Thursday, December 16 marks the 248th anniversary of the Boston Tea Party – a protest during which Massachusetts colonists, angered by Britain’s “taxation without representation,” dressed up as Mohawk Indians and dumped 342 chests of British tea into Boston harbor.
Throughout the 1760s, the British government imposed a number of taxes on American colonists in an effort to pay off the crown’s debts. According to History.com, in 1765, the Stamp Act taxed colonists on nearly every piece of printed paper, including playing cards, business licenses, newspapers and legal documents. Two years later, the British government passed the Townshend Acts of 1767, taxing other basic items like paint, paper, glass, lead and tea.
On March 5, 1770, a street brawl turned deadly riot on King Street in Boston inflamed already rising tensions between the colonists and British. The event that left five colonists dead and six others wounded would come to be known as the Boston Massacre.
While many of the taxes imposed on the colonists were later repealed, one remained: a tax on the almost 1.2 million pounds of tea the colonists drank every year. Colonists protested the tax by boycotting tea sold by the British East India Company, opting instead to smuggle in Dutch tea.
Eventually, the cost of smuggled tea became more expensive than the taxed tea sold by the British, but colonists remained steadfast in their opposition to “taxation without representation.”
Around the same time, a group of colonial merchants and tradesmen founded the Sons of Liberty, a revolutionary group that included prominent patriots like Patrick Henry, Paul Revere, John Hancock and Samuel Adams.
On the morning of December 16, 1773, the Sons of Liberty rallied against the British government in protest of the arrival Dartmouth, Beaver and Eleanor: three British East India Company ships carrying tea from China.
Thousands of colonists gathered at Griffin’s Wharf where the ships were docked and voted to refuse to pay taxes on the tea. The patriots also refused to allow the tea to be unloaded, stored, sold or used.
Gov. Thomas Hutchinson rejected the colonists’ votes, ordering them to pay the tax and unload the tea.
Later that night, a group of men disguised as Native Americans – many of them members of the Sons of Liberty – boarded the moored ships and tossed hundreds of chests filled with tea into the harbor.
“We then were ordered by our commander to open the hatches and take out all the chests of tea and throw them overboard, and we immediately proceeded to execute his orders, first cutting and splitting the chests with our tomahawks, so as thoroughly to expose them to the effects of the water,” said George Hewes, one of the men who participated in the midnight raid.
Hewes added that, “We were surrounded by British armed ships, but no attempt was made to resist us.”
According to reports, the patriots made sure the ships’ decks were swept clean before departing.
Despite the event’s prominence, many of the those involved in the Boston Tea Party remain unknown. Just one man, Francis Akeley, was arrested and imprisoned for taking part.
Years after the United States of America won the Revolutionary War, participants still refused to reveal themselves out of fear of civil and criminal charges. The majority of those involved were under age forty and many of them were teenagers.