Iconic Ships 2: The Mayflower

April 2021

Dr Sam Willis presents episode 2 of our new Iconic Ships series, looking today at the history of the Mayflower. This new Iconic Ships series has been conceived as an opportunity for curators of famous historic vessels to make a case for their surviving vessel and also for historians to make a case for a historic vessel that no longer survives. In this episode we hear from Kathryn Gray from the University of Plymouth who makes the case for the Mayflower, the vessel that set sail from Plymouth in 1620, bound for America, with a group of families on board who became known as The Pilgrims. Later in the year a public vote will be held on which vessel YOU think deserves to win our Iconic Ships series.

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    Sam Willis

    From the Society for Nautical Research, in partnership with Lloyd’s Register Foundation, I’m Sam Willis and this is the Mariner’s Mirror Podcast, the world’s number one podcast dedicated to all of maritime history.

    Welcome, everyone to the second of our new sub-series of podcast episodes, we already have a sub-series on great sea fights, and I’d urge you to go and listen to the episodes dedicated to the Battle of the River Plate of 1939 and the Battle of Cape St. Vincent of 1797, just 142 years before; we’ve also got one coming up at the end of May on the Battle of Tsushima, which will include Russian and Japanese perspectives and an animation of a battle plan made by a British naval officer who was there – saw the whole thing on a Japanese battleship. So, some tech wizardry there to make the Battle of Tsushima of 1905 come alive. So do put a note in your diaries for that. But this is a new sub-series and it’s our ‘Iconic Ships’ series. It’s been conceived as an opportunity for curators of famous historic vessels to make a case as to why their ship is iconic. But I’ve also opened it up to historians who can make a case for a historic vessel that no longer survives. Once we have sufficient entries, we will open this up to you our wonderful listeners, we will run a poll. Yes, we will have an international vote to see who we can crown as the Iconic Ship for 2021. There will be entries from all over the world.

    We began this sub-series last week with the excellent Chris Dobbs, who is head of interpretation at the Mary Rose. Now he strongly made the case that the Mary Rose, that Tudor warship with a fascinating career before she was even sunk in the summer of 1545 and then raised in 1982, deserves the title of King, or perhaps I should say, Queen of the iconic ships for a whole host of reasons. Now, as you know, the plan is to mix up this series with historic vessels, so vessels which have survived from history with vessels that have not. And so, this week, we have a historian making a case for a vessel that no longer survives but was iconic indeed. This week we have the Mayflower and Kathryn Gray will be making the case. Kathryn is Associate Professor of Early American Literature at Plymouth University, a city of course with very powerful links with the Mayflower; as it is from Plymouth that the Mayflower set sail for America in 1620 with a group of families on board who became known as the pilgrims; and who crossed the Atlantic they safely landed they founded a colony in Massachusetts that they called you guessed it Plymouth. Kathryn was instrumental in helping set up many of the events that celebrated the 400th anniversary of the Mayflower crossings in 2020. She is a member of the British Association for American Studies, the Society for Early Americanists and the Transatlantic Studies Association. She is in short, exactly the person we need to tell us how and why the Mayflower is an iconic ship. So, here’s Kathryn, and I hope you enjoy listening to her.

