just so the record is clear -

Thank you,

Sally M. "Sam" Chetwynd
Clerk, The Musick of Prescott's Battalion

Article by Elizabeth Sargent

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