A ship lost at Scilly that helped spark the American Revolution.

The Boston Tea Party, referred to by American founding father, John Adams, as: "the Destruction of the Tea in Boston"  was a political protest by a group called ‘the Sons of Liberty’ on December 16th, 1773. Disguised as Mohawks, the demonstrators destroyed the entire supply of tea sent by the East India Company in defiance of the American boycott of tea carrying an official duty that the Americans had not sanctioned. They boarded ships and cast the chests of tea into Boston Harbour. The British government responded severely and the episode escalated into the American Revolution. This is the story of the ship ‘London’ and Captain Alexanda Curling’s involvement in that momentous time in the history and birth of American independence from Britain. This ship and its captain were later to be lost among the western rocks of Scilly.


On Thursday December 2nd 1773, the Tea ship ‘London’ came to anchor before the town of Boston. It was a trip like any other. There was nothing unusual to Captain Curling who’s vessel contained a consignment of East India Company tea; as well as several consignments of the same belonging to some private merchants and other individuals. There were 257 chests in all on board. As soon as the ship tied alongside and the cargo manifest was inspected, the information sparked hand bills to be distributed about the streets of the town. These hastily printed bills invited all inhabitants and, in particular, the land holders, to assemble at the local exchange the very next day. The locals turned up in such numbers that it caused the main beams of the building to give way. After things settled down, George Gabriel Powell was elected Chair of this hastily organized meeting.  During the ensuing debate it became apparent that most of those present were in favour of absolute non-importation of teas subject to tax. Nervous East India Company representatives were also present at the meeting, but they received the thanks and applause of the assembly when they promised not to accept their own  consignment of tea then aboard the London. However, during heated debates, it was urged that the East India Company had the same rights to import dutied tea’s as the private merchants had been enjoying; but the greater numbers present opposed. They prevailed upon the tea consignees to resign their commissions and framed an agreement of: pledging dutied teas. Captain Curling of the ship, ‘London’ whom was also present at the meeting, was initially instructed to return the debated cargo of tea back to England. However, no action was taken with reference to the private tea orders on board and this cargo was then publicly landed by its respective owners. The Committee entrusted with the circulation of the agreement, signed by the principal planters and land owners, and threatening boycott against dealers in dutied teas, had no visible effect on the merchants. Their objection was that the proposed agreement was aimed against dutied teas only, which would directly enrich and enlarge the smuggling class. On Friday December 17th a meeting of both radicals and merchants were represented by competent speakers; initially the former appeared to have the upper hand, as a vote was passed for the non-importation of dutied teas. The moderates now rallied their forces and amended the motion to include ‘all teas from any place whatever’. By this amendment, legitimate traders and smugglers were placed on an equal footing.

Whilst machinations were continuing, the proposed period for the payment of the tea duty expired on Tuesday night December 21st. As a result of the clock ticking, in the case of the tea ship London, Captain Curling had landed his cargo and entered the custom house. (The resolution of the public meetings fore warned of a spirited resistance to the seizure of the tea by the customs officials, but the support offered by the merchants was thin and dashed the hopes of them backing the radicals) On December 22, 1773, Robert Dalway Haliday, the collector of customs for Charleston, had the tea shipment from the ship London seized and stored in the warehouse under the Exchange Building for non-payment of duties. Since the consignees, the East India Company, had refused to receive the tea, after twenty days in port it became liable to seizure by the Crown. A previous meeting of the citizens on December 17 had resolved that the tea should not be landed, and Captain Curling had received several anonymous letters threatening damage to his ship unless he moved it away from the wharf. This is what moved Curling to get the cargo off. When Lieutenant Governor William Bull was informed of these threats to Curling, he called an emergency meeting of the Council at his home. The sheriff was instructed by the lieutenant governor to support the collector of customs if necessary, and to arrest anyone who attempted to obstruct Curling from landing his cargo. At about 7 o’clock on Wednesday morning the 22nd December, the customs officers began moving the chests of tea from the London into the Exchange Building warehouse; and by noon the task was finished. The patriots had been taken completely by surprise, but they declared themselves satisfied so long as the contentious merchandise remained securely under lock and key. When Curling off loaded his cargo under the watchful eye of the comptroller, the trouble they suspected to occur did not materialize, as the comptroller of the customs then wrote: “There was not the least disturbance. The gentlemen that came to the wharf behave with their usual complaisance and good nature to me”

The contentious tea from the ‘London’ then remained undisturbed in the Government warehouse for 3 years. Then, in 1776, the cargo from the London was auctioned off for: the benefit of the new revolutionary Government; thus directly providing funds for defence in the war against the British.

