The Beehive: the official blog of the Massachusetts Historical Society

Guest Post: Unlocking the Story of a Real-life Robinson Crusoe

Tucked away in the archives of the Massachusetts Historical Society Library are two small, leather-bound volumes printed nearly 300 years ago. These small tracts, titled Ashton’s Memorial, reveal an incredible story -- the first-hand account of a Massachusetts fisherman named Philip Ashton who was captured by pirates in 1722 and then escaped and lived as a castaway on an uninhabited Caribbean island for nearly two years. Ashton’s Memorial is a rare description of a voyage aboard a pirate ship during the peak of Atlantic piracy and it reveals rich new details about the crew, captures, and nearly-fatal mishaps.

The Society may hold the only surviving copy of the original 1725 printing of Ashton’s Memorial in Boston. There are original editions from a second printing of Ashton’s Memorial, published in London in 1726, at both the Massachusetts Historical Society and the British Library. The second printing is nearly identical to the first, except the title page uses the descriptor “An Authentick Account” instead of “An History” and includes three lines of text that were omitted from the Boston printing, apparently due to a typesetting error.

Ashton’s narrative was compiled by his minister, John Barnard of the First Church in Marblehead, Massachusetts. The fact that the book was published in London a year after it was printed in Boston speaks to the popularity of the story at the time. In fact, Ashton’s Memorial may have been read in London by Daniel Defoe, who had a lifelong interest in piracy, castaways, and the maritime world. A leading scholar of Defoe’s work, Manual Schonhorn, has compared Defoe’s writings before and after Ashton’s Memorial was published and concludes that Defoe incorporated new details from Ashton’s story -- never published anywhere else -- in his next novel.

Barnard compiled Ashton’s Memorial shortly after Ashton returned home to Massachusetts from his three-year odyssey, but the book is written in the first person and reads as though Ashton wrote it. Barnard notes in a short introduction that he met with Ashton on several occasions to record the narrative and subsequently verified its accuracy: “I have taken the minutes of all from his own mouth, and after I had put them together, I have improved the first vacant hour I could to read it over distinctly to him that he might correct the errors that might arise from my misunderstanding his report. Thus corrected, he has set his hand to it as his own history.” In researching Ashton’s story, I found that a number of significant events recounted in Ashton’s text were supported by other sources.

The Massachusetts Historical Society also holds the papers of John Barnard, including his Autobiography and three other volumes of his sermon notes. These papers provide additional insights into the adventurous life of one of New England’s more prominent Puritan ministers during the early eighteenth century -- but they reveal nothing more about Philip Ashton or Ashton’s Memorial. It is striking, in fact, that Barnard was compelled to record Ashton’s story not for the sake of history, but because he believed it conveyed important religious themes to an audience that was, in his mind, lacking in faith. This was quite common, in fact. Religious leaders during this era -- including Barnard’s former teacher, Cotton Mather -- frequently exploited pirate captures, executions, and other dramatic events to issue dire warnings against what they saw as a rising tide of drunkenness, adultery, blasphemy, church skilling, and other transgressions in Boston and throughout colonial New England. As interesting as Ashton’s voyage was, for Barnard the true message in the story was “God’s ability to save” an ordinary fisherman from death and disaster.



Gregory N. Flemming is the author of At the Point of a Cutlass: The Pirate Capture, Bold Escape, and Lonely Exile of Philip Ashton, published in June. He will speak at the Massachusetts Historical Society at 12 noon on Thursday, June 19, 2014. The event is free and open to the public.


permalink | Published: Tuesday, 3 June, 2014, 1:00 AM