By Sandy Cares
Guest lecturer Sandy Cares has been sharing her engaging and entertaining lectures aboard Oceania Cruises voyages throughout the Caribbean and Central America since January 2014. Below, she shares the fascinating story of an 18th century castaway on Roatan Island.
This little cigar-shaped island lying about 30 miles from Honduras and home to about 60,000 “islanders,” was discovered by Columbus in 1503 and subsequently possessed by pirates, the British, and finally Honduras since 1859. Upwards of half a million cruisers visit this little island yearly, mostly to take advantage of the unsurpassed diving and snorkeling opportunities, but what many don’t know is that in 1722 Roatan Island was home to a castaway: a castaway without shoes that self-exiled in order to escape the atrocities aboard a pirate ship where he was captive.
During a shore adventure with guests from the elegant Insignia, our local guide took us around to some of the highlights of the little island that is roughly about thirty miles long and five miles wide. And as a stunning view of the famous barrier reef, the Mesoamerican Reef, came into view, I found myself wondering what life was like on Roatan Island in the days of Philip Ashton.
The story goes that Philip Ashton was a young Puritan man catching cod off the coast of Nova Scotia in his uncle’s sloop. On a quiet Sunday when he and his crew of cousins were sitting around enjoying some coffee and a well-earned rest, an unidentified ship hove into view. Before they knew what was happening, that ship grappled onto theirs and suddenly they were taken over by a gang of pirates.
When Ashton found out the pirate ship belonged to the nefarious Edward “Ned” Low, he knew his days were numbered. Ned Low was one of the most insidious pirates plying the waters between North America and the Caribbean. It wasn’t long before Pirate Low tried to recruit Ashton into the “Brethren of the Coast” but Ashton rebuffed his overtures and vowed he would escape Low’s clutches at any cost.
The ship sailed over twenty-five hundred miles from Nova Scotia into the Western Caribbean where it stopped at Roatan to top off with fresh water and local fruit. It was there that Ashton impulsively joined a crew going to fetch water. His plan was to escape into the jungle – and in his haste, he forgot his shoes, a move he would sorely regret for the next two years!
Completely alone at Roatan, Ashton survived on turtle eggs cooked in the hot sun. Plagued by mosquitoes, gnats and no-see-ums, he spent his days floating on reeds until a shark nearly took him under. Nearly two years after his ordeal began, Ashton was miraculously rescued from Roatan, only to find his rescue ship smack in the crosshairs of none other than Ned Low! Fortunately, they dodged that bullet and Ashton was safely conveyed back to New England where he lives on in the local lore as the “Robinson Crusoe of Marblehead Massachusetts.”
I emerge from my reverie looking forward to an icy glass of tropical fruit punch and refreshing dip in the palm-fringed beach. We are at Las Palmas, one of the many beautiful seaside resorts that grace Roatan Island’s picturesque shoreline. Mere steps from where the barefoot Philip Ashton spent nearly two years almost three hundred years ago, but worlds apart in circumstances. How lucky we are!