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Down the corridors of American history

Jayashree Chatterjee |

‘It was Indian tea that stimulated your Independence movement,” Rajiv Gandhi declared jokingly in his address to the joint meeting of the American Congress in 1985. Today, the visitor to Boston can see a re-enactment of the Boston Tea Party, the American patriots’ dramatic response at Boston Harbor, in 1763, to the tax imposed on the import of tea to America by Britain.  Actors dressed as Native Americans board a ship  (the original was an East India Company vessel) and actually throw crates marked Tea overboard.  But the site of the first battle of the American Revolution is at Lexington, Massachusetts and that town, together with neighbouring Concord, is certainly worth a visit.

In the 1600s, both France and Britain had tried to colonise America.  Then, in 1763, Britain defeated France and added France’s American colonies to its own.  So then the British needed a larger army to defend its more extensive American territories, and British Parliament raised taxes on the American colonists. American leader Samuel Adams, and his Sons of Liberty group, protested all these measures. At the First Continental Congress in 1774, the leaders of the patriots, those who opposed the British, met in Philadelphia to plan their response. The colonies were asked to form militias and, in a move that should sound very familiar to people in India, they urged their fellow citizens not to buy British goods.  On April 18, 1775Thomas Gage, the British governor of Massachusetts, decided to send troops to Lexington to capture Samuel Adams and fellow patriot John Hancock, and to Concord to seize the patriots’ stock of ammunition.

Most Indian schoolchildren in the 1960s were familiar with Longfellow’s Psalm of Life. Another famous poem by Longfellow, Paul Revere’s Ride tells the story of how patriot Revere, riding on horseback at breakneck speed, brought news of the marching of the British to Lexington and Concord:

“A shape in the moonlight, a bulk in the dark…

That was all! And yet, through the gloom and the light,

The fate of a nation was riding that night;”

Legend has it that when Revere reached the house in Lexington where Adams and Hancock were staying he cried out, “The Regulars are out!”Regulars was the term for British soldiers. Later legends, however, dramatised this to “The British are coming!” The house, a parsonage built in the later 1600s, and located at 36 Hancock Street, Lexington has portraits of revolutionary leaders and is worth a visit.

At the Visitor Center at 1875 Massachusetts Avenue in Lexington, one can take a bus tour to the major revolution sites. One of the first is the triangular Battle Green, the village common, where the battle of Lexington took place on April 19 1775. The British, on their way from Boston to Concord, were met by 77 Minutemen (so called because they could be ready for battle in a minute), most of whom were farmers, and their captain. No one knows who fired the first shot, but after that first shot rang out, the British opened fire.  It was really skirmish rather than a battle, and Captain Parker, the patriot commander, ordered his men to withdraw.  But it was the beginning of the American struggle for independence. To commemorate the event, in 1900 the Minuteman statue at the junction of Massachusetts Avenue and Bedford Street was unveiled.  The statue looks out towards downtown Lexington, in the direction from which the British army marched into town 125 years ago.

From Lexington, the British army marched towards Concord. Here, too, there was no conclusive fighting.  More patriots from other towns joined the American cause and the British decided to march back to Boston because of these increased numbers and because they could not find as much ammunition as they had hoped to unearth.  In fact, one farmer had ploughed his field, placed guns in the rows, and then piled earth over them!

The Minute Man National Park that stretches from Lexington to Concord, lies along the route that the British took on their retreat from Concord.  At the Visitor Center, one can see a presentation called “The Road to Revolution”. It outlines all the events that led to the battles at Lexington and Concord.

The reason why these battles were important is because they helped the American cause. The patriots described in detail, sometimes inflated detail, how the British had burned down homes and killed civilians.  Many patriots now felt that they had to break with Great Britain, and at the next Continental Congress, George Washington was appointed commander of the American army. Concord has a literary history as well that will resonate with visitors from India. It was the home of many Transcendentalists.  Ralph Waldo Emerson’s house at 28 Cambridge Turnpike, Concord is open to the public, but only from mid-April to October, and so I was not able to visit it.  But a replica of his study is at the Concord Museum.  Many visitors from India will recall his poem Brahma that should perhaps have been addressed to Brahman.  Here are some lines:

Far or forgot to me is near;

Shadow and sunlight are the same;

The vanished gods to me appear;

And one to me are shame and fame.

The Transcendentalists honoured nature and were interested in Hinduism.  When I visited the Concord Museum, it was hosting an exhibition on Henry David Thoreau called “This Ever New Self: Thoreau and His Journal”.  I was delighted to see his copy of the Bhagavad Gita but since I could not open it I do not know what the translation was like.

The museum is also keeper of Thoreau’s green desk and bed from his cabin at Walden Pond.  Because 2017 is the 200th birth anniversary of Thoreau, visitors were encouraged to sit at a replica of his desk and write a birthday note to him.

My visit to Walden Pond in Concord, left me wondering how Thoreau could have lived there by himself for a little over two years.  It was late in the afternoon when I went to Walden, and there were many other visitors there as well; but the cabin near the large pond had a feeling of desolation about it.  Thoreau clearly loved nature enough to live there all by himself, even at night.

The last literary home that I visited in Concord was that of Louisa May Alcott.  One of the things in the house that resonated with me immediately was a pair of boots in a wooden box that the guide told us were used by Alcott for many of the plays she staged with her sisters. I thought at once of Little Women and of how Jo had worn russet boots during the Christmas Play that the March sisters put on for an appreciative audience.

Little Women was one of my favourite books when I was in school in India.  So I left the house feeling that a treasured part of my childhood had been restored to me.