Philip Ashton, a 19-year-old fisherman, escaped captivity by the ruthless pirate Edward Low on a remote Caribbean island. For 16 months he managed to survive, though his rescuers found him so weak they had to carry him across the sand.
Philip Ashton was born in Aug. 12, 1702 in the Massachusetts town of Marblehead, a fishing village north of Boston.
He had gone to sea as a child. In the summer of 1722, Philip Ashton set sail for the Grand Banks to fish for cod. He captained the schooner Milton with a half-dozen young fishermen from Marblehead. His childhood friend, Joseph Libbey, joined him on the fishing voyage and had saved him from drowning.
In June, the fishing schooner had anchored in Port Roseway, part of a fleet of 13 fishing vessels. Near sunset, a boat from a merchant vessel rowed toward the Milton and climbed aboard. Philip Ashton assumed they’d come over for a visit and some news, but then he realized something wasn’t right. Then, he wrote,
They drew their cutlasses and pistols from under their clothes, and cocked the one and brandished the other, and began to curse and swear at us and demanded a surrender of ourselves and our vessel.
The pirates seized Philip Ashton and Joseph Libby and took them aboard the Rebecca, Edward Low’s pirate ship. Low had a reputation as a psychopath who mutilated, disemboweled and decapitated his prisoners. Mariners who plied the Atlantic were terrified of Low, said to have fried a French cook alive. He once cut off a captain’s lips with a cutlass, broiled them and forced the victim to eat them while still hot.
Pirates often conscripted their captives, and Low’s crew tried to threaten and cajole Philip Ashton into joining them. So they put him in chains, beat him and threatened him with death.
Joseph Libbey went along with the pirates. While Ashton lingered a castaway on a Caribbean island, Libby met his death by hanging in Rhode Island with 25 other pirates.
In March of 1723, the Rebecca landed on Roatan Island, an uninhabited Caribbean island off the northern coast of Honduras. Native people and then a small group of British colonists had lived there, but by the time Philip Ashton arrived not a soul lived on the island. Five miles long and 48 miles across, dense jungle covered the island.
The pirates went ashore in a longboat to collect water. They took Philip Ashton ashore with them, probably thinking he wouldn’t escape to such a desolate island.
Once on land, though, he ran for his life and hid in the jungle until the pirates decided to leave without him.
Ashton had no shoes, nothing but his scanty clothing. He survived for 16 months in utter solitude, bedeviled by mosquitos, snakes, stifling heat and boredom. He had little to do but roam the island and gaze at the sea.
At first he kept himself alive by eating raw turtle eggs, wild figs and plums. He eventually ate sapote fruit, which he thought poisonous until he saw wild hogs eat them. He built a hut with palmetto leaves and branches.
One day after about nine months, an Englishmen paddled to the island in a canoe. He had fled the Spaniards who live in Honduras and threatened to burn him to death.
The Englishman planned to live the rest of his days on Roatan with his dog and support himself by hunting. But then he went off to hunt, and Philip Ashton never saw him again. The Englishman, though, left behind 5 lbs. of pork, a knife, powder, tobacco, tongs and flint. Ashton could eat roasted turtle now, and crabs and coconut.
To escape the insects, he floated on a bamboo pole over to a small cay during the day, returning to his hut at night. His swimming, at first rudimentary, improved.
In June 1724, after 16 months on the island, Philip Ashton saw two large canoes paddling toward the island. The men in the canoes hesitated, seeing the smoke from Ashton’s fire. Their caution convinced Philip Ashton they weren’t pirates, and he showed himself openly to them.
They sent one man ashore.
When the Man came up to me he stated back, Frighted to see such a Poor, Ragged, Lean, Wan, Forlorn, Wild, Miserable Object so near him: but upon recovering himself, he came and took me by the hand, and we fell to embracing one another, he with surprise and wonder, I with a sort of Extasy of Joy.
The man carried Philip Ashton, thin and weak, across the sand to one of the canoes.
They told him they were Baymen, English woodcutters who lived in in camps along Honduras Bay. Many considered them one step above pirates. They said they’d come to avoid a fight with Spaniards and Indians.
He lived with the Baymen until the Diamond came ashore for water in 1724. The brig came from Salem, Mass., just a few miles from Philip Ashton’s father’s house.
Two years, 10 months and 15 days after Edward Low captured him, Philip Ashton arrived home.
With thanks to At the Point of a Cutlass: The Pirate Capture, Bold Escape, and Lonely Exile of Philip Ashton by Gregory Flemming.
Images: Roatan Island By Westbrowncanada – Roatan, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=25239041. This story was updated in 2023.