The Book

At the Point of a Cutlass

The Pirate Capture, Bold Escape, and Lonely Exile of Philip Ashton

“A dark and fascinating tale. At the Point of a Cutlass takes us into corners of the pirate life we haven’t been before. …one of the most harrowing survival stories of the colonial era.”

–Stephan Talty, author of Empire of Blue Water, The Illustrious Dead, and Escape from the Land of Snows.

“…a meticulously researched account of an epic survival story…a thrilling voyage.”

— Paul Schneider, author of Old Man River: The Mississippi River in North American History, and Brutal Journey: Cabeza de Vaca and the Epic First Crossing of North America.

“Buried treasure” — read the book review in

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At the peak of Atlantic piracy in the early 1700s, even a routine voyage at sea could turn deadly for a merchant or fishing vessel. Pirate crews tore open the holds of the vessels they captured, pillaging cargo and supplies, and then burned or tossed overboard everything else. But pirates needed more than gold, silver, and supplies to survive. Their attacks could also be disastrous for young men who worked at sea because pirates, all too often, increased their numbers by force — impressing some of the crew from captured ships.


At the Point of a Cutlass traces the three-year odyssey of history’s most remarkable pirate captive, a nineteen-year old fisherman named Philip Ashton. Taken in a surprise attack near Nova Scotia in June 1722, Ashton was forced to sail across the Atlantic and back with a crew under the command of Edward Low, a man so vicious he tortured victims by slicing off an ear or nose and roasting them over a fire. “A greater monster,” one colonial official wrote, “never infested the seas.” Ashton barely survived the nine months he sailed with Low’s crew — he was nearly shot in the head at gunpoint, came close to drowning when a ship sank near the coast of Brazil, and was almost hanged for secretly plotting a revolt against the pirates. See map and timeline of the pirates’ voyage.

Like many forced men, Ashton thought constantly about escaping. In March of 1723, he saw his chance when Low’s crew anchored at the secluded island of Roatan, at the western edge of the Caribbean. Ashton fled into the thick, overgrown woods and, for more than a year, had to claw out a living on the remote strip of land, completely alone and with practically nothing to sustain him. The opportunity to escape came so unexpectedly that Ashton ran off without a gun, a knife, or even a pair of shoes on his feet.  Yet the resilient young castaway — who has been called America’s real-life Robinson Crusoe — was able to find food, build a crude shelter, and even survive a debilitating fever brought on by the cool winter rains before he was rescued by a band of men sailing near the island. Based on Ashton’s own first-hand account, as well trial records, logbooks, and a wealth of other archival evidence, At the Point of a Cutlass pieces together the unforgettable story of a man thrust into the violent world of a pirate ship and his daring survival and escape.

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At the Point of a Cutlass is on sale now.

Read the Prologue