Of all the classic tales of adventure Robinson Crusoe has to be near the top of my list. The idea of being stranded on an uninhabited jungle island and living off the land has fascinated people of all ages for generations. In 1719 Daniel Defoe published “The Life and Strange Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe” loosely based on the misadventures of the Scottish seaman Alexander Selkirk.
The novel became an instant bestseller and went on to become one of the most widely published books of all time. Three years after Defoe’s account was published a true story about being marooned on an uninhabited island took place.
In the early 1700’s piracy was rampant in the thirteen colonies including Rhode Island. As pirates captured merchant ships and fishing vessels they replenished their crews by forcing the captured men to join them, some being eager because seamen of that time were very poorly treated. One of the most terrifying and bloodthirsty pirates of all time that routinely forced men was Edward Low.
In his short three-year pirate career he captured over 100 ships and was greatly feared. Low reportedly would cut off the lips or ears of his victims, roast them on a fire, and then eat them in front of the poor souls before murdering them.
On June 15, 1722, 13 fishing vessels from the Massachusetts Bay colony were anchored in Port Roseway, Nova Scotia when a brigantine hove into sight. It was the Rebecca captained by the dreaded pirate Edward Low.
The fishermen didn’t think much about the ship even when a boat with four men was lowered over the side. When the boat reached the nearest fishing vessel the pirates boldly climbed over the side, drew cutlasses and pistols, and demanded that the crew surrender.
The unarmed fishermen had little choice, Low decided to take one of the fishing vessels, the newly built schooner Mary, as his privateer. He forced eight fishermen to join his crew of fifty men. Low renamed the schooner Fancy and set sail for the Caribbean. Among the captured seamen were two friends, Philp Ashton and Joseph Libbie, from Marblehead, Massachusetts.
Libbie would later save Ashton’s life when the ship the pirates were careening sank throwing the crew into the water. Libbie reached over the side and grabbed Ashton’s arm keeping him from drowning. In a twist of fate, the two friends lives would take very different turns, Ashton as a castaway and Libbie as a condemned man.
Here Ashton describes his capture,
“He took six of us, Nicholas Merritt, Joseph Libbie, Lawrence Fabens and myself, all of Marblehead, the eldest under 21 years of age, and carried us on board the brigantine; where we were called upon the quarter deck, and Low came up to us pistol in hand, and with a full mouth demanded, ‘Are any of you married men?’
This short and unexpected question, and the sight of the pistol, struck us all dumb, all not a man of us dared speak a word; for fear that there had been a design in it, which we were not able to see though. Our silence kindled our new master into a flame, who could not bear it, that so many beardless boys should deny him an answer to so plain a question, and therefore in a rage he cocked his pistol and clapped it to my head, and cried out, ‘You dog, why don’t you answer me?’
I was sufficiently frightened at the fierceness of the man and the boldness of his threatening, but rather than lose my life for so trifling a matter, I ventured at length to tell him, ‘I was not married’, as loud as I dare speak it; and so said the rest of my companions. Upon this he seemed pacified and turned away. It seemed his design not to take any married men away with him.”
Ashton and Libbie had been forced to serve on the pirate crew for almost a year when Low anchored off the uninhabited island of Roatan in Honduras. A crew, including Ashton, was sent ashore for water and Ashton was able to escape.
Ashton had only the clothes on his back; no firearms, food, tools or even a knife or shoes. He spent the next 16 months alone on the island living off the land, the first nine months of which he was without the ability to make fire and cook food. He became so weak he was close to death.
One day another seaman who had escaped from the Spanish appeared in a small boat. This man was to vanish on a hunting trip three days later in a storm but he left Ashton with some food, a knife and the means to make fire. Ashton describes his change of circumstance, “That by the help of some fresh hog’s grease, I should get my feet better and by better living recover my strength. But it pleased GOD to take from me the only man I had seen for so many months after so short a converse with him.
Yet I was left in better circumstances by him. For at his going away he left me with about five pounds of pork, a knife, a bottle of powder, tobacco tongs and flint, by which means I was in a way to live better. For now I could have a fire, which was very needful for me, the rainy months of the winter; I could cut up some Tortoise when I had turned them, and have a delicate broiled meal of it; so that by the help of the fire and dressed food, and the blessings of GOD accompanying it, I began to recover more strength, only my feet remained sore.”
Ashton finally sighted a ship approaching the island. The brigantine was part of a convoy that had providentially been driven off course to the south by a fierce storm. The ship was from Salem, Massachusetts only a few miles from Ashton’s father’s house. Captain Dove sent a boat with three men to the island to load water. Ashton remained hidden until he heard the men speaking English and then hailed them. The men were amazed at the sight of him but after hearing his story he was taken off the island.
In the meantime Ashton’s friend Libbie was still serving as crew on Low’s ship Ranger captained by Charles Harris. The pirates spotted a ship sailing to leeward between Long Island and Block Island. They gave chase not knowing that the ship was the newly built 20 gun English warship HMS Greyhound, commanded by Captain Peter Solgard, which had been commissioned for the sole purpose of capturing Low.
During the ensuing battle Low escaped but the Greyhound captured the Ranger along with forty eight of the crew including Libbie. Eleven of the captured crew would later die from their wounds. The pirates from the Ranger were taken to Newport where they were put on trial for piracy.
During the trial Libbie maintained that he was innocent and had been forced to serve with the pirates but a number of witnesses told a different story. They testified that he had been an active participant, boarding the captured vessels looking for plunder, and firing shots. Joseph Libbie along with Harris and 24 others were found guilty and hanged at Gravelly Point in Newport. Their mass execution was witnessed by a large crowd and was celebrated from New York to Boston.
Low continued his reign of terror and brutal treatment of prisoners. This finally led to a dispute with his crew and he murdered his quartermaster for siding with them. That was the last straw for the crew. They threw Low and two of his men into a boat and set them adrift with no food or water. The next day a French vessel from the island of Martinique picked up Low and after a quick trial the dreaded pirate and his companions were hanged from a makeshift gallows on the island.
Ashton returned to Marblehead in 1725, almost three years after he had left home, and there was great rejoicing by his parents and community. There was also great interest in his story. He narrated the story to John Barnard who recorded it and “The History of the Strange Adventures and Signal Deliverances of Mr. Philip Ashton” was published that same year. This account of his adventures quickly became very popular.
In 1726 Ashton married Jane Gallison who passed away the following year a week after she bore him a daughter He was married again in 1729 to Sarah Barlett who bore him five children. The date of his death is not known. So ends the story of New England’s Robinson Crusoe and his friend turned pirate, one heralded, the other hanged.