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The Mayflower and the birth of America

Mayflower in Plymouth Harbor, by William Halsall | Wikipedia

2020 marks the 400th anniversary of the Mayflower ship’s pioneering voyage in 1620 from Plymouth, England to America, or what was then known as the New World carrying a human cargo of one hundred and two passengers and thirty crew. The emigrants weren’t just ordinary passengers but had distinguished themselves as being in religious conflict with the then accepted rites of worship in England and who were viewed as ‘dissenters’ and dangerous rebels. These English Puritans as they were to be known believed that their only means to practice their way of life and radical form of Protestantism was by creating their own Garden of Eden in the colonies. Such an exodus from a Europe besieged by economic depression and the threat of war (the Thirty Year War) was essentially a journey into the unknown, a world of alien geography and strange indigenous peoples and little understanding of what would become of them.  

Out of all the voyages to the American colonies from 1620 to 1640, the Mayflower’s first crossing of Pilgrim Fathers has become the most culturally iconic and important in the history of migration from Europe to the New World during the Age of Discovery. Other ships that took the Pilgrims across the Atlantic were the Mayflower (1620), the Fortune (1621), Anne and Little James (1623) and the second Mayflower (1629). Nine Presidents of America have descended from Pilgrims from Leiden including President Franklin D Roosevelt, George W Bush and Barack H. Obama. 

The Pilgrim Passengers

Many of the refugees sailing on the Mayflower were regarded as dangerous religious and political dissidents who, having been in conflict with the Church of England for their unorthodox religious beliefs, had to worship in secret. Mostly made up of evangelical Protestants who declared themselves as Separatists, other passengers also included Quakers, who equally found themselves in disaccord with the religious laws of England forbidding any form of worship other than the established rites of the Church of England.             

One key character who fled across the Atlantic for an unknown destination and future was William Brewster, who founded the Separatist Church in his family owned manor at Scrooby in Nottinghamshire. Brewster had been fined for his non conformist beliefs and played a significant role in future journeys of other citizens fleeing England. 

Among the millions of Americans who can trace their ancestry to the Mayflower is Hollywood actress Ashley Judd who is a descendant of William Brewster and visited the historical town of Boston in Lincolnshire during her own personal pilgrimage to see the very same prison cell at the city’s Guildhall where her ten times removed grandfather had been held after having been caught as the leader of religious dissidents trying to flee England for Holland.

Motivations

The first wave of passengers to America on the Mayflower undertaking such a perilous journey were leaving the world they knew behind for their religious convictions rather than it offering an economic opportunity. The words of one English Puritan described how they felt at odds with England and most of Europe.   

‘Crueltye and blooded is in our streets, the lande abowndeth with murthers slawghters Incestes Adulteryers, whoredom dronkennes, oppression and pride.....even the leaste of these, is enowghe, and enowghe to make haste owte of Babylon’ 

To such people who had cultivated their own brand of puritanical Protestantism, England was an unforgiving and immoral place when it came to accepting and tolerating their own religious rites. But the Puritan movement, which was at odds with English society in all its guises and laws, had begun many years before the first Mayflower’s crossing to the New World. 

Threatened with fines and imprisonment for not adhering to the Church of England’s rites of worship during the reign of Elizabeth 1st and her successor James 1 of England (James IV of Scotland), the anti-Catholic Puritans believed that the old country was tainted by its religious past and association with the Pope. For the Separatists the English monarchy and the authorities hadn’t gone far enough to stamp out Catholicism in England.  

Early attempts To flee England

The inaugural voyage of the Mayflower in 1621 wasn’t the first attempt for these religious dissenters to try and leave England’s shores for a new life overseas. Fourteen years earlier in 1607 a group of men, women and children secretly met a boat on the edge of ‘The Wash’ at Scotia Creek near Boston in Lincolnshire. They planned to defy the authority of the English Church and escape across the North Sea to Holland to live in religious freedom. 

But the captain of the ship they were to sail on betrayed them to the local militia who seized the group. Stripped of their possessions they were brought by boat back to Boston and held and tried at the Guildhall, home to the local law court and cells. Most were later released but devoid of their most precious belongings and means to leave England.

Around this time other English Puritans had managed to flee to the Dutch city of Leiden which had a reputation for welcoming ‘free thinkers’ from England. Twelve years later it was from here that these original migrants from England were to emigrate to America after they feared their children would become  too integrated in Dutch life and in danger of being influenced by the Dutch Church.

The Separatists

The Separatists was a puritan movement that evolved from the radical Calvinist branch of Protestantism with its Christian practices set down by John Calvin which appealed to the English pilgrims' religious, moral and social beliefs. The Separatists who represented an extreme wing of Protestantism believed that the Church of England was beyond redemption because of its Roman Catholic past. To the Puritans, it bore the mark of Satan. Under threat of persecution and fines for not attending Church of England masses, Separatists felt they had to do more than pray in private but to leave England entirely in order to worship freely. One group left for Holland in 1608 and in 1620 others, making the first wave of Puritan pilgrims crossed the Atlantic in the Mayflower, famously settling at what was then named after its English namesake, Plymouth, Massachusetts.  

The Journey

Far from an audacious crossing to America, the Mayflower’s first embarkation from London’s Wapping or Blackwell in the middle of July 1620 was fraught with delays and unforeseen problems. Having anchored at Southampton Water to rendezvous with another ship, the Speedwell, carrying English separatist Puritans from Leiden in Holland, both ships didn’t begin their journey across the Atlantic until August 5th. An unforeseen and costly disaster befell the Speedwell when it sprang a leak resulting in it seeking urgent repairs in Dartmouth. 

