The Boston Tea Party was the culmination of a series of events that steadily aroused the ire of colonists who considered themselves British subjects entitled to the same rights and privileges as those who lived in England—rights that included representation in Parliament. England needed money, especially after the French and Indian Wars, and imposed monopolies and taxes—especially on tea, which was a hugely popular commodity—on the American colonists, denying them any recourse. Bostonians submitted to the inequity of the taxation until their resentment motivated them to resist, and on the night of December 16, 1773, they made their historic move.
Everyone knows that the Boston Tea Party was a pivotal point in United States history and that it was the spark that ignited the American Revolution. But how many know that two of the three ships involved were whaleships out of Nantucket?
How the Ships Become Involved in the Boston Tea Party
By the 1770s, Nantucket whalers were hunting sperm whales in the Atlantic off the coasts of South America and Africa and as far south as the Falkland Islands. It was common practice to send whaleships loaded with barrels of spermaceti and oil collected from oilier vessels in the South Atlantic directly to the London market.
Spermaceti was the sperm whale’s most prized oil. The head cavity of the sperm whale-the “case,” averaging two feet in diameter and about six feet deep-could contain upwards of a hundred gallons of this superior oil. It burned more brightly and cleaner than any other substance and was used then mainly for making candles. The manufacturing process of spermaceti candles, an important and lucrative branch of the whaling industry, was a closely guarded secret. Only a handful of colonial candle manufacturers possessed this knowledge, and they attempted to establish a monopoly under the name of the United Company of Spermaceti Candlers. The Nantucket whaleship owners, being shrewd businessmen, knew they would get a better price for the oil in London than what was offered by this cartel in the colonies.
The ship Dartmouth and the brig Beaver were in London in the late sunmmer of 1773. Having discharged their cargoes of oil and spermaceti, their captains-James Hall and Hezekiah Coffin-acting as agents for the ships’ owner, Joseph Rotch, were obligated to find cargoes for the return trip to the colonies, and they accepted the controversial tea. The Dartmouth was loaded with 114 chests of tea, each weighing about 350 pounds, and the Beaver carried 112 chests. The Beaver’s hold also held fine English furniture; an English Chippendale side chair from that cargo is in the collection of the Nantucket Historical Association.
The donor of the chair is the great, great grandson of Captain Coffin. Presumed line of descent for the chair: Hezekiah Coffin (1741-1779) to Elisabeth Coffin Brown (1763-1843) to Mary Brown Pinkham (1791-1874) to Harriet B. Pinkham Locke (1828-1874) to John Goodwin Locke Jr. (1868-1955).
By October 19, 1773, seven colonial ships had departed England for the eight-week voyage to the American ports of Boston, New York, Charleston, and Philadelphia. The ships were carrying almost 600,000 pounds of the East lndia Company’s tea, and the intention was to sell it only to its consignees in the colonies in an attempt to monopolize the tea market.
The Ships Arrive in Boston Harbor
On November 28, 1773, the Dartmouth was the first “tea ship” to arrive in Boston, commanded by Captain James Hall with mate Hodgdon. Upon entering the harbor, Hall proceeded to take the Dartmouth to Rowe’s Wharf. But at the insistence of merchant John Rowe, perhaps with the motive to avoid a violent scene on his property, the Dartmouth was later warped to Griffin’s Wharf. John Rowe was also the owner of the merchant vessel Eleanor. Joseph Rotch’s son, twenty-three-year-old Francis, represented the Dartmouth and the Beaver. By law, after having entered the harbor, Rotch had only twenty days to unload his cargoes before the ships would be seized and the cargoes sold at auction to pay the customs duties. Once having entered the harbor, a vessel could not legally set sail again with the cargo still on board without special permission from the governor of Massachusetts.
At a public meeting, Sam Adams, John Hancock, and others, supported by thousands of Boston residents, urged him to return the tea in the same vessels in which it arrived, but Rotch knew that he would not be granted the needed permission from Governor Hutchinson to do so.
The main channel of Boston Harbor was secured by the British with a hundred large cannon on Castle William at the mouth of the harbor and two men-of-war, the Active and Kingfisher. No ship could leave without permission of the governor. When the same “request” was made of Captain Bruce of the Eleanor, he replied, “If l am refused, I am loath to stand the shot of 32 pounders from the Castle.” Over the next twenty days, the tension built as all concerned worried about what would happen on the December 17 deadline.
The Tea Party
On December 16, the eve of the twenty-day deadline, at ten o’clock in the morning, some five thousand of Boston’s fifteen-thousand residents, nearly every male citizen, along with two thousand more from neighboring towns, packed the Old South Meeting House and spilled out into the rainy streets, determined to finally resolve the tea controversy. Francis Rotch was again summoned and ordered by the massive assembly to send the Dartmouth back to London with the tea. He replied, “Gentlemen, I cannot. It is wholly impractical. It would cause my ruin.” He was given until three in the afternoon to obtain a permit from the governor to allow his ship to safely pass under the huge guns of Castle William. The young businessman, anxious to be rid of this offensive cargo and resume his family’s business, complied and rode his horse fifteen miles to meet with Governor Hutchinson who, fearing trouble, had moved from Boston to his summer home in Milton. As expected, the governor refused to grant his permission.
