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Let’s celebrate the pilgrims, not demonise them

The signing of the Mayflower Compact, which set out plans for self-governance once the pilgrims arrived in America. Painting by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris (Google Images)

The signing of the Mayflower Compact, which set out plans for self-governance once the pilgrims arrived in America. Painting by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris (Google Images)

November 21, 2018   7 mins

Thus out of small beginnings greater things have been produced by His hand… and, as one small candle may light a thousand, so the light here kindled hath shone unto many, yea in some sort to our whole nation.

These words were written by William Bradford, one of the leaders of the Mayflower pilgrims and an early Governor of Plymouth, New England. He and his fellow pilgrims set off from England in 1620 after decades of persecution by James I and, before him, Elizabeth I. As religious dissenters they had suffered at the hands of the Anglican authorities for their beliefs.

They were forced to worship in secret and when faced with the prospect of imprisonment or execution, these devout and determined people first went into exile in Holland. A few years later, in 1616, fearing that their children would be assimilated into Dutch culture, they decided to make the perilous journey across the Atlantic where they hoped to secure true religious freedom as an English-speaking colony.

With barely any seafaring experience, the 37 pilgrims from Leiden and the 65 other passengers from London travelled together for two months and experienced such extreme, harsh and dangerous circumstances that within their first year fewer than half were alive to enjoy the first “Thanksgiving” with the Native Americans, as famously recorded in Bradford’s journal in 1621. Yet against all odds, it was the Pilgrim Fathers’ decision to write a framework for self-government based on “just and equal laws” which partly laid the basis for self-government and a new republic in America.

Four hundred years later, plans are afoot to celebrate the pilgrims’ extraordinary journey. It is expected that three million Americans, many with a claim to be descended from the Pilgrim Fathers, will come to England in 2020 to seek out places like Harwich, Retford, Gainsborough, Southampton, Scrooby and of course, Plymouth, which have become part of the founding mythology of America.

To co-ordinate the celebrations, the UK Government has created a body called Mayflower 400. In 2020 there will be a special closing ceremony in Plymouth. It is hoped that an invited audience including the President of the United States and the Queen will celebrate the ongoing UK-US Special Relationship, complete with a full military ceremony.

London had a central role in the history of the Mayflower. It was in Borough, Bankside and the City that many of the passengers lived and worshipped (St Saviour’s, which is Southwark Cathedral today, and St George the Martyr in Borough). It was in London that the money was raised by the Merchant Adventurers in the City who saw the prospect of opening up trade with the New World. It was in the capital that the passengers boarded (either at Blackwall or Wapping), and it was there (in Heneage House and Ironmongers Hall) that the pilgrims negotiated with the City investors and with James I to secure their freedom to leave these shores.

So, given that London provided the resources, ideas and people that made the Mayflower venture possible, why does the City play hardly any role in the national plans to celebrate it? (Only Rotherhithe – where the ship’s captain and crew hailed from – is highlighted.) Instead, the anniversary is focusing on the less interesting points of departure. (The Mayflower made an unplanned stop at Plymouth when its sister ship began to take water, but in truth, that was a footnote to the story.)

This is a great opportunity to celebrate a truly pivotal event, yet the capital is missing out. One of the reasons may be contemporary politics. Officials in the City of London Corporation and Southwark have organised some local events but why isn’t there more drive from Southwark Council and the Mayor of London? There is very little compared to the scale of events for the centenary anniversaries of WW1 or women’s suffrage.

Funding for cultural events is always an issue, although it must be said the Government has stumped up millions for the rest of the country. Perhaps there is a fear that an emphasis on London will distract tourists from Plymouth where so much investment has been made.

Another problem seems to stem from people’s moral ambivalence towards the Mayflower and America.

Southwark local historian Graham Taylor, who has researched the extensive network of people and organisations in London who assisted the pilgrims, believes it is not just fear that London will distract from the main event in Plymouth but also hostility to Mayflower celebrations by left-wing activists in Southwark and elsewhere that is behind the foot-dragging. “They believe the Mayflower is all about slavery and colonialism,” he states, despairingly. “But this is historically inaccurate.”

Two such activists are publishing a book this month entitled Telling the Mayflower Story: Thanksgiving, or Land Grabbing, Massacres & Slavery?, and their Twitter account regularly complains that the planned commemorations sanitise history. On both sides of the Atlantic the Left are organising, with Wampanoag Indian descendants, a Day of National Mourning in 2020 which is expected to attract much support from left-leaning newspapers.

