Philip Ashton: The Castaway

May 22, 2023 0 comments

Just three years after the publication of Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, a youngster from Massachusetts suffered a fate similar to the protagonist of the Defoe’s legendary tale. His experience was so harrowing that when the story first came out a few years later in the form of a book, many thought it was fiction written in the style of Robinson Crusoe.

The young man was Philip Ashton, nineteen year old, who lived in the small town of Marblehead, in what was then the British colony of Massachusetts. In 1722, Ashton went out in a small schooner along with four other men to fish off the coast of Nova Scotia at Cape Sable. After having made a satisfactory catch, Ashton decided to head back home. However, during their return journey, their ship was seized by a group of pirates led by the infamous scoundrel and sadist named Ned Low, known for his brutal torture of victims before killing them. Ashton found himself helpless in the face of this violent man and had no choice but to comply with his demands. Not only did Low confiscate Ashton's schooner, but he also coerced Ashton and his crew into joining the pirate gang.

“After the Hurricane, Bahamas” by Winslow Homer, 1899.

For the next six months, Ashton served aboard one of Low’s vessels, capturing and looting ships originating from Britain, France, Spain, and Portugal. At one point, the pirates had a close encounter with a British man-of-war, putting them at great risk. Ashton was acutely aware that had they been apprehended, both he and the pirates would have faced certain execution by hanging.

In the spring of 1723, the fleet sailed to the island of Roatan in the Bay of Honduras where they stopped to pick up fire wood and drinking water. Ashton volunteered to help and went ashore in a longboat along with six other hands to fill up the water-breakers from a nearby stream.

As the crew was filling up the casks, Ashton started to edge towards a nearby grove of coconut palms, telling the cooper that he was going to pick up a few coconuts. Once he was out of sight of the crew, Ashton took to his heels and dashed into the woods and hid himself in the thicket.

The crew finished filling up the casks and called out for Ashton to return but he remained hidden. The pirates searched for him for a while but eventually gave up and rowed back to the ship. After they had gone, Ashton came out of his hiding place and for five days waited, observing the pirate fleet in the harbor. At last, the ships sailed away leaving him alone on the deserted island.

Ashton had no tools to hunt or fish, forcing him to survive on fruits and raw tortoise eggs. Fortunately, the island possessed abundant water sources and an ample supply of fruits and berries for nourishment. But it was also filled with dangerous animals, such as poisonous snakes, giant lizards and wild hogs. Ashton was attacked by a shark while swimming in some shallow water, and by a wild boar once and he had to climb a tree to avoid being killed by the animal. The most troublesome adversaries he faced were swarms of tiny black flies, causing him significant distress. In an attempt to escape this relentless plague, he constructed a hut near the sea, hoping that the breeze would keep the flies away. Nonetheless, the persistent insects continued to torment him.

Also read: New Zealand’s Castaway Depots For Shipwrecked Sailors

After nine months of miserable existence, an Englishman showed up on the island in a canoe and told Ashton he had fled captivity from the Spaniards. The Scotsman's arrival brought immense solace to Ashton, as it not only provided human companionship but also brought along a gun with ammunition, a quantity of salt pork, and a dog.

After a few days, the Scotsman proposed venturing to another island to hunt wild hogs and deer for sustenance. However, Ashton was still too feeble to undertake such a journey. The newcomer made the decision to embark on the expedition alone, assuring Ashton of his return within a few hours. Sadly, the Scotsman never reappeared, leading Ashton to assume he had met his demise through drowning.

Fortunately, the Scotsman had left behind his tools, enabling Ashton to hunt small creatures and create fires to prepare warm meals. Ashton consumed roasted tortoise meat, fish, and crab, gradually regaining his strength.

About three months after this incident, a canoe drifted ashore onto the beach. Initially, Ashton presumed it to be the Scotsman's vessel, but upon closer inspection, he discerned that it was an entirely different craft. Utilizing this newfound canoe, Ashton commenced his exploration of the neighboring islands. However, during one instance when he was peacefully dozing beneath a tree, a group of Spaniards aboard a passing ship opened fire on him. Ashton barely made it out alive.

In June 1724, sixteen months after he landed on the island, a group of eighteen Englishmen from Honduras came ashore on the island in a couple of row boats. The men had fled after the Spaniards had attacked their home. Ashton warmly received them and together they constructed a small dwelling that they affectionately called Castle Comfort. A few months later, following an assault by pirates, some of the men opted to leave, but two individuals, along with Ashton, chose to remain, convinced that their chances of being rescued by a passing ship were greater on Roatan island than anywhere else.

Not long after, a large fleet of ships appeared in the island’s harbor. They were English merchants on their way to Jamaica. Ashton's excitement knew no bounds when he learned that one of the ships, a brigantine named Diamond, hailed from Salem. Captain Dove graciously offered Ashton accommodation aboard the ship, and thus, after a total of two years and ten months, Ashton finally returned to his hometown of Marblehead in June 1725. Later that same year, Ashton published a memoir about his experience, titled Ashton’s Memorial: An History of the Strange Adventures, and Signal Deliverances, of Mr. Philip Ashton.

Ashton died in 1746 at the age of 44 and was laid to rest in the Old Burial Hill Cemetery in Marblehead.

# Ashton's memorial. An history of the strange adventures, and signal deliverances, of Mr. Philip Ashton
# Philip Ashton: The Castaway, History of Massachusetts Blog
# The American who found himself a castaway after escaping from pirates, Look and Learn


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