|Two hundred and fifty years ago, the Reverend
John Barnard, pastor of Marblehead's Old North Church, stepped
into his pulpit and delivered a long, pretentious sermon to a
large, expectant congregation. It was a timely sermon, one crammed
with many a pointed reference to events described in the Old
Testament, events he then compared to certain happenings only
recently experienced by a member of his parish.
Today, we would consider the parson's fervent words of praise, prayer and thanksgiving a little bit dry and ponderous. But those attending that late spring Sunday service in the year of our Lord, 1725, were deeply moved by what they heard and never once permitted their attention to wander.
In truth, they had every reason to listen intently. For the subject of the parson's sermon focused upon a young Marbleheader named Philip Ashton Jr., a fisherman who had just returned home hale and hearty and fairly bursting with a tale of adventure and misadventure that rivaled fiction. In fact, one that bordered on the unbelievable.
Nevertheless, the young man's tale was true. And to this day, Ashton's graphic account of pirates and piracy, his many close calls with death, starvation and morbid complaints, his long, arduous and unremitting struggle to preserve his body and soul, and to remain sane and sensible while living alone on a remote and uninhabited island for many months, is one of the most stirring tales of adventure to ever occur in this hemisphere. It was also fortunate that Parson Barnard, who throughout his lifetime contributed more to the economic welfare of Marblehead than any other minister before or since his time, not only recorded Ashton's story, but arranged to have it published.
We therefore owe the colonial minister a heartfelt vote of thanks, first, for recognizing its outstanding qualities as a saga, an unforgettable fragment of history, and secondly, for seeing it through the press, because Ashton's stirring tale of adventure was published in Boston in 1725 and in London, England, one year later. Since then, it has also been reprinted time and time again, in part and in whole.
Ashton's Memorial -- An History of the Strange Adventures and Signal Deliverances of Mr. Philip Ashton is an exceedingly rare book, one that many libraries would love to own, but never can because only four copies of the American first edition survive to this day, and only two copies of the London edition exist in this country. Furthermore, all copies are permanently housed in Massachusetts.*
*Ashton's Memorial, edited by R.W.K., reprinted 1976, Peabody Museum of Salem.
It seems both fitting and proper that we honor the memory of Parson Barnard due to the part he played in preserving this extraordinary story. Had the parson not done so, it is quite possible that Philip Ashton's thrilling epic might have faded into the past and been lost forever. The good parson, possessing both wisdom and good judgment, committed the story to paper within a few weeks after Ashton returned home -- at a time when Ashton's memories of the events were fresh and trustworthy.
Like most clergymen of his period, Parson Barnard was well-educated, a man of more than average ability and intelligence. He was so fair-minded, reasonable, tolerant and mindful of others that a contemporary described him as a minister whose "zeal was guided by knowledge, tempered with prudence, and accompanied by charity."
But there was another side to the parson, a side that won him the everlasting gratitude and respect of eighteenth-century Marbleheaders: he was an adventurous soul, fascinated by deeds of derring-do. And though as a clergyman he managed to keep his hankering for action more or less under control, that side of him always lurked beneath the surface. In grade school and in college, the embryonic minister was also an outstanding scholar, and an outstanding hellion!
Following his graduation from Harvard University, John Barnard's restless spirit induced him to wander far and wide throughout New England, the West Indies and even Great Britain where he mingled freely with that nation's upper classes. Within him, there raged an emotional war, a struggle between the forces of commerce and forces of religion. But in the end, the forces of commerce were routed; in 1715, he accepted a call to the Old North Church, and one year later was ordained a minister.
But twenty-nine years later, the old spirit within him was still there. He volunteered in 1745 to serve in the expedition that was preparing to attack Fort Louisburg, Nova Scotia. But, rejected because of his age (64 years old), he refused to become downhearted.
Instead, Barnard turned his attention to other matters. He prepared a plan showing how that mighty fortress could be attacked and conquered. And to crown his efforts, he next devised -- much ahead of his time -- a method for detecting land mines!
All of which helps to explain why the Marbleheaders of that century revered, admired and respected the gifted, yet unconventional minister. By the same token, these same characteristics also reveal a number of things about him that are usually neglected and overlooked. They provide us with several clues as to why he considered Philip Ashton's Signal Deliverances, or strange adventures, to be important.
