Typically the books I write about in this blog are featured here because of their value to me as physical artifacts; they serve as reminders to me of how the content of a book is inextricably bound up (pun intended) with the material form of the book. This week’s volume, however, came to my collection specifically because of its content. Writing about it takes me on a brief trip back in time to the wild summers of my youth, working as a tour guide at the storied New England Pirate Museum. As summer finally takes hold across New England, I feel this is as good a time as any to wax nostalgic about that time in my life.
The book is a diplomatic reprint of Ashton’s Memorial: An History of The Strange Adventures and Signal Deliverances of Philip Ashton, Jr. of Marblehead, edited by Marblehead’s own legendary industrialist, preservationist, philanthropist, and historian Russell W. Knight. It was published in Salem, MA by the Peabody Museum in 1976 in a limited edition of 500 copies. My copy is in excellent -- one might even say “mint” -- condition. Given the scarcity of the book, and the tiny market of buyers for it, most sellers online seem to vary widely in what they assess it at, ranging from a low of $50 to a (ridiculously inflated) high of $209.
The colophon, found on the recto of the final leaf, is worth quoting in full:
This book is composed in Linotype Caslon Old Face. The original of this type was cut in 1722 by William Caslon of London. The book was designed by Harry N. Milliken of The Anthoensen Press, Portland, Maine, which also did the composition and presswork. Maps for the volume were prepared by Philip Chadwick Foster Smith. Twelve presentation copies, numbered 1 through 12, have been bound in leather; the remainder of the edition was bound by Craftsmen Bookbinders of Portland, Maine. The edition consists of 500 copies.
It is bound in hard boards with tanned cloth, with impressed tooling all around and gilded decorations on the cover and spine. A red leather label, with gilded lettering reading “Ashton’s Memorial” is pasted on the spine. The pages are made of modern acid-free paper and measure 13cm x 20cm.
The original Ashton’s Memorial was a sixty-six page pamphlet published by Samuel Gerrish, of Cornhill in Boston, in August 1725. It was written by the newly installed minister of the North Church in Marblehead, Reverend John Barnard, though the narrative is delivered in the first person from Ashton’s point of view. The reason Ashton’s tale, in comparison to all the other tales from other Marblehead fishermen of the time, merited the permanence of print can best be summed up by the book’s subtitle: “...Mr. Philip Ashton, who, after he had made his Escape from the Pirates, liv’d alone on a Desolate Island for about Sixteen Months”. The pirate responsible for capturing Ashton was the legendary Ned Low, famed for being a bloodthirsty maniac and easily the most brutal pirate to sail off the New England coast. The original and subsequent editions included (as this edition does also) both “A short Account of Mr. Nicholas Merritt, who was taken at the same time” and, to help readers draw the connection between Ashton and Merritt’s literal tale of redemption and the more abstract tale of Christian redemption, Reverend Barnard included also a sermon inspired by the tale, given at Old North Church following Ashton’s return. Probably under the influence of Reverend Barnard, Ashton’s tale took on many of the rhetorical tropes and devices found in many other contemporary stories belonging to the subgenre of “sea deliverance” narratives that were highly popular throughout the eighteenth century. Tellingly, the title page included a quotation from 2 Corinthians 9.10: “We should not trust in ourselves, but in God, who delivered us from so great a Death, and doth deliver; in whom we trust, that he will yet deliver us.”
A London edition of 148 pages followed in 1726, published by Richard Ford and Samuel Chandler. The narrative continued to enjoy popularity, either in stand-alone editions or anthologized with other sea adventures, appearing in publications in Portland, Maine (1810), Edinburgh (1812), Boston again (1850), London again (1851), Marblehead (1910), and Salem (1923). Knight’s edition is, as far as I can tell, the most recent printing of the narrative. The fate of this popular book was, ironically, to be nearly read out of existence; as Knight notes, “Of the original 1725 Boston edition, only a half a dozen copies are known to exist. Even fewer examples of the London edition of 1726 seem to have survived the centuries, while the later versions have become rarities in themselves.”
The book is bound in duodecimo with the contents as follows: blank flyleaf; blank recto with a verso illustration of “Capt. Edward Low” (printed by “G Nicholls” from a painting by “J Basire”; title page; editor’s introduction; photofacsimiles of the title pages of the Boston and London editions; and the body of the book, including Barnard’s “To the Reader”, “Ashton’s Memorial”, Nicholas Merritt’s “Short Account”, and Barnard’s sermon “God’s Ability to Save His People out of all their Dangers” which takes Daniel 3.17 as its text (“If it be so, our God, whom we serve, is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and he will deliver us out of thine hand, O King.”).
The pagination is peculiar and suggests that Milliken’s presswork was not entirely copy-checked by Knight: the illustration of Low through the end of Knight’s introduction is paginated with lowercase Roman numerals, [i]-[iv], as is customary for editions and the two title-page facsimiles are unpaginated (also customary). However, Barnard’s “To the Reader” -- which is, indeed, part of the edited book, continues this introductory pagination (v-[vii]). The remainder of the book is paginated 1-47 for “Ashton’s Memorial”, 49-55 for Merritt’s “Short Account”, and 57-82 for Barnard’s “Sermon”. Pages 83-86 present Knight’s annotation notes to the text; the colophon is on  and is followed by a blank flyleaf at the rear. In total, the book is made up of 52 leaves.
Included also are two maps, drawn for Knight by Philip Chadwick Foster Smith, who was Curator of Maritime History at the Peabody Museum and an early member of the North American Society for Oceanic History. The first map appears on p. 9 and traces “The Travels of Philip Ashton, 1722-1725, following his capture by the notorious pirate Ned Low”. The second map, on p. 23, shows the topography and placement of the island of Roatan, off the coast of Honduras, where Ashton was marooned for over a year.
Daniel Williams, in the Encyclopedia of American Literature of the Sea and Great Lakes (ed. Jill B. Gidmark, Greenwood Press, 2001; p. 22), notes the following about this book:
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.... 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 [Roatan], 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 wood-cutter 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. [And how much coloring was added by either many is anybody’s guess...]
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).
The visceral true-life adventure of Philip Ashton has resulted in a ripping good yarn, regardless of whether you share Reverend Barnard’s theologically moralizing view of the exploit or not. As Knight sums it up, “Although the eighteenth century is renowned for its rousing tales of adventure, misfortune, and hardship, few either equal or surpass the trials and tribulations of Philip Ashton, Jr. of Marblehead, Massachusetts.... To this day, Ashton’s Memorial remains one of the liveliest tales ever published in colonial America. It is truly one of the great real-life adventures of all time, a book one never forgets.”
While Ashton, Low, Barnard, and Merritt have all vanished from this earth, many of the physical remains of the world they inhabited still exist: the island of Roatan (now a tropical vacation paradise), the fishing grounds off Nova Scotia where Ashton was captured, Barnard’s Old North Church in Marblehead, even the modest, clap-boarded old house where Philip and his family lived for several generations. And, of course, Knight’s slender, tan-cloth bound modern reprint edition of Ashton’s thrilling tale of adventure and perseverance.