    Kathryn Gray

    The transatlantic journey of the Mayflower came to be remembered as one of the most consequential voyages in the history of North America. That’s not to say that it was the most consequential – that kind of evaluation depends on what you’re measuring. But it’s definitely how it was remembered. Underpinned with stories of providence, new beginnings, and religious freedom – 19th-century reimagining’s of the Mayflower’s arrival in the eastern seaboard of North America created a pervading and persistent national mythography, one that endured for generations. This journey and the success of the colony, which the Mayflower passengers settled, became the original and preferred national narrative of the United States. But in the 17th century, that moment in history was as pragmatic as it was idealistic, and some chroniclers of the colony were more conscious of the diversity of indigenous cultures than came to be acknowledged in later years. The ship mattered because of the passengers it carried and the consequences of their settlement. All of this cultural narrative in good time, but I’ll begin with the Mayflower ship itself. This Mayflower, co-owned by Christopher Jones of Harwich, took 102 passengers from Southampton and then Plymouth to the coast of New England in 1620. It left Plymouth on September 6th and spent 66 days at sea, sighting land at Cape Cod in the early November. But this famous ship can only be found in glimpses in the port books and archives of the period. It was an ordinary cargo ship with an ordinary name. And in the reign of James I there were 26 ships called Mayflower. This ship was not built as an expression of maritime innovation, nor for military glory – it was one of many hundreds of ships facilitating trade between England and the rest of Europe. In 1609 it was chartered for a voyage from London to Trondheim, in Norway, and back again to London. In 1613, port books show that the ship was twice on the Thames, once in July and again in October-November. In 1616, Christopher Jones’ ship was carrying a cargo of wine, suggesting that the Mayflower had recently been on a voyage to France, Spain, Portugal, the Canaries, or some other wine producing land. These are unremarkable and quite anonymous beginnings are surprising perhaps, for a ship that would come to symbolize England’s aspirations of an empire in North America. Indeed, the port book in Plymouth, where one might expect an entry about its arrival or departure in September of 1620 is silent on the matter, as this was a cargo ship with no saleable cargo that lacked economic significance and so passed through without formal comment. Luckily, William Bradford and Edward Winslow who co-write the first account of the Mayflower passengers when they arrived in New England, opened their account with the following statement: “Wednesday the 6th of September, the wind coming east northeast a fine small gale we loosed from Plymouth having been kindly entertained and courteously used by different friends there dwelling”. Research by maritime historian William A. Baker in the mid-20th century helped the building of the replica Mayflower II in Brixham, England in 1655-57, and showed that the ship was likely 90 foot long with a 26-foot beam. That replica was gifted to Plimoth Plantation in 1957, fully restored in 2020, it’s now part of Plimoth Patuxet Museums in Massachusetts.

    This ship was important because of the people on board. And this is where the story becomes cultural, complicated, and at times misunderstood. Back in 1620, travelling in this cargo ship for 66 days in cramped conditions and in rough weather, couldn’t have been easy. To give birth in the midst of all is unimaginable, and yet it happened. So, from here, I’ll unravel the myths and explore the motivations and consequences for the individuals involved, all the time tracing the larger forces shaping the Atlantic world and the 17th century. Under half of the passengers of the Mayflower came from Leiden, the Dutch City, where they had settled many years earlier when they had left England fleeing religious persecution. For some of them, a decade in Leiden had proven enough, and for a range of reasons, including economic hardship and a generation of their children growing up feeling more Dutch than English, they took the decision to invest all they had in an attempt to settle a colony on the east coast of North America, following the model of England’s existing colony, Jamestown in Virginia, which had been settled in 1607. Even with the investment of the Leiden separatist community, they didn’t have enough money to bankroll the colonial settlement themselves. So, a deal was struck with a company of merchant adventurers – a follow on from the Virginia Company of London, which had provided the financial backing for Jamestown more than a decade earlier. The plan for the Plymouth Colony was to develop enough trade between England and New England to pay off this debt to the merchant adventurers. Two ships, the Speedwell and the Mayflower left Southampton in August 1620 to settle a parcel of land in North America, close to the Hudson River. After several stops along the English coast to fix the leaky Speedwell, the final stop being Plymouth, the sister ship was eventually declared unseaworthy, and the Mayflower left, on its own, a month behind schedule. When the Mayflower left Plymouth in September 1620, the travellers would a mix of men, women and children, families, and servants. Not all were separatists or part of that community, and Bradford would call them ‘Strangers’. Collectively, the passengers were made up of 39 men, 18 women, 12 servants (male and female) and around 33 children; 19 families travelled – 3 of the women were pregnant and 4 children, the More children from Shropshire, travelled without their parents in the care of other families. When they next saw land they were farther north than they had anticipated, and outside the bounds of the initial patent. The patent was a legal document offering English jurisdiction, and without it, there was some doubt that English law even applied. Bradford tells us about the murmurings of the ‘Strangers’ as he called them, who might disrupt the ordered settling of the colony: “This day, before we came to harbour, observing some not well affected to unity and concord, but gave some appearance of faction, it was thought good there should be an association and agreement, that we should combine together in one body, and submit to such government and governors as we should by common consent agree to make and to choose”. From this, the Plymouth settlers devised the Mayflower Compact, an early and important expression of collective civil governance in North America. By the time the Mayflower left to return to England several months after arrival, half of the colonists had perished from disease and exposure. Life in colonial North America was not easy at the best of times, and in the midst of winter, near impossible.

