American Literature of the Sea and Great Lakes

ASHTON’S MEMORIAL (1725). One of the most remarkable sea narratives of early American print culture, Ashton’s Memorial narrates the extraordinary adventures of Philip Ashton (1703-17??) from 5 June 1722, when he was captured by pirates,* until 1 May 1725, when he unexpectedly returned to his parents’ home in Marblehead, Massachusetts. The Memorial was actually written by John Barnard (1681-1770) from Ashton’s oral narrative and published together with a brief account of one Nicholas Merritt (apparently captured at the same time) and with a sermon on Daniel 3:17.

While fishing off the coast of Nova Scotia, the nineteen-year-old Ashton was captured by the infamous Ned Low and his pirate crew. During the nine months he spent with Low, he was pressured to sign pirate articles and beaten for his refusal. When the pirates stopped for water at an uninhabited island off the coast of Honduras, Ashton escaped into the jungle, and for the next nine months he lived alone, without any comforts of civilization. Nearly dead from starvation and injury, his life was saved when an old woodcutter stopped off at the island, leaving him food, powder, flint, and a knife. After another seven months he was rescued by a group of Englishmen from the mainland.

Within a week of his return, John Barnard, the minister of Marblehead, preached a special sermon on divine providence, using Ashton’s deliverance as an example. In response to the great demand for a narrative, Barnard and Ashton collaborated over the next two months, and by the beginning of August Ashton’s Memorial was completed. Barnard was no mere amanuensis; the text combined the words of both minister and mariner.

Barnard fashioned Ashton’s experiences into a narrative of remarkable providence, a textual form familiar to most New England readers. The apparently random kidnapping of a young fisherman by pirates seems to fulfill God’s intentions and display his sovereignty. Thus, all of Ashton’s adventures are related as a Job-like struggle to overcome evil. At the same time, the narrative is a highly detailed, realistic account of remarkable adventure. Although barely known today, the text was popular and went through several editions, including a 1726 London edition that influenced Daniel Defoe’s The Four Years Voyages of Capt. George Roberts (1726). [See also SEA DELIVERANCE NARRATIVES]

Daniel E. Williams