Thursday 16th December 1773 was the day colonial America showed they were really getting fed-up with Britain. At the beginning of this month three ships of the East India Company – the Dartmouth, the Eleanor and the Beaver, all carrying tea for which the company had sole rights of supply, had arrived in Boston harbour. The Bostonians refused to allow the tea to be landed and Thomas Hutchinson, the extremely unpopular British governor, instructed the three ships to stay in the harbour and placing two warships in the harbour to enforce his order.
The result was a stand-off led by Samuel Adams, a man who, nine years previous, had campaigned against the Sugar Tax. On this Thursday afternoon an estimated 2,000 (quoted numbers vary) Americans gathered on the wharf while around 60 (again numbers vary) protestors – some disguised as Mohawk Indians – boarded the three ships and threw 342 cases of tea into Boston harbour. This was not a rampaging mob but a carefully planned response to, what they regarded as, unfair taxation. Hutchinson responded to the whole situation by closing Boston Harbour which caused considerable hardships to the Bostonian population.
100 years later Oliver Wendell Holmes (1809-94) wrote ‘The Ballard of the Tea Party’ which contains
A Ballad of the Boston Tea-Party
By Oliver Wendell Holmes Snr. [1809-1894]
Oliver Wendell Holmes Snr. was an American physician, poet, professor, lecturer and author based in Boston. He wrote this poem about the ‘Boston Tea-Party’ of December 1773. Oliver Wendell Holmes read the poem for the first time at a meeting of the Massachusetts Historical Society in 1874 having first, briefly, reminded his audience of the story:
‘The tax on tea, which was considered so odious and led to the act on which A Ballad of the Boston Tea Party is founded, was but a small matter, only two pence in the pound. But it involved a principle of taxation, to which the Colonies would not submit. Their objection was not to the amount, but the claim. The East India Company, however, sent out a number of tea-ships to different American ports, three of them to Boston.
The inhabitants tried to send them back, but in vain. The captains of the ships had consented, if permitted, to return with their cargoes to England, but the consignees refused to discharge them from their obligations, the custom house to give them a clearance for their return, and the governor to grant them a passport for going by the fort. It was easily seen that the tea would be gradually landed from the ships lying so near the town, and that if landed it would be disposed of, and the purpose of establishing the monopoly, and raising a revenue, effected. To prevent the dreaded consequence, a number of armed men, disguised like Indians, boarded the ships and threw their whole cargoes of tea into the dock. About seventeen persons boarded the ships in Boston harbour, and emptied three hundred and forty-two chests of tea. Among these “Indians” was Major Thomas Melville, the same who suggested to me the poem, ‘The Last Leaf’. [I am a little confused about this statement because, as far as I can establish, “The Last Leaf” is a short story by O. Henry that was published in 1907 in his collection The Trimmed Lamp and Other Stories.]
The full text of Oliver Wendell Holmes’ poem about the ‘Boston Tea Party’ is:
No! never such a draught was poured
Since Hebe served with nectar
The bright Olympians and their Lord,
Her over-kind protector,–
Since Father Noah squeezed the grape
And took to such behaving
As would have shamed our grandsire ape
Before the days of shaving,–
No! ne’er was mingled such a draught
In palace, hall, or arbor,
As freemen brewed and tyrants quaffed
That night in Boston Harbor!
It kept King George so long awake
His brain at last got addled,
It made the nerves of Britain shake,
With sevenscore millions saddled;
Before that bitter cup was drained,
Amid the roar of cannon,
The Western war-cloud’s crimson stained
The Thames, the Clyde, the Shannon;
Full many a six-foot grenadier
The flattened grass had measured,
And many a mother many a year
Her tearful memories treasured;
Fast spread the tempest’s darkening pall,
The mighty realms were troubled,
The storm broke loose, bnt first of all
The Boston teapot bubbled!
An evening party,– only that,
No formal invitation,
No gold-laced coat, no stiff cravat,
No feast in contemplation,
No silk-robed dames, no fiddling band,
No flowers, no songs, no dancing,–
A tribe of red men, axe in hand,–
Behold the guests advancing!
How fast the stragglers join the throng,
From stall and workshop gathered!
The lively barber skips along
And leaves a chin half-lathered;
The smith has flung his hammer down,–
The horseshoe still is glowing;
The truant tapster at the Crown
Has left a beer-cask flowing;
The cooper’s boys have dropped the adze,
And trot behind their master;
Up run the tarry ship-yard lads,–
The crowd is hurrying faster,–
Out from the Millpond’s purlieus gush
The streams of white-faced millers,
And down their slippery alleys rush
The lusty young Fort-Hillers;
The rope walk lends its ‘prentice crew,–
The tories seize the omen:
“Ay, boys, you’ll soon have work to do
For England’s rebel foemen,
‘King Hancock,’ Adams, and their gang,
That fire the mob with treason,–
When these we shoot and those we hang
The town will come to reason.”
On– on to where the tea-ships ride!
And now their ranks are forming,–
A rush, and up the Dartmouth’s side
The Mohawk band is swarming!
See the fierce natives! What a glimpse
Of paint and fur and feather,
As all at once the full-grown imps
Light on the deck together!
A scarf the pigtail’s secret keeps,
A blanket hides the breeches,–
And out the cursèd cargo leaps,
And overboard it pitches!
O woman, at the evening board
So gracious, sweet, and purring,
So happy while the tea is poured,
So blest while spoons are stirring,
What martyr can compare with thee,
The mother, wife, or daughter,
That night, instead of best Bohea,
Condemned to milk and water!
Ah, little dreams the quiet dame
Who plies with rock and spindle
The patient flax, how great a flame
Yon little spark shall kindle!
The lurid morning shall reveal
A fire no king can smother
Where British flint and Boston steel
Have clashed against each other!
Old charters shrivel in its track,
His Worship’s bench has crumbled,
It climbs and clasps the union-jack,
Its blazoned pomp is humbled,
The flags go down on land and sea
Like corn before the reapers;
So burned the fire that brewed the tea
That Boston served her keepers!
The waves that wrought a century’s wreck
Have rolled o’er whig and tory;
The Mohawks on the Dartmouth’s deck
Still live in song and story;
The waters in the rebel bay
Have kept the tea-leaf savor;
Our old North-Enders in their spray
Still taste a Hyson flavor;
And Freedom’s teacup still o’erflows
With ever fresh libations,
To cheat of slumber all her foes
And cheer the wakening nations!