There’s a big tea party on Sunday, but you won’t have to hold out your pinky. Instead, wave a flag during this big anniversary celebrating colonial revolutionary fervor that first came two weeks before the famous Boston Tea Party.

Two hundred fifty years ago, Charlestonians committed an act of defiance against the British crown by refusing to import 257 chests of tea aboard the ship London, which anchored in the harbor on Dec. 2, 1773.

A historic news article published in The South Carolina Gazette on Dec. 6, 1773 | Gazette Images courtesy S.C. Historical Society

The next day, Charleston colonists held a community-wide meeting to talk about what to do about the tea. It was subject to a tax the British Parliament imposed to send a message that it “had the right to tax the colonists,” according to the late South Carolina historian George Rogers in a 1974 article in the South Carolina Historical Magazine. Colonists knew if they paid the tax, they’d essentially be admitting Parliament could tax them. And after years of debate about taxation without representation, they just couldn’t cotton to that.

Despite clashing interests of planters, merchants and “mechanics,” or tradesmen, the colonists resolved in the Great Hall of the Old Exchange Building on that December day 250 years ago to not import the tea to facilitate the British raising money via taxes. As a community, they rejected the tea and refused to import it in the future.

And therein lies the significance of the Charleston Tea Party — it represented the “seeds of self-government in these revolutionary mobs,” according to historian Pauline Maier in Rogers’ article. “By the time of the crisis over tea, these had become the General Meetings of the Inhabitants — a kind of New England town meeting.” So 13 days before the less tepid Boston Tea Party where tea was dumped in the harbor, Charleston had its own tea party — an event that laid the groundwork for the Revolution that was to come.

And therein lies the significance of the Charleston Tea Party — it represented the “seeds of self-government in these revolutionary mobs,” according to historian Pauline Maier in Rogers’ article. “By the time of the crisis over tea, these had become the General Meetings of the Inhabitants — a kind of New England town meeting.”So 13 days before the less tepid Boston Tea Party where tea was dumped in the harbor, Charleston had its own tea party — an event that laid the groundwork for the Revolution that was to come.

And what happened to the 257 chests of tea in Charleston? By law, the collector of customs seized the tea on Dec. 22, 1773 and stored it in the Exchange’s cellar. Later in 1776, the tea was sold to help finance the Revolutionary War effort by South Carolina patriots.

A reenactment, 250 years later

Charleston will commemorate the 1773 Charleston Tea Party Saturday in a theatrical reenactment that is part of a multi-year commemoration of the American Revolution locally and throughout South Carolina. The Powder Magazine, in partnership with the National Society of The Colonial Dames of America in the State of South Carolina, has received a special event grant from the S.C. American Revolution Sestercentennial Commission (SC250) for commemoration activities.

On Saturday, you’ll hear the bells from Saint Michaels’ Church tolling starting around 9:15 a.m. They will peal to call Charlestonians and visitors towards the Old Exchange Building. With portions of East Bay and Broad streets closed until 11 a.m., folks can find a free outdoor 30-minute theatrical reenactment of the 1773 community meeting, which The Powder Magazine’s director Katherine Pemberton called the “centerpiece” of the local commemorative celebration.

Pemberton

Pemberton collaborated with Mount Pleasant-based theater director Pamela Ward, who also happens to be an expert on tea, to create a script which Pemberton said is half play and half reenactment. It is based on narrative histories and old newspaper coverage in the South Carolina Gazette.

The people who were in attendance at that 1773 meeting will be portrayed by local actors. The meeting was led by Col. George Gabriel Powell, a member of the colonial assembly, who will be portrayed by Charleston Mayor John Tecklenburg. Tony Youmans, director of the Old Exchange Building, will play a British customs official named Robert Halliday, who seized the tea. A local expert in colonial maritime history, Benjamin Shafer, will act as the captain of the ship London.

Pemberton said she is excited the cast will include a mix of professional actors, historians and historical reenactors, all of whom will infuse their roles with expertise and passion.

The 1773 meeting was made up of nearly all white property-owning males. But in the theatrical reenactment, other points of view will be recognized, Pemberton said.

“When they put handbills out the day before, they said every inhabitant of Charles Town is invited to this public meeting in the Great Hall,” Pemberton said. “We think that there were undoubtedly enslaved people and possibly women in attendance, but they didn’t speak or vote.
“One of the things that we were really keen to do, because we want to showcase women and people of color’s contributions to this time period, we did include some women characters like Eliza Lucas Pinkney and Elizabeth Timothy, who is the wife of the publisher of the Gazette. We also have two actors (Ernest Parks and Joy Johnson) who are going to portray an enslaved couple. That part was tricky, so we enlisted the help of Dr. Bernard Powers from the College of Charleston.”

An interactive performance

The performance will be interactive for the crowd, which will be interspersed by costumed “townspeople,” Pemberton said. “We’re hoping that the crowd who shows up will feel like they’re in the event, like they’re a part of it, and will chant along with us, ‘No taxation without representation!’ ”

After the 30-minute performance, attendees will be invited to tour the basement of the Exchange where the tea was stored and to partake of some hot tea provided by Oliver Pluff & Co.

You can get into The Powder Magazine for free on Dec. 2 and 3. It will offer a temporary exhibit on 18th century tea that will be in place through December. There will also be free tours available of the schooner Pride, which will be docked at the marina, and at the Heyward Washington House as a part of the 250th celebration.

“So you can see a Revolutionary War era house, a magazine, a museum, a ship. You can really immerse yourself in this history,” Pemberton said. “Especially for locals, I think it’ll be a really nice day to kind of explore Revolutionary War history and just realize how much there is in Charleston to commemorate.”

For the full schedule and more details, check out powdermagazinemuseum.org/chas250.