On one hand the Mayflower passengers have been called colonisers; on the other, refugees. Neither tells the full story, and they should not be glibly parcelled off into easy modern categories. As Taylor says: “It is true that many of the settlers that came earlier and settled in Virginia, and some that came later, did unspeakably barbaric things but the Mayflower and the three ships which followed under the same leadership were distinguished by their tolerance and respectful approach to the Native Americans. They [the activists] cannot see that the history is complex.”

The leader of the Mayflower pilgrims, who co-ordinated plans from Leiden in Holland, was a man called John Robinson (“my hero”, says Taylor). Robinson was a remarkably humane and liberal man for his times. He first led his congregation to Amsterdam, where they received charity and support from local Jews who sympathised with their refugee status. Soon enough though, Robinson found that the Amsterdam area was not tolerant enough for his liking so they moved down to Leiden, where he preached tolerance towards Jews, Muslims and even Catholics, even organising debates with Jews in the local synagogue. A memorial to him still exists in Leiden today.

When Robinson and his fellow leaders made their plans to settle in the US, they put in writing that all land or items taken from the New World should be bought from the Native Americans, and not stolen (they were aware that the settlers at Jamestown had violently seized land from local Native Americans, and insisted that their approach be different). By and large, the Plymouth settlement developed good relations with the Wampanoag Indians, and apart from one violent skirmish with hostile Native Americans (which Robinson and Bradford both immediately condemned), the settlement did not fight Native Americans until many years later in 1675 when hostilities throughout the east coast had grown to an extent that it was unavoidable.

The liberal philosophy that Robinson espoused shaped a mindset which grew far beyond Plymouth, Massachusetts, and which shows a different side to America’s founding story. In contrast to the Virginia settlements to the south and later ships to arrive under the leadership of the Puritan Samuel Winthrop, Robinson’s smaller community was built on tolerance and equality. Sadly, their influence could not prevent slavery in the north, but perhaps it goes some way in explaining why it was not as deeply embedded as it was in the deep south, and why abolitionism took root in Massachusetts.

The Mayflower settlement was largely forgotten until Bradford’s journal was rediscovered in England in the 19th century, when it was immediately hailed in the US for its liberal and humane depiction of the Pilgrim Fathers. In the years preceding the Civil War, the Mayflower story was seized on for providing a truer, more liberal conception of America, even though it had not been the first colony.

Lincoln deliberately cited the Mayflower pilgrims from the north because their values of equality and freedom were central to his outlook in the Civil War and in 1863, while battle was raging, he formally made Thanksgiving an annual national holiday. He contrasted the spirit of the Mayflower with that of the ‘other’ America, the south, which was backward, intolerant and built on slavery. There are two sides to America and we have the Mayflower to thank for the better side. It was Lincoln’s victory in 1865 that makes it the one that dominates the history books.

London’s role in this is fundamental, not least because it connects the liberal ideas of Robinson to the wider historical context and the development of capitalism. The Merchant Adventurers in the City were, in effect, the first venture capitalists. They invested money in risky projects in the pursuit of profit and as a result, facilitated the crossing of barriers that were hitherto unexplored. They felt frustrated with the King over a failing economy and the repression of civil liberties and they found common cause with the pilgrims.

In some cases, it was genuine sympathy – the Calvinist poet and soldier, Philip Sydney, dreamed as early as the 1580s of a colony “for the confluence of all nations that love or profess any kind of virtue, or commerce”; his biographer, the poet Fulke Greville, a Merchant Adventurer and a Calvinist, gave an interest-free loan to the Pilgrims. The new world would be godly but also economically unshackled. Without London and these financiers, thinkers and dreamers, there would have been no Mayflower, and America’s history might have looked very different.

The Mayflower story is therefore more than just a journey of brave souls, as remarkable as that was. It is the story of how liberal values were born in northern, Protestant Europe and how they eventually flourished throughout America. No one should gloss over the horrific crimes and brutality of many English settlers – they are a stain on history and ought to be acknowledged in the commemorations too. But the early ideas of those first few Pilgrims and City of London investors also drove the eventual defeat of slavery, and have shaped our own modern ideas of equality and justice, democracy and freedom. None of this would have been possible without early capitalism and the forces it unleashed.

Simply put, it is impossible to do justice to the spirit of the Mayflower in 2020 without acknowledging the centrality of London to the story – and at the moment it’s just not there. But we should not allow what looks like a combination of ignorance and prejudice about the past to obscure what ought to be a source of pride. So, how about a large public event or memorial in Southwark or the City funded by the big US and UK banks? And how about a major education project for all London (and UK) school children mapping out digitally all the significant places they can visit in London?

Let’s use this opportunity to tell a better story about America, and the people from England who helped shape one of the most significant periods in its history. Liberalism needs its heroes, frankly; this is the moment to celebrate them.

Dr Munira Mirza works in the arts and is former Deputy Mayor of London

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