Real Life Castaway
On the Trail of Philip Ashton and Roatan’s Pirate Past

July 13th, 2014
by Greg Flemming

An engraving of Edward Low, captain of the pirate crew that captured New England fisherman Philip Ashton in 1722. (Courtesy John Carter Brown Library, Brown University)

An engraving of Edward Low, captain of the pirate crew that captured New England fisherman Philip Ashton in 1722.
(Courtesy John Carter Brown Library, Brown University)

Nearly 300 years ago this month, eight men pulled ashore at Roatan’s Port Royal looking for fresh drinking water for their pirate ship. By the time they finished their work and were preparing to leave, they noticed one of the eight was missing – 20-year-old Philip Ashton, a fisherman from Massachusetts they had taken captive nine months earlier.

Ashton hid deep in the thick, hilly woods on Roatan’s East End and lived there alone for more than a year. He chose to live in isolation on Roatan rather than spend another day with a pirate crew that had held him in brutal captivity. His is perhaps the most incredible story of Roatan’s long and rich pirate history.

Roatan and the other Honduran Bay Islands were used as a hideout, staging area and source of provisions by mostly English pirates raiding the Spanish Main from roughly the 1560s until the 1740s. Their strategic position overlooking the ports of Trujillo and Puerto Caballos made them a constant war prize between the British and Spanish crowns during the colonial period. As a result, there was little if any permanent settlement, and Spanish authorities removed most of the islands’ inhabitants during the 17th century in an effort to deny the pirates support.

The crew that captured Ashton was under the command of a ruthless killer named Edward Low. Low was notorious on both sides of the Atlantic for the number of ships he took and his horrific torture of his captives – one Caribbean official claimed, “A greater monster never infested the seas.”

You can visit the area where Philip Ashton lived as a castaway by taking a boat from Oak Ridge to Port Royal on Roatan’s East End, a natural harbor protected by a long reef and line of small cays. I spent close to a week exploring the Port Royal area to immerse myself in Ashton’s world and get a more complete picture of his life here, based on the shreds of evidence from Ashton’s narrative.

A rivulet near Port Royal where Low's pirate crew may have stopped for fresh water, allowing Philip Ashton to escape. (photo by Greg Flemming)

A rivulet near Port Royal where Low’s pirate crew may have stopped for fresh water, allowing Philip Ashton to escape. (photo by Greg Flemming)

One thing I wanted to track down was where Low’s crew actually went ashore for water. We know from Ashton’s narrative only that the pirates stopped at Port Royal. A 1742 survey of the harbor by Lieutenant Henry Barnsley provides richer details. I explored four areas along the shore of Port Royal marked on Barnsley’s detailed map and survey as “rivulets of fresh water.” Since the pirates anchored their ships next to one of Port Royal’s larger cays, it’s almost certain they went ashore for water at one of these spots.

Even today, the area around Port Royal might be much as Ashton found it in 1723. There is only a sliver of beach leading to the small creeks that flow down from the hills. Moving even a few steps away from the shore, the landscape becomes a tangle of branches, palm trees, and thick vines. It is “so prodigiously thick with an underbrush,” Ashton recalled in his narrative, “that ‘tis difficult passing.”

Once Ashton was sure the pirates had sailed away, leaving him marooned on the island, he needed to find food. Ashton had seized his opportunity to escape on the spur of the moment. He had no time to prepare. He had no knife, no way to strike a fire, not even shoes – absolutely  nothing to help him survive.

Ashton survived on whatever fruit he could pick with his bare hands and sea turtle eggs he dug out of the sand and ate raw. He picked and ate coco plums and hog plums. He also found sapote fruit (mamey sapote) lying on the ground. But he was afraid to try them at first, until he saw wild hogs eating them and decided they probably were not poisonous.

Ashton describes the sapote as “very delicious.” I was therefore eager to find and try one when I came to the island. My guide, Randy, who has lived on Roatan all his life, led me along a hilly, meandering dirt path through the woods until we finally found a sapote tree. A few of the brown fruit had fallen to the ground, but Randy also climbed up into the tree and shook more down so I could taste fruit fresh off the limb.

Following in Ashton’s footsteps also took me out onto the water. During his months on the island, Ashton was under constant assault by mosquitoes and sand flies. His only shelter was a crude, open lean-to he built near the shore. It offered little protection from these “vermin,” which Ashton said “grew so troublesome to me that I was put upon contrivance to get rid of their company.”

A cay off Port Royal the author thinks Ashton used as a lookout -- and refuge from mosquitoes and sand flies. (photo by Greg Flemming)

A cay off Port Royal the author thinks Ashton used as a lookout — and refuge from mosquitoes and sand flies. (photo by Greg Flemming)

Ashton’s solution was to spend most of the day sitting on one of the small cays that lie just off the island’s shore. Using a bamboo pole as a float (he barely knew how to swim), Ashton kicked his way out to the cay, where he could sleep or gaze out at the sea in peace, the constant breeze keeping the bugs away.

I spent a day paddling a sea kayak to the small cays scattered around the Port Royal harbor. If Ashton spent most of his time at Port Royal, it seems likely that the cays he used were two small patches of sand and rock located at the far western end of the harbor.  These cays sit directly in the shallows on top of the reef that forms the curved outer border of Port Royal harbor. I could imagine the view Ashton had as he sat waiting for any sign of a passing ship. The water for at least 20 feet in front of the cays is barely knee-deep and scattered with small rocks that rise out of the shallow sea. Waves continuously break over the reef, creating a line of white foamy surf, and wash over the rocks and sand up to the slight rise of the cays.

After about 16 months, Ashton’s ordeal on Roatan finally came to an end.  He was discovered by a band of Baymen – logwood  cutters from the mainland – who  took him to another nearby island, giving him food, clothing and shelter. There were still pirates in the area. In fact, Ashton was almost captured again when the very crew of pirates he’d run away from attacked the Baymen’s camp. But Ashton and most of the other men survived the attacks, and in March 1725 Ashton spotted a passing merchant vessel heading back to New England (ironically, when some men from the ship came ashore for fresh water) and secured his passage home.

Gregory N. Flemming is author of At the Point of a Cutlass: The Pirate Capture, Bold Escape, and Lonely Exile of Philip Ashton, to be published in June 2014. Read more at www.gregflemming.com.

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