When was the last time you helped foment a revolt? If you have to think back to some playground escapade or high school cafeteria food fight, then you really need to get to Boston, where the night of December 16, 1773 is played out every day at the Boston Tea Party Ships & Museum. You won't be an onlooker: You'll be a full-fledged participant in an act of treason against the crown, so the adrenaline rush will definitely exceed the one you experienced when the principal snatched away your straw loaded with mushy cafeteria peas.
You may have forgotten the date of the Boston Tea Party, but surely you remember a few details of this pivotal event in American history. The bit about riled up colonists donning Mohawk disguises and boarding ships in Boston Harbor. Or their rallying cry: “Boston Harbor, a teapot tonight!” Or perhaps the aftermath: England's Parliament and King George III were not exactly amused by this rebellious act, and within 16 months, the mother country and its colonies were at war.
"If the Tea Party didn't happen, we could be British subjects today," Shawn Ford told me. The Executive Director of the Boston Tea Party Ships & Museum has worked passionately to reimagine the telling of the Tea Party story and to make the attraction a thought-provoking, moving, interactive drama—not merely a memorable history lesson—for guests. After lightning sparked a fire at the attraction in 2001, it took Historic Tours of America, its owner, more than a decade to navigate the process of permitting, funding and rebuilding.
Unveiled in June of 2012, the new Boston Tea Party Ships & Museum is designed to captivate a modern audience with authentic replica ships, theme park-inspired marvels and a talented cast of reenactors, many of whom spend their nights performing on Boston-area stages.
If you're expecting a snoozy museum filled with artifacts, you'll be disappointed.
"It's really not a museum. You become the story, not the objects," Ford said. You're handed a role card and a feather disguise the moment you step inside the attraction's Meeting House at your appointed tour time. I was Samuel Peck, a barrelmaker and one of the rumored leaders of the fateful tea toss.
Our group soon met Sally Hewes, wife of Tea Party participant George Robert Twelves Hewes, and rabble-rouser Samuel Adams, who needs little introduction. Actors at the Boston Tea Party Ships & Museum thoroughly research their roles and remain in character, leading to interesting exchanges with visitors and making each tour of the attraction a one-of-a-kind adventure. Sally and Sam had us booing and hissing and shouting, "Huzzah!" or thumbing our noses and hollering, "Fie!" as they quickly brought us up to speed on the politics of the day and reminded us of the real reason the residents of colonial Boston were perturbed about the tea. It wasn't so much the tax that had a riotous bunch ready to steep 340 crates of East India Company tea leaves in the harbor. It was the passage of the Tea Act by Parliament without input from those forced to pay: Taxation Without Representation!
Once our outrage was sufficiently enflamed, Sally led the charge to the Beaver: one of three recreated ships.
How authentic are these floating replicas? Built by master shipwright Leon Poindexter and talented craftsmen at Gloucester Marine Railways using centuries-old techniques, Ford says they even have hulls covered in copper. "Nobody sees it, but that's the way it was done," he explained.
Amos Lincoln, who was 20 at the time he participated in the Boston Tea Party and would later marry two of Paul Revere's daughters (no, not at the same time!), was waiting to show us around the Beaver and to incite us to hurl tea crates overboard. It's quite an empowering feeling, even though the crates are buoyant props that are hauled back aboard for the next angry mob.
Back ashore, Sally pointed out the exact spot, just across the inlet, where the Boston Tea Party took place in 1773, and she told us more about the characters we were assigned to play: The role cards and feathers were souvenirs to keep.
One member of our group was Francis Akeley, the only man arrested in conjunction with the non-violent protest: Seems he couldn't keep his mouth shut the next day! Fortunately, since everyone else's lips were sealed, there was no one to testify to his participation, and he kept his neck out of a noose.
Inside once more, the high-tech portions of the presentation awaited. I don't want to give too much away, but the Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Orlando was where Ford and his colleagues discovered some of the holographic magic the attraction employs to bring the Tea Party story to life for a new generation. We also saw the one artifact that is prominently displayed at the Tea Party Ships & Museum, and it's a doozy: The Robinson Half Chest is one of only two known surviving tea chests tossed overboard during the Boston Tea Party in 1773. To see it, twirling on its illuminated pedestal 240 years after an act of defiance that still defines Americans' lives, truly stirs the emotions.
Tours, which last just over an hour and run on an efficient schedule, ensuring you'll have plenty of time to take in other must-see Boston sights, conclude in the Minuteman Theater. Throughout the tour, I wished my 11-year-old daughter was along: She would have loved the theatrics and been thoroughly engaged. And she could have handled the showing of Let it Begin Here, a gripping film about the opening moments of the American Revolution, on the theater's huge wrap-around screen. But this is the one part of the tour that really isn't appropriate for young children. Sally warned us it would be loud and graphic and gave members of our group the option to skip the film, which depicts the opening engagement between the farmers turned soldiers who picked up arms to repel the British lobsterbacks who marched on Lexington and Concord. It is a moving documentary, which emphasizes the magnitude of the Boston Tea Party and the actions of those who fought for America's independence.
Ford defends the decision not to candy-coat history. "We wanted this experience to be as realistic as it could," he said. "People don't realize the sacrifices of our forefathers. It really is about the Bostonians. They shed blood. They sacrificed everything."
And that is what makes the Boston Tea Party Ships & Museum such an important destination for Boston travelers. In an hour's time, you'll have a deep appreciation for the gritty determination of Bostonians, who played a critical role in the formation of our nation, as well as food for thought to go along with a steaming cup of tea at Abigail's Tea Room on-site. Sip one of the same tea varieties that was dumped in Boston Harbor in 1773, and ponder the questions Ford hopes bubble up in visitors' minds:
"Who of us today would do what they did?" Would you risk everything you own "based on an idea and based on every reasonable chance that you'd fail and be killed?"
And then, of course, you should think about visiting the gift shop. I asked the young woman who rang up my Trick Lobster if people ever complain to her about having to pay tax after the immersive experience they've just had. She responded with good humor that there's no tax on tea since it's technically a food item, and reminding folks of this usually quiets any potential for insurrection in the gift shop.
If You're Going...
The Boston Tea Party Ships & Museum is located at 306 Congress Street in Boston and is open daily year-round. Tours begin every half hour starting at 10 a.m., with the last tour each day scheduled for 4 p.m. Tickets may be purchased at the ticket booth outside the attraction, but you'll save money by buying in advance online. For more information, visit the Boston Tea Party Ships & Museum Web site.