Roatan’s Robinson Crusoe
Philip Ashton Account Rivals that of Alexander Selkirk

October 1st, 2009
by Thomas Tomczyk

[private] Philip Ashton was born in Marblehead, a colony of Massachusetts. While fishing out of Nova Scotia his vessel was captured by pirate Ed Low on June 15, 1722. About this time, 14-15 vessels were taken by pirate Low in this manner.

Ashton refused to join the pirates and was often abused and mistreated. He tried to escape a couple times, but was unsuccessful. He escaped from his captors on Roatan, while they stopped there for supplies.
By the 1720s, Roatan and the Bay Islands were uninhabited. The Spanish had raided Roatan and removed any Paya Indians, whom they suspected of helping the pirates that raided Spanish cities and attacked Spanish vessels with frequency.
He spent 16 months on Roatan and Guanaja, where he was eventually rescued by a British navy ship.

After returning home to Massachusetts, Ashton’s accounts of staying on an uninhabited island were published as a book in Boston in 1725. His accounts were taken with some skepticism, as a copy of the recently published (1719) accounts of Robinson Crusoe. While Defoe’s accounts of Robinson’s Crusoe are fiction, Ashton’s story is true.

While Crusoe’s island was likely the Caribbean island of Tobago, with facts taken from the life of Alexander Selkirk, a Scottish castaway who lived four years (1704-1708) on the Pacific island Más a Tierra.

As far as his contribution to the Bay Islands, Philip Ashton’s 1722 diaries produced the most complete account of life on Roatan before the XIX century.

Moving a canoe.

Moving a canoe.

Two months into Ashton’s capture, the pirates stopped on Utila where they repaired their boat and cleaned the bottom of their schooner. After a few days Low’s crew departed east towards Roatan.

Low’s men landed on ‘Port Royal Cay,’ likely Fort George Cay, where the pirates built huts, drank rum, entertained themselves by firing guns, and worked on repairing vessels in their possession. “Roatan Harbour, as all about the Bay of Honduras, is full of small islands which pass under the general name kays,” described Ashton of his environs.

On March 9, 1723, a party was organized to fetch water from a creek in Port Royal Harbour. Dressed only in a frock, trousers and a milled hat, Ashton was hesitantly allowed to join the water party in Port Royal Harbour. Ashton was barefoot and had no tools.

While on Roatan, excusing himself to look for coconuts, he went further and further from the pirate landing party. Eventually he was outside their musket range and ran towards the woods. Ashton lay in the thicket “destitute of all help and remote from the track of navigators.” He hid for five days close to a creek observing the pirates, who eventually packed up and sailed away.

Since he had no knife, no tool at all, he could not hunt, or even cut up the turtles he could catch on the beaches. His entire diet consisted of fruits. Fig trees, seagrapes, and coconut trees were abundant and provided Ashton sustenance. Observing the wild hogs gave Ashton the idea that he could eat papayas, “orange, oval-shaped, of a brownish color without and red within,” a fruit he never seen before, but found extremely tasty and nourishing.

Exploring the island, Ashton found Indian artifacts and pottery shards in the area. He walked along the island that he estimated to be 10-11 nautical miles long.

With time Ashton learned to use a stick to uncover the nests of turtle eggs that supplemented his diet with protein. He dried the eggs in the sun to make them harder and easier to eat, but since he had no ability to start a fire he could not cook them. His numerous attempts at creating fire by rubbing sticks proved fruitless.

“A small black fly creates such annoyance that even if a person possessed ever so many comforts his life would be oppressive to him,” accounts Aston about the sand flies that proved a consistent and major nuisance.

Ashton spent nine months like this, without a single time seeing another human being. He passed the time by “rambling from hill to hill,” looking for food, swimming to cays, looking at sky and water. Not a good swimmer, Ashton would construct a sort of lifejacket out of bamboo that would allow him to float and propel himself towards to nearby cays, a place to escape sand flies.

He built some huts to shelter him from mid day sun and rain. They were constructed from fallen branches and trees, covered by leaves, with one opening facing the water to allow breeze to get in and observation of the horizon for any passing ships.

Notorious pirate Edward Low.

Notorious pirate Edward Low.

Eventually Ashton set into a routine of spending nights on a cay and swimming to Roatan in the day where he would gather fruits and drinking water. On his way back to the cay he would tie his clothes on his head to keep them from getting wet.

He experienced a couple close encounters with a “shoveled nosed shark” – a hammerhead – and “alligators” – crocodiles, that abound in the waters around Roatan. On one occasion a hammerhead hit Ashton hard on his leg. On another occasion he was attacked by a wild boar who ripped his trousers with his tusks.

Ashton suffered much from having no shoes and his feet were constantly covered in scabs that would never have time to heal properly. Over time the Massachusetts fisherman succumbed to weakness, depression, eventually loosing track of days and months. Only figs and wild grapes kept him alive.
In November 1723, the weakened Ashton noticed a small canoe with a man approaching. The visitor was as surprised as Ashton to see another human being and it took some assurance from Ashton to tempt the sailor ashore. They eventually shook hands and the visitor presented himself as a native of North Britain.

