Wednesday, 30 November 2016

The Mayflower Pilgrims: Behind the Myth

The Mayflower Pilgrims: Behind the Myth

“All great and honorable actions are accompanied with great difficulties, and both must be enterprised and overcome with answerable courage.”
― William Bradford

There was a fascinating drama documentary on BBC2 last night, “The Mayflower Pilgrims: Behind the Myth” which looked at the foundation story of Thanksgiving Day, the settlement at Plymouth plantation.

It began with William Bradford who born in 1590 in Austerfield, Yorkshire. This was a small farming community, and the young William was orphaned by the time he was seven, and raised thereafter by his uncle Robert Bradford. A sickly boy, he spent much time reading the Bible, and then as he became older, found the ministry of Richard Clyfton and John Smith.

Separatist churches were not popular, but under Elizabeth I, the penalties began with fines, and were permitted a certain latitude. This meagre toleration vanished under James I, who wanted a unified kingdom, in which there would be no dissent. As titular head of the Church of England, as well as King of England, any dissent would not just be considered religious but political, so that by 1607 the Anglican Church was applying far more pressure to stamp out dissent.

Ages 18, William Bradford and his fellow separatists looked to find toleration in the Netherlands, and they arrived in 1608 and settled in Amsterdam. A year later the small religious community moved to the town of Leiden, Holland, where they remained for eleven years. There, he took up the trade of a silk weaver. As immigrants, they found work not on farms and small holdings but had to turn to factory work, which left little spare time, but they did enjoy freedom from persecution.

He describes this in his journal:

"For these & some other reasons they removed to Leyden, a fair & bewtifull citie, and of a sweete situation, but made more famous by ye universitie wherwith it is adorned, in which of late had been so many learned man. But wanting that traffike by sea which Amerstdam injoyes, it was not so beneficiall for their outward means of living & estats. But being now hear pitchet they fell to such trads & imployments as they best could; valewing peace & their spirituall comforte above any other riches whatsoever. And at lenght they came to raise a competente & comforteable living, but with hard and continuall labor”

It should be noted that in this predictionary world, the spellings of words were very fluid, and in part more phonetical than became the case later. An individual might spell the same word several different ways.

Despite freedom from persecution, the 30 years war broke out across Europe, and they looked for a place more secure and safe . The Thirty Years' War was a series of wars in Central Europe between 1618 and 1648. It was one of the longest and most destructive conflicts in European history. It was the deadliest European religious war, resulting in eight million casualties.

With the help of a London trading consortium, looking for the chance to establish a trading colony, they secured a ship, the Mayflower, and decided to emigrate to the “New World” of America.

The Pilgrims decide to emigrate to America despite the perils and dangers:

Bradford describes these decisions in his history:

"all great & honourable actions are accompanied with great difficulties, and must be both enterprised and overcome with answerable courages. It was granted ye dangers were great, but not desperate; the difficulties were many, but not invincible. For though their were many of them likely, yet they were not cartaine; it might be sundrie of ye things feared might never befale; others by providente care & ye use of good means, might in a great measure be prevented; and all of them, through ye help of God, by fortitude and patience, might either be borne, or overcome.” “

“True it was, that such attempts were not to be made and undertaken without good ground & reason; not rashly or lightly as many have done for curiositie or hope of gaine.  But their condition was not ordinarie; their ends were good & honourable; their calling lawfull, & urgente; and therfore they might expecte ye blessing of god in their proceding. Yea, though they should loose their lives in this action, yet might they have comforte in the same, and their endeavors would be honourable. They lived hear but as men in exile, & in a poore condition; and as great miseries might possibly befale them in this place, for ye 12. Years of truce [the truce between Holland and Spain] were now out, & ther was nothing but beating of drumes, and preparing for warr, the events wherof are allway uncertaine.”

Bradford (30 years old) and his wife left on the Mayflower to get to America, but it was journey fraught with hazards. The departure was the wrong time of the year, in September, so they would face the worst of the winter seas, and arrive in winter, a poor time for planting.