First, the good parson admired his young parishioner because he was a man of principle, of unswerving faith and rectitude and second, because Philip Ashton had proved to himself and to others that he was a man of unlimited courage, fortitude, ingenuity and perseverance.
The first of many singular events destined to make Ashton's life one of endless trials and tribulations for several years occurred on Friday, June 15, 1722. He was then at Port Roseway Harbor, Nova Scotia where his fishing schooner Milton lay at anchor, together with a dozen or more fishing vessels.
These vessels were "Sunday Keepers," fishing schooners whose skippers refused to fish on the Lord's Day. As a matter of practice, the Sunday Keepers would clear the fishing grounds each weekend and enter a nearby port, where for the next twenty-four hours their crews would forego all work other than routine shipboard duties.
According to legend, Sunday Keeping was started by a few religious-minded skippers. But as a matter of fact, it was an age-old custom, one carried out by every skipper whether a zealous churchgoer, a secular-minded freethinker or an incorrigible backslider.
To a man, every skipper believed that any crew that had toiled on the banks from sunup to sundown for a period of ten to twelve weeks deserved at least one day of rest in every seven. Thus, the custom worked out well for everybody. The pious honored the Lord's Day, the Freethinkers mended their gear, while the more wayward fishermen simply loafed and relaxed. All in all, Sunday Keeping was a good, sound, sensible and wholesome practice, one that benefited every member of the crew from the skipper right down to the youngest cuttail.
Philip Ashton appears to have been a truly pious Marbleheader and a sincere and dedicated Sunday Keeper. Furthermore, our town records show that he was baptized at the Old North Church on April 18, 1703. Twenty-three years later, on December 8, 1726, a year after he returned from his memorable journeys, Ashton was married to a Miss Jane Gallison by Parson Barnard. The same records also contain other entries, including the names of Ashton's children, all of whom were baptized at the Old North shortly after they were born.
All one has to do is to read his narrative and note how many times he refers to Deity, Divine Providence, Signal Deliverances and other similar expressions of praise and thanksgiving -- all statements that indicate a religious bent. So it seems reasonable to assume that Philip Ashton, the skipper of a Grand Banker, was a much more devout man than the average Marblehead fisherman of his day.
But to get back to Port Roseway and to a certain brigantine that lay anchored near the Milton and other Sunday Keepers from Marblehead ...
Most of the fishermen, including Philip Ashton, thought that the vessel was a merchantman from the West Indies and there on business. But they were wrong. She was not an innocent merchantman, and the first person to learn her true identity was Philip Ashton Jr.!
To his surprise, alarm and subsequent misery, Ashton learned it the hard way! No sooner had he come to anchor than a boatload of men from the unknown brigantine rowed over to his schooner and boarded her. Every man was armed to the teeth with pistols, cutlasses and knives.
They were pirates!
They not only plundered the Milton; they also removed Ashton and his crew. And with many a kick and curse, the pirates imprisoned them in the hold of their brigantine, the notorious freebooter Rebecca.
Worse still, Rebecca's captain was none other than Edward Low ... better known as Ned Low, one of the meanest buccaneers afloat. He was a rough, ruthless and brutal character, a man hated and feared by everyone, including his officers and crew. And with good reason.
On more than one occasion, he had cut off the ears of a captive, seasoned them with salt and pepper and forced the hapless and mutilated soul to eat his own flesh! In the end, however, these brutal practices brought about Low's downfall. He was cast adrift without food or water by his own crew, only to be "rescued" a few days later by a French frigate whose officers promptly hanged him from a yardarm!
A most fitting end to an infamous rogue.
Among those imprisoned with Ashton aboard the Rebecca were three other Marbleheaders: his cousin Nicholas Merritt, Joseph Libbie and Lawrence Fabens, all fishermen by trade. And because he knew them to be seasoned and experienced seamen, Low tried to force them to become members of his crew. But when they turned down this invitation, he threatened them with torture and death, a threat they ignored for the moment.
Nevertheless, within a few days Libbie, Fabens and Merritt reached some sort of an arrangement with Low, and for several months willingly served him well. Fabens and Merritt were later released, but Joseph Libbie soon acquired a taste for buccaneering and became a full-fledged pirate.
