400 years later: reconsidering the Mayflower

Four centuries ago, a ship set sail from Plymouth on a voyage that would ultimately shape the foundations of what became the United States of America. 

Its passengers had little idea of what they were about to endure, and would have had no idea that their journey, and their experiences of settlement, would become a narrative of national origins. 

They certainly couldn’t have contemplated that 400 years on, a vessel sharing the name Mayflower would make the same journey, without a single soul on board, and powered not by sails but by solar power.

A total of 102 travellers, around half of them Separatists, left Plymouth in September 1620 to settle a new colony, Plymouth Colony, in North America. The journey and first months were not easy: following a series of mishaps, the ship arrived a month later than planned, in November, and further north than initially intended. By March 1621, around half of its passengers had died.

Mourt's Relation, 1622. Written between November 1620 and November 1621, the book describes what happened from the landing of the Mayflower Pilgrims on Cape Cod in Provincetown Harbour through their exploring and eventual settling of Plymouth Colony.

 

 

In the early 17th century, voyages back and forth across the Atlantic were nothing new. 

When the Mayflower arrived in what’s commonly called the ‘New World’, they were by no means the first English or European travellers to make contact in the region. 

Returning to the historical record, and positioning this transatlantic voyage as one of many in the colonial Atlantic world, helps uncover different perspectives and pivotal points of European contact in North America. French, Dutch and English explorers had travelled in this region before – the English and the French had mapped it, and the Dutch were setting up a trading post at the mouth of the Hudson River. 

Of course, all of this transatlantic travel and the settlement of English colonies came at a cost. Jamestown, settled in 1607, was the first permanent English colony in North America, with financial backing from the Virginia Company of London. A similar financial model, this time with the Merchant Adventurers of London, provided the funds to establish the Plymouth Colony, the second permanent English colony in North America.  

European contact came at a cost for Indigenous people in the region too. Several years before the Plymouth colonists even set sail, young Indigenous men were captured off the coast of New England and taken to Spain to be sold into slavery. 

One of those men was Squanto, or Tisquantum, who would return home to North America a few years later, via a stay in London – a stay that taught him the English language and the ways of English culture. Following his return home a few years later, when he strolled into the Plymouth Colony, his own circum-Atlantic journey had prepared him linguistically and culturally to act as a translator and a broker between the English and the Wampanoag, the Indigenous people who helped the early colonists survive.     

The Mayflower Steps, Barbican, Plymouth

In the interim, when Squanto was away from his home, a great sickness decimated his people at Patuxet. Patuxet, a village left desolate by the spread of European disease, was the site that the colonists claimed as their new home. When William Bradford, an early Governor of the colony, commented years later that ‘God cleared a space for us in the wilderness’, this clearing came at a human cost; the providential errand had visible and unrelenting consequences for Indigenous people.

The Mayflower passengers, who chronicled their first few years and decades in the colony, knew all of this. 

They write about earlier English colonies, successful and not. They write about the capture and kidnap of Indigenous men from the coastline. They write about the impact of European disease on indigenous people, while also passing comment on the region’s dynamic geo-political alliances among indigenous people in the region.

 

Four hundred years later we can reconsider our assumptions about this voyage and its consequences. 

We can challenge the dominance of the east to west narrative trajectory and consider journeys taken by Indigenous people, often under duress, from west to east across the Atlantic. 

A little remembered fact: Indigenous people from North America passed through the South West, Plymouth included, many years before the 1620 Mayflower voyage.

Developing and sharing new knowledge about this anniversary is a trans-cultural process. If we read the original colonial texts again, we will come to understand the political and economic forces shaping all transatlantic journeys of this period, and we’ll find the Mayflower passengers were knowing and willing participants in England’s nascent empire. 

If we listen to Indigenous perspectives, as they emerge from current Indigenous scholarship and research, we’ll begin to appreciate the implications of this historical moment on the present, from the point of view of those standing on shoreline, watching the boat approaching their land.

Mayflower Autonomous Ship in historic dock – credit Bob Stone, Human Interface Technology Team, University of Birmingham

Save for its departure and destination, this 21st century Mayflower voyage bears little resemblance to that of its predecessor. Instead, it has the potential to signal a new age of Atlantic crossing, establishing new collaborations and scientific understanding.

 


Mayflower 400

2020 commemorates the 400th anniversary of the Mayflower's pioneering voyage to America in 1620. The University is working in partnership to commemorate this historic voyage.

Find out more about Mayflower 400

 

Voyage to highlight the possibilities of autonomous ocean science

The University is conducting research into marine mammals, marine plastics and ocean chemistry as part of the Mayflower Autonomous Ship project

The aim is to highlight the future potential of autonomous ocean science as part of a pioneering voyage commemorating the 400th anniversary of the Mayflower.

Find out more about the Mayflower Autonomous Ship project