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.