The Boston Tea Party – one of the two or three most significant events of the American Revolution – was no party at all. Instead, it was a confronting and provocative attack on the property of the British East India Company. Massachusetts was whipped up into an anti-taxation frenzy after the passing of the Tea Act. The first tea-bearing ship, HMS Dartmouth, arrived in Boston Harbour in late November and dropped anchor. Samuel Adams and the so-called Sons of Liberty convened dozens of town meetings, drawing hundreds of people both from Boston and the surrounding counties. They summoned royal officials, merchants and even the ship’s owner, Rotch, to these meetings and effectively gave them ultimatums about not unloading the tea. Gangs kept watch on the docks to ensure that the orders of the meetings were not disobeyed. Thomas Hutchinson – a victim of the mob in 1765 but by now promoted to royal governor – worked busily to comply with British policy and to bring the tea ashore. It was a tense and imminent stand-off between the rebellious mob and officers of the Crown.
By law, the Dartmouth had to unload its cargo within 20 days of arriving in port – and on December 16 that deadline was due to expire. By this time the Dartmouth had been joined by two more tea-carrying ships: the HMS Eleanour and the HMS Beaver. Adams called yet another town meeting, this one by far the largest with more than 6,000 people in attendance. After dusk, a band of men (their number is unknown but they were, from reports, dressed as native Americans) slinked towards Griffin’s Wharf, where the three British ships were resting. The vessels were boarded, the holds broken into and chests of tea were raised to the deck (so efficiently that some of the intruders must have been dockyard workers). Most reports suggest that 342 crates of tea, weighing about 45 tons and worth more than ?10,000, was thrown into the shallow water and grey mud of the harbour. All this was done reasonably quietly so as not to alert attention from soldiers or officials, and there was virtually no other violence or destruction, save for one broken padlock. Despite some artistic representations of the ‘Tea Party’ there were no large crowds lining the harbour, cheering on the perpetrators.
Viewed in isolation, the Boston Tea Party – an act of criminal vandalism on private property, rather than political terrorism – does not seem so significant. Coming as it did after a decade of colonial defiance of British policy, it would be too much to bear for the parliament in London. It was a pivotal example of gesture politics which would force Westminster to take the sterner action many of its hardliners had been calling for.