by Gregory N. Flemming, guest contributor
Vessels sailing back to Boston harbor from faraway destinations would often sell their cargo at public auctions in 1722, but the return of the Rebecca in June of that year was particularly strange and alarming. The goods aboard the Rebecca were auctioned off under court order, and the return of the ninety ton brigantine brought grim news. The Rebecca had been sailing back from the Caribbean island of St. Kitts when, on May 28, it was captured by a ferocious pirate crew. The pirates sailed the Rebecca north as far as Nova Scotia, but couldn’t stand the way the ship plodded through the water and replaced her with a newer vessel. The Rebecca was discarded and her captain, James Flucker, brought the brigantine back to Boston.
A week later, at about 5:00 o’clock on a Wednesday evening, buyers met in Charlestown for the auction of the “sundry goods” the pirates had left aboard the Rebecca — a turtle net, a scarlet jacket, a still, several dozen plates, a sail, a small boat, and some old canvas. More alarming, however, is what the pirates hadn’t left behind. Several young men from Massachusetts, including Philip Ashton, the 19-year old captain of a Marblehead fishing schooner, had been dragged aboard the pirate ship and forced to sail away with the crew.[i]
The dramatic events of early June 1722 marked the beginning of an even more dramatic three-year odyssey for Philip Ashton. The young fisherman sailed for nine brutal months with the pirates, subjected to a seemingly endless chain of whippings, beatings, and threats during a voyage across the Atlantic and back. Then, as suddenly as he was captured, Ashton escaped. He abandoned ship — completely alone — on the uninhabited island of Roatan, located at the far western edge of the Caribbean. His escape from the pirates provided only temporary relief, however. “I was upon an island from whence I could not get off,” Ashton later recalled. “Everything looked with a dismal face.” [ii]
To survive, Ashton foraged for food, built crude lean-tos with his bare hands, wandered the windswept island, and spent hour after hour gazing out at the sea in search of a passing vessel. Ashton had only the clothes he was wearing when he ran off: pants and a long frock, both made of coarse linen, and a wool cap on his head. He had no shirt. And worse, he had no shoes. His hands and bare feet quickly became scratched, cut, and bruised from walking across the broken sticks and shards of bark that covered the ground.
The key to staying alive was finding food. Ashton was suspicious of many of the fruits he found — and with good reason. He found a “noxious fruit” called the “Mangeneil Apple,” which he “often took up in my hands, and looked upon, but had not the power to eat.” This may have been manchineel, and since the skin of the manchineel can be an irritant, it’s possible that Ashton later heard from other men he encountered in the area that manchineel was poison. Another strange fruit fell to the ground from tall trees in the woods. It had a brown, fuzzy skin and was about the size of a pear. The inside of the fruit was mushy, like a banana, with a bright pinkish-orange color. Ashton didn’t dare eat these either, at first, but then saw wild hogs eating the fruit and decided it probably wasn’t poisonous. This turned out to be the sapote fruit, although the name Ashton uses, which he learned later on, is “Mammees saporters” (islanders today still call it the mamey apple). Ashton ate many of the sapote, describing it as a “very delicious sort of fruit.” [iii]
It would be nine months of solitary foraging and wandering before Ashton saw another person, and even longer before he finally met up with a New England trading ship that would take him back to Massachusetts. Ashton’s capture by the pirates and his castaway survival was so remarkable that, as I recount in my book At the Point of a Cutlass, he’s been called America’s “real-life Robinson Crusoe.”
[i] The Boston News-Letter, July 9, 1722.
[iii] Flemming, Gregory N. At the Point of a Cutlass: The Pirate Capture, Bold Escape, and Lonely Exile of Philip Ashton. Hanover, NH: ForeEdge.