Witness to the Revolution: Ashley Bowen (1728-1813)

Ship "Argo" of Marblehead Bound Home, by Ashley Bowen (1783)
Ashley Bowen, an Eighteenth Century resident of the coastal town of Marblehead, Massachusetts, was the first American maritime diarist.  His writings provide contemporary, first-hand insight into New England life in the period leading up to, during, and following the American Revolution.  His political, religious and personal writings are heart-felt and complex.  He was sympathetic to the overwhelming revolutionary fervor of the citizens of Marblehead and their grievances against the British Crown, but he was also loyal to the Anglican Church that housed his religious faith.  His journals give graphic accounts of his personal adventures, successes and failures, and his emotional inner life.

Bowen was the son of ambitious justice of the peace and almanac writer Nathan Bowen.  When the younger Bowen was twelve years old, his beloved mother died during child-birth, an event he would later describe “as the greatest part of my ruining”.  Less than a year later he was bound into an apprenticeship with a cruel ship captain who gave the boy regular beatings, treated him as a personal servant, and taught him little or nothing about running a ship.   A friend of the Bowen family who witnessed this cruelty arranged for Ashley to be released from his servitude before the term of apprenticeship was completed .

Ashley Bowen was a sailor from before he was a teen until he was in his late thirties.  He had a wide variety of duties and occupations both while at sea and while ashore.  He visited all of the major ports of the Atlantic and the Caribbean, and wrote detailed narratives about his journeys.

In 1754, the ship that he was serving on, The Swallow, was captured by pirates and he was held prisoner on the island of HispaƱola.  Bowen and his fellow prisoners were treated well by their captors, but the tropical climate took its toll.  When Bowen fell ill, he was allowed out of the prison to regain his health.  Soon after being released on this sick-leave, he found a house cat.  The cat’s owner was a wealthy island merchant, and when he discovered that Bowen had the lost cat in his care, he invited the sailor to his home for a meal and eventually arranged for his passage back to New England.

After over a quarter century as a sailor, Ashley Bowen never fulfilled his ambition of becoming a ship's captain.  As he reached middle-age he left the seafaring life and became a sail maker, a somewhat lucrative but unstable career.  He was widowed twice, married a third time, and fathered fourteen children.

Ashley Bowen lived during perhaps the most tumultuous times in American history.  He enlisted in the expedition against Quebec in 1759 and witnessed the Battle on the Plains of Abraham, and saw the French surrender Quebec to the British a few days later.  He saw epidemics sweep through Boston and Marblehead, taking the lives of many of his family and neighbors.  From 1766 until the outbreak of the American Revolution, Bowen wrote almost a daily account of his activities and life in Marblehead.

According to Bowen, the Revolution was an ill-conceived idea.  He had served in the British Army a decade and a half before, and he believed it to be an undefeatable force.  He had a strong allegiance to the Anglican Church, of which King George III was head.   Marblehead, however, had a stronger anti-British sentiment than any other community in the Colonies.  When Bowen believed that the Anglican structure in Marblehead, St. Michael’s, was threatened, he copied The Book of Common Prayer by hand, word-for-word, so that the text would survive the wrath of the angry mob.  In August of 1776 he wrote the following poem:

On Religion and Revolution
As for opinions, I confess
I never upon them laid stress
Sometimes a Whig, sometimes a Tory
But seldom steadfast in one story.
                The reason is, I’m not yet fixed
So my religion is but mixed.
Yet, most of all, I do incline
The Old Episcopalian Line:
Yet not so fixed on this head,
But I can turn my coat for bread,
Yet don’t mistake my meaning, as
If from the truth I meant to pass;
The essential parts of my opinion
Is not in any sect’s dominion
Nor will I e’er be tied to think
That in one spring I ought to drink.
In Christendom we all affect:
The Christian name in some respect:
Yet to our shame and our derision
Were full of schisms and divisions
Some are Papists, some are Prelates
Some are Quakers and some Zealots.
Some Anabaptists, some Aquarians,
Some Antinomians, some Arians;
Some are Free Willers, some Ranters:
Some Presbyterian covenanters;
Some Erskinites to gain probation:
Some Glasites, some for presentation
Though these all aim at Heaven at last
There diff’rence puts me in a gast;
To follow which I cannot tell;
Therefore I bid them all farewell;
Because I knew, that faith and love
The sphere is wherein I should move.
For sure without true Charity
None can enjoy Felicity
But Charity, now at this day
She is obliged to fly away.
Instead of which envy and hate
Contempt, resentment, and debate,
Is most in each society,
This makes me all these sects deny
Tis not in word as I do read
But Christians, must be so in-deed;
So Madam, this is all my creed.

In addition to being a diarist, Ashley Bowen was also a watercolor artist. Several of his maritime paintings are currently displayed in New England museums.  Through his prose, poetry and painting, Ashley Bowen has provided modern historians with one insightful witness’s account of the historic events and everyday life that occurred during the period of the American Revolution.

Adam Lowe Martin (son of ) – Allen Lowe Martin – Allen Littlefield Martin – Frank Martin – Elbridge Gerry Martin, Jr. – Elbridge Gerry Martin, Sr. – Ambrose Bowen Martin – Elizabeth Bowen (daughter of ) – Nathan Bowen (father of) – Ashley Bowen