Philip Ashton was a real-life Robinson Crusoe. A Marblehead fisherman who sailed on schooners out of his hometown in search of cod, Ashton was captured in the early 1720s by Edward Low, one of the nastiest pirates who ever sailed the seas — he was known to roast the hearts of his victims over an open fire when he wasn’t forcing victims to consume their own charred ears.
Ashton made a daring escape and survived, alone, on a desert island for nearly two years. Shirtless and shoeless, Ashton had neither knife nor gun nor way to build a fire. Utterly alone, he scraped by largely on fruit until he learned how to fish and cook some of his food.
Yet Ashton lived to tell the tale — and quite a tale it was. His account of his travails, published in 1725, became a hit in Colonial New England. Now forgotten, his story is brought back to life by Gregory N. Flemming in his fine new book, “At the Point of a Cutlass.” Beautifully printed and bound — though it could use more maps — the book delivers blood-thirsty pirates and plenty of action and excitement on the high seas. Forgoing an “avast ye swabbies!” approach, Flemming’s sober style and scholarly approach ballast his account and keep his story on a steady course.
Ashton’s narrative “is like buried treasure,” Flemming writes, “offering an amazing firsthand account of a harrowing three-year odyssey that touches every corner of the Atlantic.” Over 10 chapters, Flemming draws on newspaper reports, log books, trial records, and Ashton’s own account to meticulously chronicle Ashton’s maritime odyssey, which took the sailor from the Azores to steamy Caribbean climes.
Low looms large on these pages, a savage brute with a bad temper. Blackbeard may have gotten a lot more press over the centuries, but Low’s depravity made him a feared figure all along the Atlantic coast. He preyed on merchant ships, taking crew and supplies at will, with the Royal Navy often in hot pursuit. But the ever-crafty Low was no easy capture.
Ashton was only 19 when Low nabbed him off the coast of Nova Scotia and forced him to join his crew. Ashton had to strike a fine balance, needing, as Flemming explains, “to cooperate just enough to be tolerated aboard ship and allowed to live, since captives who crossed their captain one too many times were, on some crews, shot in cold blood.” But Ashton needed to avoid participating in the plundering of ships — if caught, he could be convicted of a crime and executed. Other captive hands had met such a grim fate.
Low marauded back and forth across the Atlantic, then into the Caribbean, capturing crew and cargo. Here, Ashton made his escape on the island of Roatan off the coast of Honduras, where the pirates had gone to fetch water and make repairs to their vessel. Ashton ran off, hiding in the jungle until his captors gave up. Long and bean shaped, Roatan was uninhabited; wildlife abounded, but he had no tools to snare any catch. As Ashton noted later, “But of all this store of beast and fowl, I could make no use to supply my necessities, though my mouth often watered for a bit of them.”
Circumstance forced Ashton to adjust. He wandered the island, scavenging for fruit. Working from Ashton’s recollections, Flemming reconstructs what must have been an excruciatingly solitary existence. But it was better than being in Low’s hands. “This wilderness,” Ashton recalled, “I looked upon as hospitable, and this loneliness as good company, compared with the state and society I was now happily delivered from.” Ashton spent his days on a small cay, cooled by ocean breezes, staring out to sea. His day-to-day routine was monotonous, but he was alive and free.
A stranger briefly appeared in a canoe, then disappeared. Some 16 months passed before Ashton was back in the company of people. Rugged woodcutters, who harvested timber from Belize for British markets, found the frail, wizened escapee. He lived with these so-called “Baymen” — rough and tumble fellows though marginally less dangerous than pirates — for a time until he encountered a group of British ships, blown off course by a storm, and secured a passage home.
Flemming also traces Low’s murderous passage across the seas, crosscutting between Ashton’s lonely existence and the pirate’s bloody reign of terror. “The cohort of pirates who sailed under Low,” he writes, “were among the most successful and most violent in history.” Low grew increasingly more psychopathic, at one point killing 32 men on a Portuguese ship. Low disappears from the record around 1726 — what end he met remains unknown.
But Ashton returned home. His return was viewed as a miracle, treated as a sign from God. His minister, John Barnard, who presided over the largest congregation in Marblehead, used Ashton’s experience to fashion a powerful sermon, likening Ashton’s story to Daniel and the den of lions. Barnard fashioned Ashton’s story into a narrative.
The returned sailor’s story made news in Great Britain — it is likely that Daniel Defoe read it. The golden age of piracy was coming to an end by the time of Ashton’s return. Low was rumored to have buried treasure on an island in the Bay of Fundy. Who’s to say Low’s booty might not turn up one day? (It hasn’t yet.) But in Ashton’s story, Flemming struck it rich.
Matthew Price is a regular contributor to the Globe. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.