    Survival came in the form of the indigenous populations of the region, especially the Wampanoag, with whom the settlers had a formal and enduring alliance. To understand a little of this alliance, we need to take a few steps back. While the Mayflower may have inadvertently stumbled across Cape Cod, many other English and European ships had sailed in these waters: John smith had travelled in the region and published a map of this coastline in 1616, Samuel De Champlain produced a map of the region even earlier in 1605, and the Dutch were developing trade in the Hudson River area. All of this contact had an impact; disease spread, especially among the Wampanoag, and the geopolitics of the region were changing. When the Mayflower arrived and the colony was settled, they inserted themselves into an already dynamic set of changing alliances and power bases in the region. The Pequots, the Narragansett, the Wampanoag, and the Massachusetts, to name just a few, were re-establishing their alliances in the wake of the devastating and unequal impact of disease. The alliance that the colonists had with the Wampanoag, as opposed to the Narragansett or the Pequots with whom they did not appear to have close ties, needs to be understood as part of this dynamic diplomatic set of circumstances.

    Stories of kidnapped from the coastline are not so unusual either. James Rosier’s ‘Account of the Weymouth Voyage a true relation’, published in 1605, details the kidnap of five indigenous men brought to England through the Southwest, probably Plymouth. When Squanto or Tisquantum, as he’s known, walks into the Plymouth settlement in North America and speaks in English (English he learned in London), the story of his kidnap along with 19 others is unravelled and understood. Tisquantum, taken by Thomas Hunt, who intended to sell him and others into slavery in Spain, had a more extensive Atlantic experience than the Plymouth settlers and Mayflower passengers, but it wasn’t one he chose for himself. With Tisquantum’s help and with the help of other indigenous allies, the Plymouth colonists learned to survive and what was to them a new and challenging environment.

    In November 16 21, following the colonists first harvest, several days of feasting and thanksgiving takes place. The Massasoit, or the leader of the Wampanoag, attends with 90 of his men; they dine and mark the occasion together. But the record is unclear as to whether or not Massasoit and his men were invited or were responding to the noise and alarm coming from the colony. Centuries later, the story of the Mayflower colonists would encompass the founding narratives of North America for three reasons: The Mayflower Compact signalled democratic intent, the peace treaty with the Wampanoag fed the notion of a peaceable and welcoming world, and the Thanksgiving of 1621 offered an image of harmony with indigenous people, underpinned by the religious conviction that this was God’s providence. Each of these agreements and events when seen through the lens of the 17th century, don’t sit comfortably with the great historical paintings of the 19th century that consciously build the exception narrative of America’s colonial past. In the 21st century, many millions of people in North America and beyond can claim to be descended from Plymouth colonists. By contrast, only a few 1000 indigenous people can claim to be descended from the Wampanoag, who helped the original band of colonists to survive.

    Back in the 17th century, the Mayflower itself sails back into obscurity. By May 1621, the Mayflower was back in the port books in Europe, trading between England and France. In 1624, the last record of the ship, an appraisement after the death of Jones in 1622, valued the ship at £128, 8 shillings and 4 pence. The colonists, the ship left behind wrote about the relief and high expectations that the new land in its apparent abundance appeared to afford the settlers when they first set eyes on it: “upon the 11th of November we came to an anchor in the bay, which was a good harbour and a pleasant bay, circled round, except in the entrance, which is about four miles over from land to land, compassed about to the very sea with oaks, pines, juniper, sassafrass, and other sweet wood. It is a harbour wherein a thousand sail of ships may safely ride…And every day we saw whales playing hard by us; of which in that place, if we had instruments and means to take them, we might have made a very rich return; which, to our great grief, we wanted.

    Sam Willis

    Thank you all so much for listening. Now the big question is how can you help the Mariner’s Mirror Podcast? Well, you can help number one by telling everyone you know and lots of people you don’t know as well about our fantastic podcast. And if you find the Society for Nautical Research and the Mariner’s Mirror Pod on social media, tag us and I’ll be sure to follow back and to share your posts. Do please leave a review on iTunes, this is really one of the most important things you can do – it makes a huge difference, it will help us climb up the ladder of history podcasts. But best of all perhaps is to join the Society for Nautical Research. It doesn’t cost very much money, and your subscription fee goes towards publishing the most important maritime history and towards preserving our maritime past. So, find everything you need to know @snr.org.uk.

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