And like most of them, he eventually ran afoul of the law, was captured, tried and found guilty of committing piracy on the high seas. On July 19, 1723, 21-year-old Joseph Libbie and twenty-five of his shipmates were escorted to the waterfront in Newport, Rhode Island where they were hanged within a period of two hours!
Now, having looted the fishing fleet of what few valuables it possessed, Low decided that he needed a better vessel. So, from among the Sunday Keepers in the harbor, he selected the schooner he had judged to be the best and fastest sailer, a brand new 80-tonner (which he renamed Fancy) owned by Mr. Joseph Doliber of Marblehead!
While Low's men busily armed Fancy with cannon, his officers used every argument they could think of to persuade Ashton to become a member of their crew. It seems that Low was short of men and most anxious to recruit young, strong, experienced seamen, men harboring a taste for action and adventure, men yearning for something much more exciting than hand-lining for cod and haddock year-in and year-out.
But Ashton, to his credit, told Low and his officers that he would never sign on as a pirate, a stand that required a great deal of courage because Low had a hair-trigger temper, and when crossed, had been known to cut down anyone within reach.
In fact, the more that one knows about the repulsive pirate, the more one is inclined to understand why Ashton considered his experiences as a prisoner of Ned Low to be Signal Deliverances. A Signal Deliverance was any act that preserved his life, or extricated him from a dangerous situation or snatched him from the jaws of death. The first of which occurred in Port Roseway's harbor.
On the day Low planned to sail in search of more victims, he discovered that his dog had been left ashore. (Oddly enough, the cruel and inhuman character would not sail without him.) So he sent ashore a boat, manned by two men, to get the animal. And of all people to send ashore, Low sent two Marbleheaders--John Holman and Benjamin Ashton!
As soon as the feet of those two fishermen touched land, they took to their heels and headed for the deep woods. As a result, Low lost his dog, his boat, two prisoners and his temper. Naturally, the pirate flew into a rage. Knowing that the men who had escaped were friends of Philip Ashton, Low and his quartermaster figured that he too had planned to cut and run for it. Whereupon the quartermaster clapped a pistol to Ashton's head and pulled the trigger--not once, but three times! But each time, the pistol failed to fire!
This made the quartermaster so angry that he went to the rail and started to heave the defective weapon overboard. Just before he tossed it away, however, he gave the trigger one last pull. And it fired perfectly! So it is easy to understand why Philip Ashton made so much of his many close shaves with death.
After he ordered the Rebecca to sail, Low switched to Mr. Doliber's Mary (now the Fancy), and for several weeks skirted the coast of Newfoundland, seizing a number of fishing schooners and other vessels. Some he looted and set free; others he looted and burned. On one occasion, Low raided an isolated hamlet, stole everything worthwhile, and set the place afire leaving its inhabitants without food or shelter and destitute. He then crossed the Atlantic, skirted the coasts of England and France, and sailed to North Africa where he captured and plundered an English merchantman. Low next used this vessel to rid himself of a score of prisoners, one of whom was Nicholas Merritt, Philip Ashton's cousin. Merritt, by the way, was the son of Nicholas and Elizabeth Merritt and was baptized at the Old North Church on the 29th of March 1702.
Like his cousin, it was also his ill fortune to endure a prolonged period of physical and mental suffering before he regained his freedom. But, though nerve-wracking, dangerous and exhausting, his sufferings cannot be compared to those experienced by Philip Ashton. Merritt's ordeals began when Ned Low transferred him to the English ship that he had just captured, a ship Merritt and his companions seized as soon as they were beyond range of the Fancy's guns. They intended to sail for England, but a shortage of food and water forced them to abandon their plan. So instead, they sailed to the Azores where they hoped to obtain the supplies they needed to make it back home.
However, to their dismay they were arrested and jailed almost as soon as they landed. Merritt was tossed into a dark and dreary dungeon where he languished for four months, living on one meal a day, invariably a thin soup -- a mixture of cabbage, bread and water, hardly enough to keep him alive. To further aggravate Merritt's distress and discomfort, he was stricken with smallpox. It was a mild case, but one that left him weak, discouraged and extremely despondent, yet durable enough to survive another three months in the dark, smelly cell.
Then, he was released without a word of explanation and turned loose without a penny to his name in a strange country, one whose language he neither understood nor spoke. Nevertheless, he managed to eke out a meager living doing odd jobs about the waterfront until a ship bound for New England offered him a job as a deck hand, a job he accepted with alacrity. He arrived back in Marblehead on Saturday, September 29, 1723, after an absence of thirteen long, agonizing months--months of suffering, cruel treatment and harrowing experiences.
