At the Point of a Cutlass by Gregory N Flemming

Author Rating:
4/5,
  • In 1722 Philip Ashton was the 20 year old skipper of a small Marblehead fishing boat. Ashore the New Englanders were under continuous threat from the native Mi’kmaqs; at sea, with all other Atlantic mariners, from a wave of piracy which was perhaps part of the fallout of the end of the War of Spanish Succession. On 15th June Philip’s boat was taken by Edward Low, clearly a deranged sadistic psychopath like many of his crew and associates, and Philip was forced to join the pirate crew. The pirate ship cruised, vengefully and destructively, in a wide circle, NE to the Azores and then back on the SE Trades to the Caribbean. After months of misery, on 9th March 1723 Philip was able to escape, in what he stood up in, barefoot and without even a knife, into the brush ashore on uninhabited Roatan island in the bay of Honduras. Slowly starving, via some fortunate deliverances he was eventually rescued, finally arriving back in Marblehead on 1st May 1725.

    His story was taken up by his local pastor, John Barnard, who published it in Boston in the same year. Publication in London followed in 1726 and it was hugely popular, following on the success of Defoe’s novel ‘Robinson Crusoe’ which had come out in 1719; but Ashton’s story was the real thing.

    Gregory N Flemming has now rescued this tale from obscurity and republished it against a backdrop of deep and scholarly research into the political, historical, commercial and social background relating to Boston, Marblehead, Honduras and 17th century piracy, the last pretty well suppressed by 1727 after 400 of these criminals had been deservedly hanged.

    The volume is furnished with a useful and relevant bibliography and an interesting selection of contemporary illustrations. It is well indexed and the sources are annotated as endnotes. The asides remitted to the notes meant keeping two markers in play while reading it. The style runs well, in spite of occasional minor repetitions. Unfortunately some strictly maritime matters like gun drill, while correctly described in an absolute sense are presented in a lubberly manner (‘pulleys’ for blocks etc.) with incorrect terminology. Caulking turns up as ‘corking’ on p.62 but that may be a word processing error.

    The book gave me a welcome and educational exposure to colonial life on the Atlantic seaboard, and to the brutal realities of ‘traditional’ piracy, and I much enjoyed it.

    Four anchors.

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