This was not the last time the London would become directly embroiled in the  history of disputes that helped spark the American revolution. Captain Curling had learned from his previous encounter and so tried to hide any tea that might cause him problems on future voyages to Boston. In April 1774 a newspaper reported that: ‘arrived the ship London this week with a consignment of eighteen chests of tea, whose presence on board the captain attempted to conceal. The facts were laid before a meeting of citizens and the Mohawks were prepared for action at a concerted signal, when some impatient souls thronged on board the vessel, stove in the chests, and cast the tea into the waters’  

Alexander Curling was well known as a cautious, yet well respected, capable Commander, so his attempts at concealment were a little out of character; although allowing for his previous experiences at Boston, his actions were completely understandable.


Curling was in the autumn of his years when the above incidents took place. He knew the routes and tides to and from places like Boston very well. Of the ships that made this particular run, the London was also the preferred choice of ship to travel on by many passengers. One such passenger was Joseph Johnson who later wrote: “He had many years engaged in this business as a commander; his skill in seamanship and deportment as a gentleman were universally commended.  He could obtain freights while other vessels were idle, and his cabin was preferred by all who wished to cross or re-cross the Atlantic. Insurance was lower on his freight than that of other ships”  As Curling got older still, Johnson reported  that the aged captain had become over cautious as his round trips took longer than those of other younger Commanders around him and that: “the senior Captain had probably become confirmed in his old habits and opinions, which had been tolerated by his employers and sanctioned by his success. Captain Curling continued in the trade respected and esteemed as before, but not so high in the estimation of those who shipped our produce to England, and counted on a speedy return that they might re-invest”. It was on the return journey of a much later trip from Charleston that the ‘London’, Captain Curling, with his crew and passengers were all lost at Scilly. There was just one survivor- the ships Carpenter. This incident was reported in England in the Norfolk Chronicle on the 14th March, and on the other side of the Atlantic in the Pennsylvania packet on the 11 May 1789:

"On Wednesday morning, about the hour of one, the ship London, of London, Capt. Alexander Curling, a lieutenant in his Majesty's navy, from Charleston, - with rice, tobaccos - indigo, and some specie, was totally lost on the western rocks of Scilly, and immediately went to pieces. The captain and thirteen hands, with Mrs. Riley, widow, a passenger, and native of Ramsgate, all perished. Joseph Tuttle, carpenter only was miraculously saved, by being cast on rocks distinguished by the appellation of Cribbe Widden, where, he remained two days and nights, great part of the time lashed to the rocks; when the gale abated, and the weather cleared, the signals he hoisted were observed by the inhabitants of Agnes Island, where the lighthouse stands, at a distance of about four miles, who on the Friday morning Came and took him off, much wounded and bruised; the middle finger nails of both hands being torn from the roots. About 3000 dollars, and 150I. in different gold coins, that were cast on the rocks, have been preserved, as were a few silver articles of cabin furniture; but no part of the cargo or vessel saved, being both carried out to sea, the latter piece meal, as observed by the poor wretch left to tell the melancholy affair. The ship sailed from Charleston on or about the 22d of January, in company with the Olive-Branch, Angus, and Castle - Douglas, Cooper.  Thirteen hours before this accident. happened, the London spoke to the Olive-Branch, who informed the London they were then in 75 fathom water. The London then carrying much sail, at dusk the preceding evening left the Olive-Branch about two leagues astern; and they no sooner discovered the light, which they supposed the Eddistone, but found themselves entangled with breakers, which every effort could not clear, and the ship fel1 on the rocks, and in less than 15 minutes, every mast was gone, the stern carried away, the vessel in pieces, and every soul swept into the sea, and their bodies not to be seen. The man saved has made a deposition to each particular circumstance…..."


The Colonial Merchants and the American Revolution 1763-1776.

By Arthur Meier Schlesinger.

Traditions and Reminiscences , chiefly of the American Revolution.

By Joseph Johnson

Also the newspapers mentioned within the text.