A nonfiction book review? Rather uncharted waters we’re in, eh? Well, not entirely, but it’s true that I rarely read a nonfiction book cover-to-cover. But when this one arrived at my bookshop, my fearless manager/Captain said that he’d ordered them with me in mind. Of course I had to see what manner of swashbuckling was contained therein. Here are a few of my thoughts on Gregory N. Flemming’s lovingly-researched pirate narrative.
At The Point Of A Cutlass follows the thrilling adventures of Philip Ashton, an unlucky fella who was kidnapped from his fishing vessel by pirates, forced to serve on their ships of lost souls, and eventually marooned on a Caribbean island.
Even though I almost always prefer fiction over fact, At The Point Of A Cutlass had enough anecdotal detail to keep me interested. Facts and figures and numbers get all jumbled up in my brain, but good characters make a story come to life. And shiver my timers, were there some unbelievable individuals in this here yarn! The wicked captain Edward Low was one such menacing figure – behaving so badly as to chop off and roast pieces of his captives’ faces! Pirates always needed able-bodied men to replenish their crews, so talented sailors were just as valuable as gunpowder and fresh water when they looted a vessel. Given Low’s vicious reputation, it’s understandable why Phillip Ashton didn’t manage to take the noble way out of his predicament upon being captured and forced into the lawless life.
I feel like maybe there wasn’t quite enough information about “the pirate capture, bold escape, and lonely exile of Philip Ashton” to fill an entire book. As a result Greg Flemming filled out the pages with various anecdotal details about key players in the nautical history of the same place and period. I’m really not complaining, because too many pirate stories will never be a problem in my reading adventures. I actually found the chapters detailing Ashton’s personal journey less interesting than the information about the various pirate crews who terrified the American East Coast during the Golden Age of Piracy.
(I was also reminded, while reading, that Cotton Mather was a complete asshole and one of my least favorite figures in New England’s history. Medical proficiency aside, that guy needed to stop.)
Flemming introduces his readers to ambitious captains; desperate escapees; adventurous priests; and some hapless pawns in the early 18th century’s war on piracy. We revisit the gallows multiple times in the course of the book, and now I’ve added Nixes Mate Island – a gibbeting site right near my own Boston harbor – and Rhode Island’s “Gravelly Point” to my list of morbid places to visit.
Reading about ruthless pirates marauding my own neck of the woods as they sailed between Newfoundland and the Caribbean Islands was very encouraging to my own ambitions. I’m actually quite surprised that the pirates Low, Lowther, and Spriggs aren’t more notorious nowadays. Their methods of “coercion” puts modern-day frat boys to shame: captives had to eat plats of wax candles and run the gauntlet until they agreed to sign the ships’ articles, and that’s only one of the least-disfiguring punishments they practiced. Not necessarily my style, but pretty exciting stuff. My attention waxed and waned a little as the book’s style switched capriciously between character-driven adventure stories and different subjects. Nonetheless, At The Point Of A Cutlass was a pretty fast read which I’d recommend to anyone who likes swashbuckling history and adventure stories.
Subject: **** (4 stars)
Pacing: *** (3 stars)
Key Figures: ***** (5 stars)
Wiring: **** (4 stars)
Overall: **** (4 stars)
(My thoughts on the book were originally posted on my blog.)