Meanwhile, his cousin, Philip, was encountering plenty of troubles himself. Low had shifted Philip from his vessel to another commanded by Francis Farrington Spriggs, one of his lieutenants. Low and Spriggs were birds of a feather, dyed-in-the-wood scoundrels who tortured and abused their captives, who double-crossed, cheated and murdered friend and foe alike. In short, they were a pair of cold-blooded, case-hardened outlaws -- the scum of the earth, hated and feared by everyone including fellow pirates.
For Ashton and his fellow prisoners, it was a period of many trials and tribulations, endless hours of anguish, worry and sleepless nights. They never knew if they would live to see another day. Yet in spite of their well-grounded fears, week after week passed, and not a single person was hanged, shot or mistreated. Low and his officers did have a habit of occasionally getting blind drunk, however. And when three sheets to the wind, they acted in a most villainous and depraved manner.
One would have thought that during those weeks at sea the captives would have hoped and prayed for an English or French warship to overtake and capture Low's vessels. But that was not the case at all. In fact, neither Ashton nor any other prisoner wanted that to happen. They did not want to be rescued at any time by a naval vessel.
Because they knew only too well that should Low and Spriggs be forced to surrender to a warship, those two monsters would be hanged immediately. They also knew that the chances were good that everyone else, including themselves, would suffer the same fate! It was meaningless that they were honest men and God-fearing fishermen whose only crime had been to fall into the hands of a band of notorious pirates.
The early 1700's were lawless years, grim, brutal, harsh years. The law of the sea, like those who meted out its justice, was heavy-handed and indescribably blind. As a rule, naval officers of that era wasted little time judging the guilt or innocence of any man found on board a pirate ship. They had learned years earlier that it was useless to question a buccaneer, and that each of them would swear a most solemn oath that he had been forced to serve the pirates under pain of death. So, they treated everyone alike.
They would hang them all, and continue on their merry way. It was not fair, and it was not justice, but it was effective. And in due time, piracy vanished from the high seas.
Under such circumstances, one can readily understand why Philip Ashton was always looking for a chance to make a getaway, to gain his freedom regardless of the risks involved. Ashton was convinced that he would die a violent death sooner or later, and that in the midst of a drunken spree he would be put to the sword, shot, hanged or even tortured, as Low considered torture to be an interesting and playful sport.
Although he spent many an hour making plans and praying for an opportunity to escape, he did not get a chance to make a break for it until the pirates had paid the tiny Caribbean island of Utila a short visit. There, Ashton's carefully conceived plans were wrecked by an informer who betrayed him to Low. In response, Low promptly flew into a rage and ordered the immediate execution of Ashton and his fellow conspirators.
But once again, Ashton's life was saved. A British warship hove in sight, and the pirates -- who were far more willing to sacrifice the lives of others than they were to risk their own -- ran for cover. And in their anxiety to save themselves, they forgot all about the men they had just condemned to death.
In his own words, Ashton said:
"That through the goodness of God -- I escaped being consumed by the violence of the Flame [the Flame being Low] who was not only drunk at the time -- but acting like a madman and demanding that we all be shot right then and there."
It was a truly narrow, hair-raising escape, but as things worked out, a better opportunity soon appeared. The buccaneers next sailed to the island of Roatan, some twenty miles from Utila and about fifty miles off the coast of Honduras in Central America.
In those days, Roatan was -- as it is today -- a warm, sun-drenched, wooded island, stocked with wild figs, fruits, berries and coconuts. And before it was discovered by those seeking a quiet secluded retreat, the island was alive with deer, wild hogs, small game, giant sea turtles and waterfowl of every kind. Roatan also had several good springs, and because Spriggs needed water, he ordered his cooper to go ashore on March 9, 1723, to fill the ship's water casks.
Here, Fortune smiled on Philip Ashton. He overheard the orders, and jumping at the chance, asked that he be taken along. Telling the cooper that he had not set foot on land for over nine months, Ashton also said that he thought it was about time he be given the same liberties granted everyone else. The cooper, who never dreamed there was a man alive who would purposely maroon himself on a remote, isolated island, agreed to take him ashore.