The man had spent 22 years with “the Spaniards” that threatened him and influenced his decision to flee to Roatan. He traveled with this dog, ammunitions and supplies of dried pork. The visitor readily shared his pork with Ashton.

After three days the visitor, who never gave his name to Ashton, departed on a hunting trip. Ashton, due to weak health and sores on his feet had to stay behind. It was the last they saw each other. “When he was absent for about an hour, a violent gust of wind and rain arose, in which he probably perished,” accounts Ashton.

The short visit uplifted Ashton’s spirits and left him with five pounds of pork, a knife, gunpowder, tobacco, tongs and flint to make fire. With these minimal resources Ashton was able to endure the rainy season that arrived and slowly begun to recover his strength. Lobster and turtles proved to be especially good eating.

A few months later the survivor came across his companion’s canoe washed out on shore. This confirmed the likely death of his companion.

Ashton used the canoe to paddle to Helene, Moratt and Barbaratt and one day decided to embark onto a voyage to clearly visible Guanaja. This was an open ocean voyage of 12 miles from Barbaratt, or 22 miles from Port Royal.

He spotted a sloop off the island’s east end, but stayed clear of it as it could have been another pirate ship. He hid his canoe and then journeyed across Bonacca’s forrest that was so thick that he had to crawl on his hands and feet for distances of half a mile or longer. It took him over two days to cross the ‘Pine Island.’

When he approached the place where the spotted sloop was anchored, she was already gone. He took a nap on the beach, but was suddenly awakened by gunfire and nine canoes closing in. He ran into the forest and deducted the men to be Spaniards. The men fired 150 shots towards Ashton, but eventually retreated to a ship flying an English flag.

It took Ashton three days back to retrieve his canoe and he suffered from lack of food, as Guanaja was not as abundant in fruits and nourishment, and “the insects were infinitely more numerous and harassing.” He thus decided to cut his Guanaja exploration short and headed back, paddling back with the current towards Barbaratt and Roatan, “a royal place to me compared to Bonacco.”

After several more months of living on the island, in June 1724, Ashton spotted two canoes arriving at his cay. He was hesitant in making contact with the men as the memory of the Bonacca confrontation rang as a caution. Curiosity led the men to a conversation and they presented themselves from “the Bay of Honduras.”

The visitors were extremely amazed as to Ashton’s worn appearance, and skeleton-like body. They embraced him and carried him on their hands to the canoes.

The party consisted of 18 men, led by John Hope and his companion John Ford. They fled the Mosquito Coast anticipating a Spanish attack from the sea and the Spanish allies, the Indians, attacking from the land.

Hope and Ford had had previously lived on Barbarat for four years, fleeing the Mosquito Coast for similar reasons. They returned again and constructed two houses on a cay of Barbarat’s coast named by them Castle of Comfort.

The group had brought hunting dogs, flour, firearms and nets for turtle catching. An Indian woman accompanied them and took care of cooking and washing.

While initially Ashton appreciated his companions’ care and provisions, he soon decided that: “Yet after all they were bad society, (…) there was little difference between them and pirates.” After a few months Ashton recovered some of his strength and was able to join the group in hunting excursions.

While Ashton was away on a hunting party on Barbarat, a group of pirates raided they cay and chased them back to Roatan. The group of pirates served under the command of Spriggs, who deserted Ed Low in pursuit of their own riches in the Bay of Honduras. Spriggs’ two vessels anchored in Port Royal – Rotan Harbour, to work on the boat maintenance and replenish water and food.

The pirates murdered one of the Bay men, placed his body in a canoe full of tar and set it ablaze. They raped the Indian woman and moved the rest of the prisoners to Roatan.

Aston and his companions observed the happenings from a distance and for five days survived on raw provisions, afraid to start a fire that would give away their position. The pirates did eventually leave, and left the prisoners with some supplies and no large canoes, only a flat bottom boat worthy of a passage to mainland.

The party led by Hope decided to head back to the Mosquito Coast and Ashton decided to stay behind with John Symonds, and his Black slave. The plan was to wait for Jamaican fishermen to eventually come to Roatan, as they usually did in the spring of each year, and take them to Jamaica and eventually England.

Flipping a turtle on its back.

Flipping a turtle on its back.

As the rainy season ended the men decided to head to Guanaja and then to the mainland to trade some turtle shells for shoes and clothing that could be had from boats presumed to be sheltering there.

Upon reaching Guanaja, the men were surprised by a vicious storm, possibly a hurricane, that lasted three days. They eventually spotted several vessels and made contact with men dressed in an English fashion.

The vessels were part of a convoy heading to Jamaica that separated during the storm. The brigantine accompanying man-of-war HMS Diamond came to Bonacca to get water for the sick crew. Ashton was welcomed aboard and offered a paid position of a seaman.

He said goodbye to John Symonds, who decided to stay behind. It was March 1725. Ashton soon reached Jamaica and sailed north to the port of Salem, which he reached in May – almost three years after being taken by the pirates. [/private]

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