Friday, December 26, 2014

7 Questions With Author Gregory Flemming

Gregory N. Flemming spent more than three years researching At the Point of a Cutlass, a nine-week Boston Globe bestseller in nonfiction, which tells for the first time the complete and true story of a young fisherman named Philip Ashton and the horrific pirates who captured him. Greg is a former journalist with a Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. A New England native, he is a graduate of the University of New Hampshire. He lives with his family in New England. At the Point of a Cutlass is his first book. Read more at

1.      How and/or when did you get you hooked on history?
From a young age I have always loved reading history, especially histories relating to stories of exploration and survival. I was fascinated by the rugged determination depicted in books about Captain Cook, Lewis and Clark, the early American pioneers, and the fictional Robinson Crusoe. Growing up in New England, I was also surrounded by history -- old buildings, cemeteries, and site markers are everywhere. Although I probably did not pay as close attention as I do today, these historical reminders colored the landscape where I lived.

2.      What role does history play or has it played in your personal life?
I read history almost exclusively in my free time. My family and I also enjoy traveling and we often make the exploration of historical sites and museums a part of our trips.

3.      How is/How was history a part of your professional life/career?
Despite my personal passion for history, I did not expect to write a true historical narrative. But when I discovered the true story of Philip Ashton, I had no choice. Philip Ashtonn was a young fisherman from New England captured by pirates in 1722 who then escaped and lived as a castaway on an uninhabited Caribbean island. Ashton’s narrative still exists today, I discovered, and his story appealed to every bone in my body.

4.      Why is studying/knowing history important?
Imagine looking at something -- a sculpture, a piece of clothing in a store, a new car, an unforgettable play at a sporting event -- but only from a single perspective. That would be frustrating, at best, and potentially misleading. And given a choice, we don’t do that. We move around, we shift our location and perspective, we touch the object if we can, and we watch replays shown multiple times and shot from many different angles. This helps us fully understand what we’re seeing.

Studying history is like this -- history is a new angle on our world. Where and how we live, our culture and laws, and our maps and boundaries have all been shaped by our history, and when we learn new history we see our world in a different, and more complete, light. The skills learned in studying history are also incredibly relevant today in all walks of life: how to search for hard-to-find evidence amid mountains of information, and thinking critically about information to evaluate the motivations of the author and the reliability of the source.

5.      What is your favorite period or aspect of history to learn about and why?
I spend the most time reading and writing about the period from the 1600s through 1850, with a particular focus on maritime history and adventure. This period encompasses an extensive period of exploration, as well as the settlement and founding of the United States. Both as a reader and a writer, I am particularly drawn to the stories of the individuals who played a role in history. Sometimes these are well-known figures, but in other cases they can be ordinary men or women who experienced first-hand important events in history Exploring history through the lives of individual actors helps make the past more tangible to us today.

6.      Your book, At the Point of a Cutlass, has two major themes, the golden age of Atlantic piracy on the American coast and the religious struggle in New England as old-line Puritans struggled to maintain control that they saw slipping away.  How are those two topics interwoven and how did they shape America?
One of the fascinating aspects in my research on Philip Ashton’s amazing voyage was discovering how important a role the spectacle of piracy played back home in colonial New England. Coinciding with a spike in Atlantic piracy during the early eighteenth century, religious leaders were preoccupied with the erosion of religious faith in their communities. By the 1720s, after nearly a century of steady growth, Boston was a bustling city of twelve thousand people and Puritan New England had changed. As the appetite for non-Puritan activities grew, Cotton Mather and other religious leaders issued warning after warning about drunkenness, adultery, blasphemy, church skipping, and other aspects of wayward lifestyles within their communities.

The spectacle of piracy provided the perfect vehicle for delivering these fiery warnings. Stories about condemned pirates, their executions at public gallows, and the adventures of young men captured by pirate crews all made for attention-grabbing sermons and broadsheets. More importantly, in the minds of religious leaders, they held an important message. Mather himself railed against the evils of piracy for decades. He’d personally gone to the Boston jailhouse in January 1700 to meet with the infamous Captain Kidd and he delivered a blistering sermon at the execution of crew members who’d served under the pirate John Quelch in 1704. Thirteen years later, when six members of Samuel Bellamy’s crew were condemned in 1717, Mather made the “long and sad walk with them from the prison to the place of execution,” where he delivered final words before the pirates were hanged. And Mather took up the story of the twenty-six members of Low’s crew hanged in Newport, Rhode Island, in July 1723. The corpses of the executed pirates strung from the gallows became a gruesome symbol of how badly things would end for those who gave in to the vices of the pirates. It was a similar motivation that prompted Marblehead minister John Barnard, a former student of Mather’s, to preserve the story of Philip Ashton, which remains today a rare example of a first-hand account of life aboard a pirate ship.

7.      What history project or projects are you working on now?
I am currently working on a new piece on the survivors of a shipwreck in the North Atlantic in the early 1900s and doing a good deal of reading about early American exploration. I have not yet settled on my next book-length project.

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