Ashton described what happened next:
"I went into the boat, With only an Ozenbrig frock and trousers on, And a milled cap upon my head, having neither shirt, shoes, nor stockings, nor anything else about me. Whereas, had I been aware of such an opportunity by one quarter of an hour before, I could have provided myself with something better. However, thought I, if I can but once get foot on terra-firma, I shall count it a happy Deliverance. For I was resolved, come what would, never to come aboard again."
Next, Ashton described his actions when he reached shore:
"I was very active in helping get the casks out of the boat and rolling them up to the watering place. Then I lay down at the fountain and took a heavy draught of cool water. And then I gradually strolled along the beach, picking up stones and shells and looking about me. When I got about a musket shot off from (the cooper and his men) I began to make for the edge of the woods. When the cooper spied me, he called after me and asked me where I was going. I told him I was going to get some coconuts, for there were some coconut trees just before me. But as soon as I reached the woods, I betook myself to my heels and ran as fast as my naked feet would let me."
There, he concealed himself in a tangle of brush where he lay hidden for several days until the pirates dropped their search for him and sailed away. He next began to look around, and in due course walked from one end of Roatan to the other, hoping to meet some friendly natives. But to his dismay, he failed to find a single person. Nor did he uncover any evidence indicating that anyone had ever lived there, though the island struck him as a pleasant and hospitable place.
From the beginning, Ashton lived on wild figs and berries. But the fruits that fell from the trees were strange to him, so he also wisely refused to eat them before he saw which of the many species could be eaten by the wild hogs without ill effect. It was well that Ashton curbed his appetite because some of the island's most edible-appearing fruits were poisonous to man and beast.
However, such fruits and berries failed to satisfy his hunger and craving for a good solid, nourishing meal. And worse still, the meager diet sapped his energy. And though his mouth often watered for a piece of meat from beast or a fowl, there was nothing he could do about it. Lacking a knife, a pan and the means to start a fire, he was helpless. So, within a few weeks, this once robust Marblehead fisherman was reduced to a half-starved, bewhiskered, emaciated, walking skeleton.
Later, Ashton noticed that the beaches of Roatan were the favorite nesting places for the giant sea turtles that came and laid their eggs and buried them in the sands. So he poked around, and with a stick unearthed dozens of unhatched eggs, which he ate raw, then, and for months to come. He found the eggs a bit gamy, but because they were plentiful and easy to obtain, he managed to devour them. As he noted in his account: "What is not good for him that has nothing to live on, except what falls from the trees!"
On the other hand, he did have ideas that for one reason or another came to naught. Ashton knew, for example, that every cove and inlet on Roatan teemed with fish. But when it came to catching them, that was something else. Although he tried, he was never able to fashion a hook and line from vines and broken clam shells. Nor was he able to weave a net that would work, or figure out a way to lure fish into a shallow waterhole where he could trap them. However, he did discover that there were oysters, mussels and other shellfish on the island's beaches. And when he became awfully hungry, he gathered and ate some. They were rubbery, slimy and unpalatable, however, so it was not long before Ashton became as tired of eating them as he had become tired of eating only berries and fruit. As a result, he was always half-starved, and his stomach was always an aching void.
But he was compelled to eat whatever was at hand -- turtle eggs, shellfish, berries and fruits of all kinds. By doing so, Ashton successfully staved off starvation, survived and kept body and soul together from day to day, week to week and month to month. He was an ill-clad, forlorn creature, limited to a small, wild, isolated and silent world where only the sound of the surf, the sigh of the wind and a medley of humming insects, birds and beasts broke the silence. For Philip Ashton, it was a period of loneliness, despair and untold hardships that he was destined to endure much longer than he had ever anticipated.
However, foraging for something fit to eat was not his one and only concern. He had other things to worry about, and some were ever present. There were snakes on the island, and many were poisonous, especially one he later learned was called the Barber's Pole -- a small snake marked with black and white stripes, whose bite was fatal. In addition to this venomous viper, there were boa constrictors, some of which were twelve to fourteen feet long. Some had mouths big enough to toss a hat into, had he had a hat! But fortunately, the large snakes were sluggish, slow moving and easily avoided, so they merely annoyed him.
