Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Pathetic Pirates: The Good Puritan

Most people have some inkling of the famous marooner Alexander Selkirk whose adventure in the wild islands off the coast of modern day Peru would become the basis for Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe. What many people are not aware of is that Defoe wrote about another man who voluntarily marooned himself rather than join the piratical crew of a captain he found morally reprehensible. Today then, I offer the story of Philip Ashton and his sixteen months on the island of Roatan in the Bay of Honduras.

Ashton was a New Englander from the area of Salem, Massachusetts who was raised in the Puritan faith. He asked for and received his parents’ permission to sign on aboard a merchant as an able seaman some time in his late teens. By 1722 he was a capable hand at sea aboard a schooner plying the Atlantic and Caribbean waters up and down the coasts of Central and North America. That summer, in early June, fate changed everything for Ashton and his mates.

The merchant upon which Ashton sailed was taken by the notoriously sadistic pirate Ned Low and her men pressed into his service. Ashton did as he was commanded, working Low’s Fortune along side others more enthusiastic than he for a pirate’s life, but he refused to sign Low’s articles and actually become a pirate. He saw in Low everything “reprehensible in the eyes of God”. Ashton determined to escape rather than sail under Low’s black flag.

His escape attempts proved futile time after time and his continued bids for freedom enraged one of Low’s lieutenants so thoroughly that the man tried to shoot Ashton not once but four times. When the pistol misfired each time, the man drew his cutlass. Ashton escaped his assailant, according to Defoe, by jumping headlong into the ship’s hold. Other incidents had similar results and, though Ashton was a decent hand aboard ship, Low’s men came to despise him.

After being party to the taking of a dozen prizes, Ashton saw another opportunity for escape when Low put in to a little archipelago now known as the Bay Islands off the coast of modern Honduras. Ashton was selected to go ashore with a party to refresh the ship’s water and, through a ruse of looking for coconuts, he managed to hide in the dense forest of Roatan Island. Though his mates called out for him repeatedly, Ashton refused to rejoin them. As Defoe writes in Ashton’s voice:

Thus was I left on a desolate island, destitute of all help and remote from the track of navigators; but, compared with the state and society I had quitted, I considered the wilderness hospitable and the solitude interesting.

Ashton’s real problems came from the fact that he had nothing with him but the shirt and breeches he wore. Barefoot, without arms or a way to start a fire, he was in worse shape than Bear Grylls on a particularly harrowing episode of “Man vs. Wild”. His Puritan resolve seemed to help him get on with life, though. He had the attitude that doing the right thing was far more important than personal comfort. At least in the beginning.

Ashton became an involuntary vegetarian, eating only fruits including coconuts, figs and a strange, brown fruit with red, juicy insides that he only tried after seeing the local wild boars feast on them. Fresh water was plentiful, and Ashton managed to build shelter, but his feet took a beating from broken shells on the beach and sticks and rocks in the forest. He had days were he could do nothing but sit “… my back leaning against a tree, looking out for a vessel…” His meager diet took a toll on his health and the local flies became an unbearable annoyance.

In a desperate bid for relief from the insect horde, Ashton learned to swim. He at first used a bamboo limb as a float to kick his way to a small sandbar where the constant sea breezes kept flies and mosquitoes away. He returned to Roatan for food and water, and to sleep in his shelter at night, but his days were passed on the sandbar under the shade of some palm fronds.

Ashton began to succumb to depression, no doubt encouraged by his poor diet and the wounds festering on his bare feet. Nine months into his ordeal, though, another soul appeared on the island. An Englishman pulled up in a canoe baring firearms, powder, flint and a good deal of smoked pork. He met Ashton genially, saying he was on the run from mainland Spaniards who had determined to burn him at the stake. Ashton welcomed the man, whose name we are never told, and passed three days with him before his new companion set out in his canoe on a hunting foray. A storm blew up that night, and Ashton never saw the man again.

Another three months passed, with Ashton returning to a semblance of health thanks to the provisions left behind by his anonymous friend. When he found a canoe at the water’s edge one morning he began to paddle to other islands in the archipelago. Though he saw sailing vessels, he was repeatedly disappointed to find them either Spanish (he was almost killed by a party of Spaniards on the island of Bonacco) or freebooters. Time crept by, Ashton’s person became wild looking and his clothes rotted off his body but still he soldiered on.

Then, seemingly out of the blue, a small party of Englishmen appeared on Roatan. They assisted Ashton, who was nearly ready to die, giving him clothes, food and rum (which itself nearly killed him). They were forming a settlement – “plantations” they said – on Barbarat Island and they gladly took the castaway back home with them. As luck would have it, though, Ashton’s comfort was short lived.

Captain Spriggs, a former associate of Ned Low’s, anchored off Barbarat in his pirate schooner Delight. He raided the settlement and captured some men, but others – Ashton among them – escaped to the dense jungle. One man of the Barbarat settlers was killed but Ashton and his fellows managed to avoid capture. Spriggs sailed on with a few of the settlers and the remaining men seemed to count this experience as the end of their settlement. All but one returned to the mainland.

Ashton and a man named Symonds began an enterprise of collecting tortoise shells for sale to passing Jamaica-bound ships. This is where Philip Ashton’s luck finally turned. Sixteen months after deliberately stranding himself on Roatan, a Salem schooner captained by a man named Dove dropped anchor off Bonacco. Coincidently, Dove knew Ashton and he happily took the marooner on as a hand aboard his merchant vessel for the trip back to Massachusetts. Ashton arrived in Salem Harbor on May 1, 1725. One of the last sentences in Defoe’s retelling simply says:

That same evening I went to my father’s house, where I was received as one raised from the dead.

After an ordeal that would have done in lesser men, pathetic pirate but righteous Puritan Philip Ashton returned home. It probably goes without saying that he did not return to sea again.

Header: a beach on Roatan Island from a local realty website, Roatan Dreams


Charles L. Wallace said...

A good story, and a happy ending. Thank you, Pauline; most interesting!

Pauline said...

Ahoy, Charles and thank goodness, too! Poor Phil needed to catch a break at some point, wouldn't you say?

Charles L. Wallace said...

Aye, he did, and he was astute enough to take advantage of situations when they occurred. Others would have simply - died.

For some odd reason (perhaps because I am giggly tonight) I was thinking "Willllson!"

Selkirk? A Scotsman, no?

Pauline said...

Ha! Now I'll always imagine Philip Ashton looking like Tom Hanks.

And yes, I do believe Alexander Selkirk was Scottish.

Timmy! said...

Ahoy, Pauline! Well, Ashton was certainly no Solomon Kane, let alone Bear Grylls, but he did manage to survive... Thanks, it seems, more to good fortune (or just dumb luck) and the will to survive than any particular knowledge or skills. It is a good story though and the picture is certainly beautiful.

Pauline said...

Ahoy, Timmy! It does seem that luck had a lot to do with Ashton getting home but I think sheer force of will had a hand in it too.

And great, now I'm seeing Ashton as a stern, muscular guy in a hat with a buckle and a silly cape saying stuff like: "Mind your virtue, woman." Thanks for that.