The Voyage Of The Mayflower

The MayflowerAs the United States' Thanksgiving Day approaches, on the fourth Thursday in November, it is a good time to remember its origins, linked with that famous voyage which carried 102 colonists to start a new life across the other side of the Atlantic.

The merchant ship Mayflower set sail from Plymouth in September 1620. No detailed description of the vessel exists but it is believed that the square rigged sailing ship weighed about 180 tons and measured 90 feet (27 metres) long. Her usual cargo would have been wine and dry goods, but on this occasion she was carrying passengers. Many of these were Protestant Separatists, who called themselves "Saints" and who hoped to establish a new church in the New World across the Atlantic. They are often referred to today as "Pilgrims". These Separatists did not want to pledge their allegiance to the Church of England, which they believed was almost as corrupt and idolatrous as the Catholic Church. In 1608 a group of them had moved to Leiden in Holland, where they hoped they would be free to worship freely, but they found that the Dutch craft guilds excluded the foreigners and relegated them to low-paid, menial jobs. They also found that many of the younger immigrants were seduced by the Dutch cosmopolitan and easygoing atmosphere, which their leader, William Bradford, regarded as extravagant and dangerous. As a result they determined to find a place where they would be free from government interference and worldly disruption: such a place was the "New World" on the other side of the Atlantic.

The Saints travelled from Leiden to London to make their plans. The Virginia Company gave them permission to establish a settlement, or plantation, on the East Coast (between the mouth of the Hudson River and Chesapeake Bay). A well known merchant agreed to advance the money for their journey and the King of England (James 1) gave them permission to leave the Church of England provided they acted peacefully. In August 1620 about 40 of the Saints were joined by a larger group of secular colonists, including hired hands, servants or farmers recruited by London merchants. There were also four small children given into the care of the Separatists as "indentured servants". These were usually orphans or foundlings who were regularly rounded up from the streets of London to be used as labourers in the colonies. Three of the four died during the first winter.

The colonists set sail on two merchant ships, the Mayflower and the Speedwell. Unfortunately the Speedwell didn't live up to its name and started to leak shortly after departure and the two ships were forced to head back to port where the Speedwell's passengers squeezed themselves and their belongings onto the Mayflower. In addition to the 102 passengers there were 50 officers and crew, including about 36 before the mast. The ship carried many essentials necessary for the colonists' journey and future lives. They would have probably included tools and weapons, including cannon, shot and gunpowder, and live animals including dogs, sheep, goats and poultry. The Mayflower would also have carried a long boat and a "shallop" (a 21foot boat powered by oars or sails), and some basic navigational aids such as a compass and a log and line system to measure speed in knots. Time was measured by the ancient hour glass method.

The delay forced the Mayflower to cross the Atlantic in early September, at the height of the stormy season, resulting in a rough, dangerous and uncomfortable passage. The huge waves constantly crashing against the ship's topside deck caused key structural damage and the passengers were forced to provide assistance to the ship's carpenter in repairing the main support beam. Many of the passengers were horribly seasick and one was swept overboard and drowned. The vessel's provisions were already low when she departed from port and the passengers became weak and worn out during the miserable two month voyage. Their fruit and vegetable supply rotted quickly and with not enough nutrients in their diet many of them experienced the bleeding gums, rotten teeth and stinking breath associated with scurvy. Water was often polluted, causing more disease, so passengers consumed large amounts of alcohol in the form of beer.

They slept and lived in the low-ceilinged great cabins which were thin-walled and cramped. Only those under five feet tall would be able to stand upright and the maximum space for each person would have been less than a single bed. Meals on board were cooked on the firebox, an iron tray with sand on it, on which a fire was built. The passengers would have cooked their own meals from the daily food rations. The rest of their time, when they were not ill, would be spent reading by candlelight or playing cards and games.

Matters did not improve when the colonists eventually reached the shore. Finding nothing but an abandoned Indian village, they realised they were in the wrong place, at Cape Cod, well north of the Virginia Company's territory. In principle they had no right to be there, so to establish themselves as a lawful colony they drafted and signed a document called the Mayflower Compact in which they pledged to create a civil political body with just and equal laws and to swear allegiance to the English king. This was one of the iconic moments in the history of America, providing the basis of the nation's present form of democratic self-government and fundamental freedom. One month later they crossed Massachusetts Bay and began the work of establishing a settlement which they called Plymouth.

Conditions were not kind to them and during the first harsh winter most of them remained on board ship, suffering from exposure, and contagious diseases, described as a mixture of scurvy, pneumonia and tuberculosis. Only half of the colonists (about 53) survived the winter and in the following March they moved ashore where they had the surprising good fortune to be visited some English speaking Native Americans. The story goes that one of them had been kidnapped by an English sea captain, sold into slavery, escaped to London and then managed to return to his homeland. He taught the Pilgrims how to grow corn, beans and squash, extract sap from maple trees, catch fish and hunt animals and avoid poisonous plants. He also helped them to forge an alliance with a local tribe named the Wampanoag, which lasted for more than 50 years.

The Mayflower itself lay at anchor until April 1621 when she set sail for the return voyage to England. She had lost many of her original crew through disease, but the vessel made excellent time with the help of westerly winds and she arrived at her home port in London on May 1621, less than half the time it had taken her to sail to America.

Thanks to the natives' help, the first harvest was successful and in November 1621 the Governor William Bradford organised a celebration, inviting some of the colony's Native American allies, including the Wampanoag chief, Massasoit. This feast, lasting three days, is considered America's "first Thanksgiving", although the Pilgrims may not have used the term at the time. It is thought that many of the dishes were prepared using traditional Native American spices and cooking methods. The Pilgrims themselves had no oven and their sugar supply had nearly run out, so the meal did not feature the pies, cakes and deserts so characteristic of modern Thanksgiving feasts. For more than two centuries, thanksgiving days were celebrated by individual colonies and states, but in 1863, in the middle of the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed a national Thanksgiving Day to be held annually in November.

In due course the Plymouth colonists were absorbed into the Puritan Colony of Massachusetts Bay. But they remained convinced that they were a specially chosen group to act as evangelists around the world. The Pilgrim ship Mayflower occupies an eminent place in American history as a symbol of early European colonization of the future United States.

Author – Dee White

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