To protect himself from the heat of the sun and heavy dews drenching him every night, Ashton fashioned a crude lean-to out of branches and palmetto leaves. It was not exactly weathertight, but it was cool and reasonably dry until the rainy season began. Then, it was nothing but one rainy day after another, from the first of October until early March, five months of storms that always reminded him of Marblehead and its bone chilling no'theasters. But there were intervals when the rain ceased, only to be replaced by a wind so hot and humid that he could scarcely breathe.
The hut leaked like a sieve, but worse than that, it was so open to the elements that it failed to keep out the swarms of mosquitoes, sandfleas, gnats and hosts of biting, stinging insects infesting the island. There were thousands of them. And when those feasting on his flesh during the daylight hours departed, a horde of night-flying bugs took their places. So, for weeks on end, his life was made miserable by their bites, their stings and stabbings.
As one would expect, the rainy season not only hampered Ashton's search for fruit and berries; it simultaneously exposed him to colds, fevers and other tropical illnesses, one of which gave him such a raging fever that he became delirious and lost all track of time. Yet, he pulled through despite his inability to obtain food and water, and despite the fact that he was housed in a cold, wet, drafty and fireless hut.
In his account, Ashton says:
"As my weakness increased upon me, I should often fall down as though struck with a dead sleep. And sometimes when I lay down I never expected to wake or rise again. And here I lingered, one day after another, I know not how, without business or diversion, rambling from hill to hill, gazing upon the water and staring upon the face of the sky. And often I laid myself down certain that I should die alone, and nobody would know what has become of me, not even my Parents ..."
In addition to such troubles, Ashton recalls others no less serious:
"One of my greatest difficulties lay in my being barefoot, my travels backward and forward in the woods to hunt for my daily food among the thick underbrush, where the ground was covered with sharp broken shells, had made so many gashes in my feet, and some of them very large, that I was hardly able to go at all."
His wounds would reopen, fester and become so painful, Ashton explains, that on more than one occasion he cried for an hour at a time. There were also days when his feet were so swollen and sore that he never once moved from the crude bed he had fashioned out of brush and leaves.
Such long and arduous months took a great deal out of Philip Ashton, physically and mentally. But it is worth noting that the greater his difficulties became, the more earnestly he prayed for deliverance.
And so it went, until early in November, 1723, he saw a canoe coming towards the island with just one person in it -- the first living person he had seen in nine months! He tore down to the beach and beckoned to the stranger. But the stranger refused to land until Ashton was able to convince him that he was unarmed and harmless, and not the wild and demented creature he appeared to be.
The canoeist turned out to be a Scotsman from an island just out of sight over the horizon, who said he had come to Roatan to escape a band of pirates who were raiding the Bay Islands.
Now, to his great joy, Ashton had a companion, someone to talk to. And his companion had a dog, a gun and means to light a fire and cook a good, hearty soul-satisfying meal! In Ashton's eyes, this was a Great Deliverance, proof that His Maker had not forgotten him. His spirits soared, knowing that his meals would now include turtle steaks as well as raw turtle eggs, and that a helping of crawfish would replace the raw clams and mussels he had come to detest. For the first time in nearly two years, he had reason to believe that his troubles were over, and that he would soon rejoin his father and mother as well as his many friends in Marblehead.
Because there were now two people living on Roatan who needed food, the stranger proposed that he and Ashton paddle to a nearby island to hunt for wild hogs and deer that were plentiful there. Ashton's feet were so inflamed and swollen, however, that he could barely walk. So he had to forego the hunt, saying he was too run down and too weak to undertake such a strenuous trip.
Then, after staying on Roatan for three days, the stranger (whose name, Ashton -- oddly enough -- never learned), set out in his canoe, saying that he would return within a day or two.
But Mother Nature decided otherwise.
A violent storm swept the area as soon as the canoe was out of sight -- a storm that washed man, dog and canoe to a watery grave. So in a manner of speaking, Ashton's sore feet saved his life. It was an unforeseen turn of events, one which he promptly labeled as one more Signal Deliverance!
The loss of his companion and friend of three days was a bitter blow, but his situation was much improved because he now had a fire and an iron kettle to cook a meal in. This was all for the good, except for the melancholy fact that once again he was alone on an island with only birds and animals to talk to. A truly harsh fate, and one that was destined to continue for another seven months. He became depressed and disconsolate throughout the long period of solitude for he was convinced that he was fated to die in a place unknown to his parents and his friends. Such fears left him emotionally depleted.
