Sunday, June 15, 2014

At the Point of a Cutlass by Gregory N. Flemming - Book Review

At the Point of a Cutlass by Gregory N. Flemming (ForeEdge (the University Press of New England), 2014, 256 pages, $26.90/$14.99) tells the story of Phillip Ashton, a cod fisherman from Marblehead, Massachusetts, who, in 1722 was captured by the pirate Edward Low, a man more vicious and arguably more successful than the better known Edward Teach, famed as Blackbeard. Attacked and captured from his fishing schooner off the coast of Nova Scotia, the nineteen year old Ashton, was subjected to incredible verbal and physical abuse by the captain and crew of Low's ship in order to force him to sign the ship's articles and thus declare himself a criminal along with them. By refusing to sign the articles, he preserved his innocence against charges of piracy, should he ever once again gain his freedom. This harrowing tale of the ending stages of the so-called Golden Age of Piracy uses Ashton's tribulations and eventual triumph as an organizing focus for an important element in the transition of New England from a Puritan colony to the birthplace of the American Revolution in a time of turmoil, violence, and changing values.

The story of Philip Ashton, by itself is pretty slim stuff for a book about piracy or an important moment in American history. Combined, however, with the contexts of a region and world changing from one dominated by religious squabbling into the more recognizable mercantile/political world of the American Revolution illuminates the changes through the experience of one man. The Massachusetts Bay Colony was just over a century removed from the small band of Pilgrims seeking to establish a Puritan theocracy on the unprepossessing shores of rocky New England. Towns along the coast like Marblehead were a source of intrepid fisherman combing the Grand Banks for the rich food source of cod, a fish in those days much larger than anything we would imagine today. Fishermen, manning small boats far out at sea fished, caught, salted, and packed barrels of cod for export to England and the Caribbean. Meanwhile, a large, colorful, and vicious group of anti-social (perhaps psychopathic) ships' captains ruled the waters with violence exceeding even the unpleasant norm of the sea world. They ransacked, captured, sank, and destroyed literally thousands of Spanish ships transporting wealth home, English merchants plying the triangle trade from New England to the Carribbean, to Great Britain, and colonial loggers working the forests of what is now Central and South America for the rich lode of logwood, a source of a rare red dye. These pirates, with a penchant for violence reminiscent of today's most vicious gangs, ruled by using senseless violence, destroying everything they could not carry off. Eventually, Ashton escaped Low's small maritime empire onto a small island off the coast of Honduras.

Ashton's sojourn on Roatan, an island now noted as a site for SCUBA diving expeditions, where he was able to disappear into the underbrush while on a search for fresh water without any tools or clothing other than what was on his back held out little promise. He lived in almost total isolation for seven months, surviving on native fruits, until a mysterious Scotsman visited for a couple of days, left him a knife and a few utensils before leaving on his canoe-like vessel, never to return. Most of Ashton's time was spent securing food for himself, sitting on a small cay just off the shore where he ceaselessly scoured the ocean for the site of a vessel to rescue him, and hiding from pirates. Eventually rescuers appear and after more months of recovery and seeking good ways to return, he makes his way back to Marblehead, where his return is seen as a nearly miraculous resurrection. On his return to Marblehead, Ashton meets the local pastor, John Barnard, a former student of Cotton Mather in Boston, who helps him tell his story as an example of God's grace to the faithful, a narrative which largely repudiates Mather's gospel of punishment and damnation for those who fall into an unspeakable life. This change in Christian emphasis represents a move in the the region toward greater openness to human experience. This context of religious, social, and mercantile change is the real and important element this useful book makes clear and loud. Author Flemming succeeds in planting the seeds of later change by emphasizing the lineage of President Millard Fillmore, whose great grandfather served for a time on a pirate ship, the work of James Franklin (Ben's brother) in Boston, and the changing role in the Protestant ministry in New England. The book sometimes becomes necessarily repetitive, as it recounts the depredations of the pirates, with near catalogs of ships captured, alliances made and broken, and the senseless violence of the pirates themselves.

Greg Flemming

Gregory N. Flemming spent more than three years researching At the Point of a Cutlass, which tells for the first time the complete story of Marblehead fisherman Philip Ashton and the horrific pirates who captured him. Greg is a former journalist with a Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. A New England native, he is a graduate of the University of New Hampshire. He lives with his family in New England. This is his first book.

At the Point of a Cutlass by Gregory N. Flemming (ForeEdge (the Univeristy Press of New England), 2014, 256 pages, $26.90/$14.99) illuminates an important point in the American story when an age of barbarism is coming to a close as the Age of Enlightenment develops. With England's growing sea power, the decline of Spain, and the emergence of social and politcal awareness in the American colonies, a new age of discovery, knowledge, and freedom is about to emerge. While sometimes seeming a bit repetitive, as if to draw out Philip Ashton's unique story (unique enough the capture the eye of Robinson Crusoe creator Daniel Defoe for a later book) provides a useful and sometimes riveting focus. This book will provide plenty of intellectual food for those fascinated with piracy and intrigued by this important transitional moment. I read the book as an electronic galley provided by Edelweiss on my Kindle.