After a fresh start where both ships sailed beyond Land’s End a second leak in the Speedwell meant the ship carrying vital cargo for the future settlement had to be abandoned. Both ships returned to Plymouth where the Speedwell’s passengers joined the Mayflower for its continued journey to America on September 6th, 1620.

Next to scurvy, amoebic dysentery ranked as the worst marine affliction

Author Nick Bunker in his historical biography ‘Making Haste From Babylon’ describes conditions on board the Mayflower. 

‘On the Mayflower, the colonists and their stores would have limited room available for goods of such a kind. Since seamen resented emigrants, animosity between them might provoke a mutiny: shipboard squabbles were commonplace at the time, mainly arising from low wages or the failure to pay them at all. Next to scurvy, amoebic dysentery ranked as the worst marine affliction. And yet in the Mayflower’s case, only one crew member and one passenger failed to complete the journey, the latter being William Butten, a boy of fifteen who died a few days before they sighted land ’  

The Mayflower was a typical design of merchant ships of the early 17th century. The passengers resided in the gun deck throughout the voyage while below was held cargo, supplies, clothing and bedding as well as weapons and armoury including muskets and gunpowder as a precaution to defend themselves against not only hostile natives but enemy European forces. 

It was a miserable crossing, with many of the pilgrims already weak and ill from lack of food and battered by strong winds and heavy waves. 

Even buckets, serving as primitive toilets had to be secured at the side of the ship. As a result of the North Atlantic’s prevailing winter winds the voyage took more than two months to reach America. 

The first settlers sighted Cape Cod on November 9th, 1620. Originally aiming to sail to their planned destination of the Colony of Virginia they were forced to sail to the harbour of Cape Cod hook due to strong winds and turbulent seas. It was here that the male pilgrim settlers write and signed the Mayflower Compact, the first governing order to set out laws and establish legal order for the community. 

 Tragically the early migrants to America from England simply faded and died. It would take further waves of settlers to cross geographical boundaries and frontiers in order to be confident their colonies would survive. That moment occurred in 1628 in the territory to become known as Maine and which lies below Coburn Gore. Today it more familiar as a land crossing into Canada where Quebec Route 161 and Maine State Route 27 now meet.    

Years after the first arrivals the pilgrims still needed England, or more to the point its resources in the form of supplies and silver coins. But all that changed when the Mayflower migrants reached a level of maturity and self sufficiency through the fact that they became able farmers and traders. The much sought prize which the colonialists traded with Europe was the selling of the fur from the American beaver, which was in great demand in London, Paris and other European cities and towns. 

The exodus of thousands of Puritan pilgrims and other dissenters on several ships from England and Holland to America in the 17th Century was a history changing event which has shaped America, both politically and religiously. Four hundred years later after those perilous voyages across the Atlantic, the descendants of those first waves of English settlers would find it a challenge to relate to the kind of extreme religious ideology of their English ancestors, who themselves left the old country because they believed they were the chosen people, favoured by God, to set up their own Garden of Eden. 

Arrival & Survival

The first settlers sighted Cape Cod on November 9th, 1620. Originally aiming to sail to their planned destination of the Colony of Virginia they were forced to sail to the harbour of Cape Cod hook due to strong winds and turbulent seas. It was here that the male pilgrim settlers write and signed the Mayflower Compact, the first governing order to set out laws and establish legal order for the community. 

 Tragically the early migrants to America from England simply faded and died. It would take further waves of settlers to cross geographical boundaries and frontiers in order to be confident their colonies would survive. That moment occurred in 1628 in the territory to become known as Maine and which lies below Coburn Gore. Today it more familiar as a land crossing into Canada where Quebec Route 161 and Maine State Route 27 now meet.    

Years after the first arrivals the pilgrims still needed England, or more to the point its resources in the form of supplies and silver coins. But all that changed when the Mayflower migrants reached a level of maturity and self sufficiency through the fact that they became able farmers and traders. The much sought prize which the colonialists traded with Europe was the selling of the fur from the American beaver, which was in great demand in London, Paris and other European cities and towns. 

The exodus of thousands of Puritan pilgrims and other dissenters on several ships from England and Holland to America in the 17th Century was a history changing event which has shaped America, both politically and religiously. Four hundred years later after those perilous voyages across the Atlantic, the descendants of those first waves of English settlers would find it a challenge to relate to the kind of extreme religious ideology of their English ancestors, who themselves left the old country because they believed they were the chosen people, favoured by God, to set up their own Garden of Eden. 

Thanksgiving

This popular celebration today by Americans all over the world, originating from the First Thanksgiving feast held by the Pilgrims in 1621, was an event to do with prayer that marked the first harvest of the Mayflower settlers. The feast lasted three days and was attended by fifty three Pilgrims and ninety native Indians including the ill-fated Tisquantum, the Native American who became famous as Squanto, the friend of the Pilgrims.  Born in 1580, near Plymouth, Massachusetts, the English speaking Squanto was a member of the ‘Patuxet’ tribe and is remembered for being an early interpreter and liaison between the native Indians in Southern New England and the Mayflower settlers. Traditionally associated with turkey, the original feast also contained water fowl, venison, lobster, clams, pumpkin and plant squash.