Thus, he existed until June 1724, when to his surprise and delight two large canoes loaded with men approached his island after they had noticed a wisp of smoke rising from his fire. Yet, in spite of their number, they too played it safe. They sent one man ashore, who, Ashton says:
"Started back when he saw me, frightened to see such a poor, ragged, lean, forlorn, wild, miserable object so near him. But recovering himself he came and took my hand. He with surprise and wonder, I with a shout of joy!"
At the time, Philip Ashton had been missing from Marblehead for two full years. And except for the three days spent with the unfortunate Scotsman, Ashton had dwelt alone on Roatan Island for sixteen months battling solitude, tropical fevers, anxiety and melancholia.
The canoeists, who called themselves Baymen, were friendly and of English descent so they invited Ashton to return with them to an island they had named Castle of Comfort. He accepted the invitation immediately, especially when they told him that they too lived in fear of the pirates who infested the Caribbean, and that like him, they would do anything to avoid them.
Nevertheless, the day came when a band of sea rovers landed on Castle of Comfort Island and sacked the Baymen's tiny unprotected village. But as luck would have it, the unexpected raid occurred while Philip and three companions were out on a hunting trip. They heard the gunfire and realized that they would not be able to aid their friends, so they turned and fled for their lives. Nevertheless, they were still sighted, pursued and shot at by the buccaneers.
Later, when they returned to their island home, they were told that the leader of the raiding party was none other than Francis Farrington Spriggs, the pirate whom Ashton had outsmarted a year and a half earlier. He also learned that Spriggs was as ruthless as ever. He had killed, tortured and abused many of Ashton's newfound friends, then set fire to the place, leaving his victims without food, shelter or firewood!
When he told Parson Barnard about the attack on Castle of Comfort Island, Ashton said:
"Had I been taken by Spriggs, I should not have escaped with my life but would have suffered the most cruel and painful death that the madness and rage of Spriggs could have invented for me."
Ashton also explained that his absence at the time of the attack was due to a watchful Providence which had so often protected him in the past.
Four days after Philip Ashton began his long trek homeward, Spriggs left a sea captain and two seamen marooned on Roatan where Ashton had lived alone for sixteen months! That was unbelievable! And to cap it all, a few months later, Spriggs himself was marooned and left to die on a barren sand spit, a fate he well deserved!
But the unexpected attack on Castle of Comfort was a Signal Deliverance insofar as Philip Ashton was concerned. Because, with their homes destroyed, the Baymen voted to forsake their island and to return to the mainland to live. Ashton and two others decided to remain behind and wait until the sea was calm and the winds were right. When the weather they desired arrived, they sailed to the island of Bonacca where they were sure they would find sailing vessels from all parts of the world. There, within a few days, a severe storm forced several large vessels to seek refuge within the island's harbor. And one of those vessels was a brigantine from Salem, Massachusetts commanded by a Captain Dove, an acquaintance of Philip Ashton of Marblehead!
It was a truly happy reunion, and to crown it all, Captain Dove not only agreed to take Philip home, but signed him on as a deck hand and paid him a deck hand's wages! They left Bonacca late in March, and after a short stay in Jamaica, headed for New England and anchored in Salem Harbor on Saturday evening, May 1, 1725.
Ashton next hurried to Marblehead and to his father's house, where, he says, "I was received as one coming from the dead, with all imaginable surprise of joy." He had been missing for two years, ten months and fifteen days, and had spent half of that time on Roatan island with no tools, no fire, clad only in a shirt and a pair of britches. It was a truly remarkable experience, one which Philip Ashton, himself, summed up better than anyone:
"In saving me from the rage of pirates, And the malice of Spaniards, from the beasts of the field, and the monsters of the sea, in keeping me alive amidst so many deaths in such a lonely and helpless condition, and in bringing about my deliverance, the last being whereof I must be just gone to Bonacca, where a storm must drive a fleet of ships so far southward, And their need for water must oblige them to put in at the island where I was, And a vessel bound to my own home must come and take me in, I cannot but take notice of the strange concurrence of Divine Providence throughout it all."
Thus ends the narrative of Philip Ashton Jr., an exciting tale of adventure, and a saga that is stranger than fiction! The true story of Marblehead's own real life Robinson Crusoe!