It was dark when Rotch reappeared at the Old South Meeting House, but the meeting was still in progress. Samuel Adams, Joseph Warren, Josiah Quincy, and others had made one rousing speech after another all through the day. The intent crowd became silent when the young Mr. Rotch entered the hall and informed the assembly of the governor’s final decision. Rotch was again asked if he would offload the tea in Boston, he replied, “I have no business doing so, but if I were called upon to do so by the proper persons, I would try to land it for my own security’s sake.”
With that, the famous words rang out, “Who knows how tea will mingle with sea water?” Followed by the shout “Boston Harbor, a teapot tonight,” and “The Mohawks are coming.” With that, Sam Adams proclaimed that nothing more could be done to relieve the situation.
Those shouts were a preplanned signal: It is estimated that sixty to ninety unidentified men hastily blackened their faces and donned blankets and headed for Griffin’s Wharf, followed by most of the citizens of Boston. Thinly disguised as lndians to protect their identities, quickly and quietly, under organized leadership, they boarded each of the ships. Armed with axes and hatchets, they systematically destroyed 342 chests of British tea, weighing over 92,000 pounds, worth over a million dollars in today’s money. Thousands of spectators watched in utter silence. Only the sounds of axes splitting wood could be heard from Boston Harbor during the still, cold, December night. At low tide, with only two to three feet of water in the docks, the tea piled up higher than the ships’ bulwarks. Young boys climbed on the piles of tea to push it over, so that by morning the rising salt water would be sure to spoil all of it, and not one ounce of the forty-two tons of tea could be salvaged.
Since the Beaver had been tied up at Griffin’s Wharf the day before, Captain Coffin of the Beaver was concerned about the safety of his other cargo of fine English furniture, which was loaded on top of the tea chests. He was told, “If you go to your cabin quietly, not one item of your goods will be hurt. The tea we want and the tea we’ll have.” True to their word, the patriots carefully removed all of the inoffensive cargo, and a padlock that was broken was replaced the next day.
The patriots worked feverishly, feating an attack by the Royal Navy’s Admiral Montague at any moment. Three hours later, by nine o’clock, the work was finished. Fearing any connection to their treasonous deed, the patriots took off their shoes and shook them out overboard. They swept the ships’ decks clean, and made each ship’s first mate swear that only the tea was damaged.
Admiral Montague watched the whole affair from a house on Griffin’s Wharf, but gave no orders to stop the “Party.” When all was through, the “Mohawks” marched from the wharf, hatchets and axes resting on their shoulders. A fife played as they paraded past the house where British Admiral Montague had been spying on their work. Montague yelled as they passed, “Well boys, you have had a fine, pleasant evening for your Indian caper, haven’t you? But mind, you have got to pay the fiddler yet!”
Subsequently, John Adams wrote in his diary: “This is the most magnificent Movement of all. There is a Dignity, a Majesty, a Sublimity in this last Effort of the Patriots that I greatly admire. This Destruction of the Tea is so bold, so daring, so firm, intrepid, & inflexible, and it must have so important Consequences and so lasting, that I cannot but consider it as an Epocha in History.”
Governor Hutchinson was shocked, and was correct in his prediction when he said, “This is the boldest stroke which has yet been struck in America …. The body of people had gone too far to recede … and open and general revolt must be the consequence.”
The party was over for Boston, and the path to revolution had begun.
What Became of the Original Boston Tea Party Ships?
In February 1774, the Beaver returned to London with more oil to sell with one of the East India Company’s consignees, Jonathan Clarke, on board. During her stay, her captain, Hezekiah Coffin, died and she was then sold. There are no records about what happened after the sale.
The Dartmouth set sail with Francis Rotch and others who had witnessed the Tea Party with a load of oil for London on January 9, 1774. Rotch, Captain Hall, Clarke, and the other witnesses were summoned to Whitehall by Lord Dartmouth to give testimony regarcting “the late transaction in Boston.” Rotch wished to see how he stood with the East India Company, and did collect his money for the freight. The Dartmouth foundered on the return voyage. The crew was taken off by Timothy Folger or by Shubael Coffin of Nantucket and brought to Boston in November 1774.
There is no record of what became of the Eleanor.
This article was featured in the issue of Historic Nantucket, Winter 2012, Vol. 62, No. 1. Read the full issue here
Leon Poindexter is a master shipwright and marine historic preservationist who builds and restores large wooden sailing vessels, many of which are on the National Register of Historic Places. Mr. Poindexter also served as a historian/consultant and shipwright for the Academy Award-winning film Master and Commander.