At the Point of a Cutlass: The harsh reality of the pirate life


A book review by Phyllis Méras for The Providence Journal.

“AT THE POINT OF A CUTLASS: The Pirate Capture, Bold Escape, and Lonely Exile of Philip Ashton,” by Gregory N. Flemming. ForeEdge. 256 pages. $29.95.
I grew up liking pirates. I hung a skull and crossbones and a map of pirate hideaways in the playroom in our family barn. I named a sailboat Blackbeard after Capt. Edward Teach, the 18th-century English pirate who frequented the Carolinas and the Bahamas and was one of the fiercest of them all.
Now that I have read “At the Point of a Cutlass,” however, I am not sure that I like pirates anymore. There is very little of the romance of the piratical life in retired journalist Gregory Flemming’s book.
It begins with the hanging of 26 alleged pirates on the Newport waterfront in 1723. Among them was a 21-year-old fisherman from Marblehead, Joseph Libbey. The boat on which he was sailing along with another Marblehead man, Philip Ashton, was captured by pirates off Nova Scotia.
The pirates were in need of able-bodied seamen and both Libbey and Ashton were likely prospects. First, they were lured with promises of a share in the loot from captured ships if they became pirates themselves. Then they were threatened with being whipped, shot or having an ear cut off if they refused.
Libbey succumbed and joined the piratical crew. Ashton refused, and, miraculously, survived — simply agreeing to do the work of a crewman on the pirate vessel, but declining to be a pirate. And, ultimately (after being saved from drowning by Libbey), he escaped the pirate ship.
Much of the rest of “At the Point of a Cutlass” is about the Robinson Crusoe-like life Ashton lived, all by himself, on a mountainous Caribbean island. For much of the 16 months he was there, he was without knife or gun or means of building a fire. When he was finally discovered and returned home, his remarkable adventure was published and became the subject of sermons on “signal deliverance” by God.
Sometimes, the book becomes tedious with minutia of ships captured by the pirates and what became of them, but for the most part, for those with a historical or a piratical bent, it should be interesting reading.
Greg Flemming will be appearing at the Providence Public Library, 150 Empire St., on Thursday, Sept. 18, from 6:30 to 8:15 p.m. to discuss his book and sign copies. The event is the library’s third-floor meeting room.

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