J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Sunday, June 08, 2014

Talk on Philip Ashton, Castaway, in Boston, 19 June

On Thursday, 19 June, Gregory N. Flemming will speak at the Massachusetts Historical Society about his new book At the Point of a Cutlass: The Pirate Capture, Bold Escape, and Lonely Exile of Philip Ashton.

In an essay for the M.H.S. blog, Flemming wrote about his main source:
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.
That last part confused me, so I went hunting for buried bibliography. Defoe published the first edition of Robinson Crusoe in 1719, before Ashton’s misadventures. By 1720 Defoe had published the last two Crusoe adventures and his pirate novel Captain Singleton. So in what book did he draw on Ashton’s account?

Two possibilities are The Four Years Voyages of Capt. George Roberts (1726) and the second volume of A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pyrates (1728). Both books, published under different names, have been attributed to Defoe. In 1972 Manuel Schonhorn prepared an edition of Pyrates that credits Defoe as pseudonymous author.

However, other scholars dispute those attributions. In Republic of Pirates, the Maine author Colin Woodard reports that more recent researchers have argued that journalist Nathaniel Mist most likely wrote Pyrates. And the British Dictionary of National Biography deemed The Four Years Voyages as likely the product of “some humble and incompetent imitator of Defoe.” Still, Ashton’s details could have shown up in those books.

Flemming’s lecture will start at noon, and is free and open to the public.

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