Rebeccaite Costumes Recall Boston Tea Party Disguises

This dispatch from the Swansea Journal, as found in the Monmouthshire Merlin, gives a good feel for the amount of popular support the Rebeccaites had, and how bold they felt they could be as a result.

Rebecca at Cardigan.

. — It was rumoured throughout this place that Rebecca and her daughters would pay us a visit on . About , the town was in a state of excitement, the inhabitants going towards the Common by hundreds, not only from Cardigan, but from Saint Dogmell’s, Kilgerran, and the neighbourhood. About the ground in the neighbourhood of the toll-house was covered with people, and hundreds were on the Common road up to the milestone. A few minutes before twelve the report of a gun was heard between us and the Warren banks, and immediately after the crowd came running down the road, shouting “She is coming!” In a few minutes a party of 12 men, mounted on horseback, some of them wearing feathers in their caps, and having their faces blackened, and otherwise disguised, made their appearance. They were followed by about 150 men on foot, armed with guns, pickaxes, hatchets, pitchforks, clubs, &c., most of whom were disguised. On arriving at the gate they demanded that it should be instantly opened. This was immediately complied with, and about one half of the force marched through, when they fired off their guns, and commenced the work of destruction. They appeared to be well organised; for although they commenced their work almost immediately, there was no confusion, each person apparently taking a portion of labour allotted to him. Some with hatchets commenced to break down the gate and other woodwork, others got on the roof, while a large party proceeded to break down the wall which reaches from the toll-house to the hedge of Pensarne field, about 90 feet in length. The toll-house was a firm and compact building, erected two years ago, at a cost of nearly £100. It was so strongly built that for a long time it resisted the efforts of the rioters. One of the men on the roof, after toiling a considerable time exclaimed, “Damn me, mammy, it’s hard work, send more hands up here.” More hands were sent, and after an hour and a half of hard working, they succeeded in levelling the house. The “Rebecca” for this night was a tall man, dressed in white, with a very large bonnet. With the exception of this person and one or two of his followers, the rioters were a miserable rabble; and with a little exertion, twenty good constables could have routed them. More than a thousand men were spectators of this exploit! After finishing their labours at the Common, the Rebeccaites proceeded through the town, occasionally firing their guns, till they reached Rhydyfuwch gates, the upper one of which they entirely demolished. In about twenty minutes afterwards, they dispersed in different ways. All is quiet at present. — Swansea Journal.

When I read about the Rebeccaites with their faces painted and with feathers in their caps, and then reports of similarly disguised rebels in England in centuries previous, I begin to wonder about the Boston Tea Party. In that action, the partiers are usually described as having been disguised “as Indians,” but I wonder if what they were really doing was reenacting forms of costumed direct action that were created in the Old Country, and that because they were ignorant of the wellspring of this tradition, they superimposed the “as Indians” interpretation on it.

George Hewes, who participated in the Boston Tea Party, wrote:

It was now evening, and I immediately dressed myself in the costume of an Indian, equipped with a small hatchet, which I and my associates denominated the tomahawk, with which, and a club, after having painted my face and hands with coal dust in the shop of a blacksmith, I repaired to Griffin’s wharf, where the ships lay that contained the tea. When I first appeared in the street after being thus disguised, I fell in with many who were dressed, equipped and painted as I was, and who fell in with me and marched in order to the place of our destination.

Participant Joshua Wyeth later told a reporter:

To prevent discovery we agreed to wear ragged clothes and disfigure ourselves, dressing to resemble Indians as much as possible, smearing our faces with grease and lamp black or soot, and should not have known each other except by our voices.

John Andrews, a witness, though not a participant, described the costumes thusly:

They say the actors were Indians from Narragansett. Whether they were or not, to a transient observer they appeared such. They were clothed in blankets, with their heads muffled and copper colored faces. Each was armed with a hatchet or axe or pair of pistols. Nor was their dialect different from what I imagine the real Indians to speak, as their jargon was nonsense to all but themselves.

Another reporter said, of the night of the Party:

…a number of Persons, supposed to be the Aboriginal Natives from their complection, approaching near the door of the assembly, gave the War Whoop, which was answered by a few in the galleries of the house where the assembly was convened; silence was commanded, and prudent and peaceable deportment again enjoined. The Savages repaired to the ships which entertained the pestilential Teas, and had began their ravage previous to the dissolution of the meeting — they apply themselves to the destruction of the commodity in earnest, and in the space of about two hours broke up 342 chests and discharged their contents into the sea.

Samuel Cooper, who was present at this meeting when the “Savages” arrived, described it this way:

…a detach’t of about 20 men disguised as Indians was seen to approach in single file by the west door of the Church. They marched with silent steps down the isle and so passed by the south door brandishing their tommahaws in that direction. The appearance of these men created some sensation. No one appeared to expect their arrival and the object of their visit seemed wholly inexplicable. On leaving the church, they proceeded in the same order in which they entered it, down Milk Street through that part of town which led to Gray’s and Tiletson’s wharves where the tea ships lay.

In the Massachusetts Gazette account of the Party, it refers to these raiders as “The Indians, as they were then called…” Jack-a-Lents, Rebecca and her Daughters, Indians… different guises for the same thing? In the words of William Evans, of Pontyberem, Wales, in : “It had been asked who Rebecca was. He had never seen her; but he thought that Rebecca was every man who earned his bread by the sweat of his brow.”