Capture and Escape in the Golden Age of Piracy


at the point of a cutlassIf you’re in the mood for some pirate tales but your tastes run to non-fiction, here’s the book for you – At the Point of a Cutlass by Gregory N. Fleming. Fleming presents the story of Philip Ashton, a young New England fisherman who was kidnapped from his boat by pirates in 1723. It was three years before Ashton returned home, and a large part of that time he was marooned, alone, on an uninhabited Caribbean island. Ashton published his story in a memoir which is one of Fleming’s sources.

Fleming rounds out his book with the story of piracy in the era. “The governor on Bermuda, John Hope, would blame the surge in Atlantic piracy on Spanish efforts [to evict other nationalities.] ‘It is no great wonder if they embrace the only thing left them to do… This, my lords, is the reason and source of piracy.'”

Pirates were remarkably democratic for the 18th century. “The captain and quartermaster for a pirate ship were elected by the crew, a practice that stood in stark contrast to the nearly unlimited power of sea captains on naval or merchant ships.” Pirate ships had written articles to govern the ship that each man signed, and each signed crewman got an equal vote. Each pirate got a share of the loot, and the captain got a double-share.

Where a fishing or merchant ship might have less than a dozen sailors, pirate ships would carry fifty or more to have enough hands to attack and seize other vessels. Since many men were needed on a pirate ship, they routinely took captives to fill their ranks. Some signed the articles to join the crew willingly, but many were “forced”, beaten and abused until they signed. Anyone who signed would be executed if the ship was captured by authorities, and any association with pirates might get a man executed.

Ashton refused to sign on the ship that captured him, and his life aboard was difficult. One day he was able to hop into a boat going ashore for water (food and water aboard ship were horrible – no wonder they drank alcohol whenever possible). He hid onshore and was left behind without any tools, weapons, or even shoes. He was almost dead when a Scotsman arrived in a canoe. The Scotsman left his supplies with Ashton and left to go hunting, never to be seen again. But at least Ashton had his supplies, including a knife and a flint to make fire. Eventually he was rescued.

I learned many interesting things in the course of the book. I had not known that exporting “logwood” was as important as tobacco in colonial America. Logwood contained a valuable red dye. Loggers called “Baymen” harvested the trees in the swamps of Honduras and Belize, and usually shipped them to New England before they were shipped across the Atlantic. Baymen had to dodge both pirates and Spaniards.

Barnacles and sea weed attaches to wooden ship hulls and slows their speed. Pirates needed fast ships and would “careen” their ships to clean the hull. They ran the ship into shallow water, tipped it on its side with ropes, and laboriously scraped off the growth. Fleming writes of one careening that went wrong and ended with the ship sunk.

Pirates changed ships frequently. When they captured a faster or better ship, they abandoned their previous ship.

Pirates ranged back and forth across the Atlantic. From New England, the currents and winds made it easy to cross the Atlantic, head south, and then cross again to the Caribbean. Merchant and naval ships were attacked on all legs of the journey.

Daniel Defoe, author of several novels, most notably The Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, probably borrowed from Ashton’s story in one of his later works. “It’s clear that Defoe read Ashton’s Memorial because several key details… could only have come from Ashton’s narrative.”

If you are interested in “the pinnacle of the golden age of piracy,” take at look at Fleming’s book.

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