Having hastily disguised themselves as Mohawk Native Americans – using coal dust to darken their skin and wearing feathers in their hair – a band of American patriots marched to Boston Harbor. On that cold evening of 16 December 1773, they climbed aboard three British ships docked there, calmly subdued the crews and dumped all 342 chests of tea from the holds into the water.
Causing £18,000 in losses (over a million dollars today), the Boston Tea Party was an audacious protest against British taxes imposed on the American colonies. It was also one of three defining events to occur in Boston in the prelude to the American Revolutionary War, along with an event dubbed a massacre, and brutal act of tarring-and-feathering. And one man was at the centre of all of them...
Who was George Robert Twelves Hewes?
George Robert Twelves Hewes, born to a large Bostonian family in 1742, was always poor. Since being apprenticed to a shoemaker at the age of 14, Hewes remained in that lowly profession his whole life – his efforts to escape in his youth by enlisting in the army were thwarted by his short stature, standing at 5’1’’. So he bought his own shop, where he struggled to support his wife, Sally, and growing family, sonmuch so that he spent time in debtors’ prison. Despite his personal trials, however, Hewes couldn’t ignore Boston’s volatile political climate for long.
The Massachusetts town had long been a hotbed of resentment against British taxation, with tensions flaring between colonists and the several thousand British soldiers stationed there.
Hewes and the Boston Massacre
Tensions came to a head on 5 March 1770, when a mostly unarmed mob, including Hewes in its number, was fired upon outside Boston’s Customs House. The scene on a snowy Kings Street was chaos, with five people fatally shot.
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Hewes, who sustained an injury to the shoulder by being hit with the butt of a gun, was standing next to James Caldwell when he was killed and caught his body as it fell. The events of that night were labelled the ‘Boston Massacre’, and were recounted countless times as a powerful anti-British propaganda tool.
Involvement in the Boston Tea Party
From then, Hewes was a devoted member of the Patriot movement, so was an eager volunteer for the Tea Party nearly four years later, a protest that reacted to the passing of the 1773 Tea Act.
On 16 December 1773, the men involved were split into three boarding crews, one for each ship, and Hewes’ loyalty – or “whistling talent” as he claimed – was rewarded with his appointment to ‘boatswain’ (a de facto officer) of the party on the Dartmouth. It was Hewes who demanded the keys from the ship’s captain and supervised the dumping. He even reprimanded a fellow Patriot caught trying to smuggle tea in his coat.
A member of his party later praised Hewes’s leadership by declaring, “In the heat of conflict, the small man with the large name had been elevated from a poor shoemaker to Captain Hewes.”
Not long after the destruction of the tea, Hewes was, again, a central character in a major political and widely publicised incident in Boston. In January 1774, Hewes witnessed customs official John Malcolm (a much hated Bostonian and staunch Loyalist) threatening a young boy with his cane. When Hewes intervened, Malcolm struck him instead and “wounded him deeply on the forehead”. Hewes had a scar the rest of his life. "The attack was reported and, that same night, Malcolm was dragged from his house, stripped, then tarred and feathered.
The violent and extremely painful punishment, reported in many newspapers, was yet more evidence to the British Parliament that the situation in Boston was getting out of control, leading them to pass punitive laws in an attempt to restore order. What they got was a revolution as Americans decided to end British rule and fight for independence.
Hewes and the Revolution
During the eight-year American Revolutionary War, Hewes served as a privateer (hoping to make money from seized booty) and militiaman, while still providing for his family. His experiences weren’t exactly eventful, but Hewes remained a revolutionary through and through. When the war was won in 1783, he was proud to say he had gone from subject under a monarchy to an equal citizen in a new nation – and it was a transformation he had been part of from the start.
Yet his story was nearly lost as Hewes fell back into obscurity, and poverty, after the war. He was in his 90s when ‘discovered’ and hailed to be one of the last living members of the Tea Party. He was hurled to fame after two biographies were written about him and, in 1835, Hewes – named the “venerable patriot” – was cheered as guest of honour at the Fourth of July celebrations in his former home town of Boston.
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