Aboard the Mayflower were many stores that supplied the pilgrims with the essentials needed for their journey and future lives. It is assumed that they carried tools and weapons, including cannon, shot, and gunpowder, as well as some live animals, including dogs, sheep, goats, and poultry. Horses and cattle came later

The passage was a miserable one, with huge waves constantly crashing against the ship's topside deck until a key structural support timber fractured. The passengers had already suffered agonizing delays, shortages of food, and other shortages, and were now called upon to provide assistance to the ship's carpenter in repairing the fractured main support beam

On November 9, 1620, they sighted present-day Cape Cod. They spent several days trying to sail south to their planned destination of the Colony of Virginia, where they had obtained permission to settle from the Company of Merchant Adventurers. However, strong winter seas forced them to return to the harbour at Cape Cod hook, well north of the intended area, where they anchored on November 11.

The passengers were both Bradford’s religious community, and others who were seeking an opportunity as economic migrants, and who did not share the original communities values. While they were anchored the future settlers wrote and signed the Mayflower Compact in order to winter establish legal order and to quell increasing strife within the ranks

While the Mayflower was anchored off Provincetown Harbor at the tip of Cape Cod, and while many of the Pilgrim men were out exploring and looking for a place to settle, Dorothy Bradford accidentally fell overboard and drowned. This appears as a marginal note in Bradford’s history, because his history is not plain history: it is also a record of God’s providential goodness.

Because of its size, the ship had to anchor out at sea, and it took time to ferry passengers and supplies to the land. Inclement winter weather led to numbers dying of disease on what had become in some ways a ship of death.

"In these hard & difficulte beginings they found some discontents & murmurings arise amongst some, and mutinous speeches & carriags in other; but they were soone quelled & overcome by ye wisdome, patience, and just & equall carrage of things by ye Govr and better part, wch clave faithfully together in ye maine. But that which was most sadd & lamentable was, that in 2. or 3. moneths time halfe of their company dyed, espetialy in Jan: & February, being ye depth of winter, and wanting houses & other comforts; being infected with ye scurvie & other diseases, which this long vioage & their inacomodate condition had brought upon them; so as ther dyed some times 2. or 3. of a day, in ye foresaid time; that of 100. & odd persons, scarce 50. remained.”

But they did manage to survive, and to build a settlement, strike a political agreement with an Indian tribe that each would come to the others aid, and gradually prosper, but not fast enough for the London merchants, who complained that they were not getting any return for their investment.

John Carver was elected governor of Plymouth, and remained governor until his death a year later in April 1621. Bradford was then elected governor, and was re-elected nearly every year thereafter.

In 1623, he married to the newly arrived widow Alice Southworth, and had a marriage feast very reminiscent of the "First Thanksgiving," with Massasoit and a large number of Indians joining, and bringing turkeys and deer.

“They began now to gather in the small harvest they had, and to fit up their houses and dwellings against winter, being all well recovered in health and strength and had all things in good plenty. For as some were thus employed in affairs abroad, others were exercised in fishing, about cod and bass and other fish, of which they took good store, of which every family had their portion. All the summer there was no want; and now began to come in store of fowl, as winter approached, of which this place did abound when they came first (but afterward decreased by degrees). And besides waterfowl there was great store of wild turkeys, of which they took many, besides venison, etc. Besides, they had about a peck of meal a week to a person, or now since harvest, Indian corn to that proportion. Which made many afterwards write so largely of their plenty here to their friends in England, which were not feigned but true reports."

Bradford was the head of the government of Plymouth, oversaw the courts, the colony's finances, corresponded with investors and neighbors, formulated policy with regards to foreigners, Indians, and law, and so had a very active role in the running of the entire Colony. With his second wife, he had three more children, all of whom survived to adulthood and married.

The colony was on the verge of bankruptcy when the war in Europe pushed up the price of beaver fur which was in great demand in London. The war had meant that fur from Europe was costly, and the plentiful supply from the colony led to the merchants founding other larger colonies.

Bradford mourned the passing of the small close knit community in his history:

And thus was this poore church left, like an anciente mother, growne olde, and forsaken of her children, (though not in their affections), yett in regarde of their bodily presence and personall helpfullnes. Her anciente members being most of them worne away by death; and these of later time being like children translated into other families, and she like a widow left only to trust in God. Thus she that had made many rich became her selfe poore.”

No comments: