In June 1722 a seaman from Marblehead, Massachusetts named Philip Ashton was aboard a vessel that entered the waters around Shelburne, Nova Scotia. Ashton was a fisherman and had no experience with trouble on the high seas. But this was to change very quickly. As his shallop entered the waters of the harbor, it was spotted and boarded by pirates under the command of the notorious Edward Low. The crew and its cargo were now under the control of Low and his men.
In those days captured men usually had two choices: either join up with the pirates, or be killed and thrown overboard. Ashton was presented with ship’s articles to sign as evidence of his intention to join up with the pirates. Ashton and six other men refused, citing their religious scruples and the effect that such a decision would have on their parents. The pirates beat them and tossed them into the hold. Despite further threats of death, Ashton always refused; but he was eventually signed on anyway as a forced volunteer.
Many beatings and instances of maltreatment later, Low’s pirate ship found its way to the area around Grand Grenada and Tobago. Pirate ships in those days frequently visited the Caribbean to secure water and other supplies, as the region was not heavily patrolled by the British navy, the only force that pirates really feared. While Low was there he and his men managed to capture seven or eight French ships. They then headed for Curacao. Further adventures followed which led the buccaneer armada to the Roatan Harbor in the Bay of Honduras. All this time, Ashton had been looking for an opportunity to escape. He thought he found one on March 9, 1723 when a landing party decided to show ashore on an island in the bay. As the party reached the shoreline, he told the pirate crew he wanted to go further inland to “hunt for coconuts.” Once out sight, he gave the rest of the party the slip and tried to lie low until they tired of looking for him.
Ashton had escaped his tormentors, but he seemed out of the frying pan only to be into the fire. The island was uninhabited. The island was located to the north of Cape Honduras and was about thirty miles in length. There were wild fruits in abundance (papayas, coconuts, and grapes), but he had no tools of any kind to open coconuts or to fashion implements that could help him survive. Tortoise eggs were found in great quantity on certain parts of the shoreline. But he could not even make a fire. Huge lizards were a threat, for their bites would mean almost certain blood poisoning. Flies and gnats were a constant torment as well; without shoes his feet blossomed into red lumps of inflamed flesh. There were even some wild boars on the island, probably brought there by Indians many years before.
In November 1723 he actually made contact with a renegade Englishman who paddled to the island in a canoe; he himself said he had been a prisoner of the Spanish for about twenty years and longed to escape. He gave Ashton some flint and steel to build fires with, as well as a knife. Paddling away and promising to return soon, he vanished forever; Ashton never learned what happened to him. Possibly the Spanish authorities caught up with him. But at least he now had tools, and things improved markedly for him on Roatan Island. One day he found an abandoned canoe on the beach; this he repaired and outfitted, and then took to the open sea, heading for the island of Bonaca. This island was about six leagues to the west.
He made it to Bonaca but ran into the Spanish military, who never appreciated the presence of foreigners in their domains. When they opened fire on him, he hid from them and then eventually paddled back to Roatan. After sixteen months of this Robinson Crusoe existence, he made contact with friendly outsiders. These were other Englishmen who had escaped from Spanish captivity and were plotting their next move. When Ashton was given his first drink of rum in sixteen months, he nearly toppled over. When the party tried to escape some time later, they dodged the Spanish but ran into pirates. They were able to give them the slip as well, and headed for the island of Bonaca; there they found a great number of ships moored for commerce, as the region was a hub of trading activity.
Ashton eventually presented himself to the British man-of-war Diamond, which was bound for Jamaica. The men were shocked by his gaunt, haggard appearance; his clothing was in tatters and his face covered with a tangle of whiskers. But he had found safety at last. So protected, he found his way to a commercial vessel that was bound for Massachusetts. So it was that after two years, ten months, and fifteen days, Ashton was heading back for home in Marblehead. He eventually published an account of his adventures, but how he lived the remainder of his life is not recorded.