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250 years ago, colonists dumped British tea into the Boston harbor

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

On a cold December night 250 years ago, a group of men destroyed a lot of tea. The Boston Tea Party helped fuel the American Revolution. But historians say what many of us were taught about that day is not entirely accurate. Gabrielle Emanuel of member station WBUR looks anew at one of the most storied events in U.S. history.

GABRIELLE EMANUEL, BYLINE: For starters, the Boston Tea Party had very little to do with tax hikes. It was almost all about monopoly power and lack of representation. The British Parliament had just given the British East India Company a monopoly on selling tea in America as a bailout to the teetering company. This would have actually made tea cheaper, but colonists up and down the East Coast were furious they didn't have a say.

ROBERT ALLISON: The tea is really a symbol of who governs us.

EMANUEL: That's historian Robert Allison of Suffolk University.

ALLISON: Do we really govern ourselves, or are we now governed by a force we can't control?

EMANUEL: In Boston, colonists converged on what was then the biggest building on the busiest street, the Old South Meeting House. It's red brick with a steeple. Nat Sheidley oversees the historic building.

NAT SHEIDLEY: The eyewitness accounts said there were 5,000 people in this space, and that's 5,000 people in a town of 15,000, right? So a third of the town crammed in here like sardines.

EMANUEL: People hung off the balconies and spilled out into the streets discussing what to do with the tea. As night fell on the 20th day of debate, the crowd got word the pro-British governor was insisting the ships of tea be unloaded. Revolutionary leader Samuel Adams stood up and said, this meeting can do nothing more to save the country. That was apparently the signal for more than a hundred men to head to the nearby wharf.

SHEIDLEY: This was the moment where there was no backing down.

CHRISTINE STRONG: If you are here to cast off that yoke of parliamentary tyranny, say aye.

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: Aye.

EMANUEL: Christine Strong is a reenactor for the Boston Tea Party Ships & Museum in Boston Harbor. That night, many men wore blankets and put soot on their faces to hide their identity. Despite later images and paintings, there were no Native American headdresses. But historians say some of the men were loosely disguised as Indigenous people.

STRONG: And we are all aware we are committing treason, aye?

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: Aye.

STRONG: And we all know the punishment for treason is death - indeed, death by hanging. And that's a fate I should hope we all avoid.

EMANUEL: Here's the part of the story you likely know. The patriots hauled chests of tea out of the cargo holds of three ships, broke them open with axes and chucked the tea and crates overboard into the chilly Boston Harbor at low tide. One of the ships had a pacifist Quaker captain from Cape Cod, who even let his crew participate in the protest if they wanted. Thousands of pounds of tea washed ashore. Today, that'd be worth more than $1 1/2 million. Despite the Boston Tea Party's name, this was no drunken party, nor was it a violent affair. Historian Allison says it was disciplined, methodical, carefully planned.

ALLISON: A crowd does come and watch this happening on the docks, and people comment on how orderly they are, how quiet they are.

EMANUEL: The focus was on making a political statement. None of the other cargo was disturbed. Allison says the colonists even swept the ships clean and tended to a broken padlock.

ALLISON: They send someone into town to get a new one to replace it. And I have to confess, Bostonians did tend toward a lot of street violence in the 1760s and 1770s, which makes this so much more remarkable.

EMANUEL: But not everyone was impressed.

ALLISON: George Washington and Benjamin Franklin think they really went too far. You know, Washington is kind of aghast at this destruction of property.

EMANUEL: The British were also aghast and reacted strongly. They shut down the port of Boston, crippling the local economy. The British suspended town meetings and local elections.

ALLISON: What Massachusetts does is actually calls for a meeting of the other colonies, which is a huge risk. It could be the other colonies will say, you wacky Puritans really went too far this time.

EMANUEL: But they didn't. The colonies were shocked by the British reaction, and they rallied in support, setting themselves on a path that led to the Revolutionary War less than two years later and soon to the creation of a new nation.

For NPR News, I'm Gabrielle Emanuel in Boston. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Gabrielle Emanuel