Pilgrim fathers: harsh truths amid the Mayflower myths of nationhood

Carrie Gibson
a group of people on a boat: Photograph: Print Collector/Getty Images© Provided by The Guardian Photograph: Print Collector/Getty ImagesFor a ship that would sail into the pages of history, the Mayflower was not important enough to be registered in the port book of Plymouth in 1620. Pages from September of that year bear no trace of the vessel, because it was only only 102 passengers and not cargo, making it of no official interest.

The port book is one of the many surprising objects at Mayflower 400: Legend & Legacy, the inaugural exhibition of the Box in Plymouth, Devon, which will open to the public later this month, and which is part of the city’s efforts to mark the 400th anniversary of the ship’s Atlantic crossing.

“This wasn’t a huge historic voyage in 1620. If anything, it was an act of madness because they were going at the wrong time of year into an incredibly dangerous Atlantic,” said the exhibition’s curator, Jo Loosemore.

The omission in the port book is one of many gaps surrounding the voyage of the Mayflower that the exhibition tries to fill. The general story is well known: the Mayflower took its 102 men, women, and children – the majority of whom were Puritan religious dissenters known as Separatists, but also called Pilgrims – from Plymouth to what they hoped would be the Hudson river. They endured a treacherous 66-day voyage and were blown off course, landing on the tip of what is now Massachusetts, before crossing the bay to set up a colony on land belonging to the Wampanoag, whose name means “people of the first light” and who had inhabited the area for some 12,000 years.

a group of people on a boat: A 1752 painting by Bernard Gribble of the Pilgrim fathers boarding the Mayflower in 1620 for their voyage to America.© Photograph: Print Collector/Getty Images A 1752 painting by Bernard Gribble of the Pilgrim fathers boarding the Mayflower in 1620 for their voyage to America.

 

They had an estimated population of at least 15,000 in the early 1600s, and lived in villages on the Massachusetts coast and inland. Their help enabled the English to survive, and also became the basis for the much-mythologised first Thanksgiving feast, still celebrated in the US as a national holiday, though not without controversy. The reality, as this exhibition shows, was far more complicated – and violent.

They came for religious freedom but did not have the same tolerance for the people they met

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