The British Empire Library

Mayflower: A Voyage to War

by Nathaniel Philbrick

Sometimes we think we know a familiar story, especially if like me you come from a place like Plymouth which has a strong association with that historical event. In this case the connection is with the Pilgrim Fathers and the departure of the Mayflower. However, it is useful to have an in depth account that corrects many of the simplications over time and delves deeply in to the individuals and motivations of everyone involved. It helps that this book also covers a longer stretch of period, looking at the origins of the Pilgrim Fathers in East England, their years of exile in Holland and then the complex commercial relationships which ultimately funded their expedition to the New World. It then looks at how they managed to eek out an existence before slowly expanding into the interior. Indeed, the book offers something of a generational outlook as it goes on to examine the children of the Mayflower up to the 1670s when warfare threatened to upturn everything they had worked for. It is invaluable to have this long perspective and it is intriguing to see that some of the antagonists in the 1670s were the children of those with much wiser heads involved back in the 1620s. Many more settlers may have arrived in the meantime, but it is intriguing to be able to draw such direct lines between the participants.

We have to remember that the Mayflower was far from the first settler ship to arrive in North America, despite what the legend implies. In fact the author makes it abundantly clear that European ships and sailors were far from unusual sights for the many Indians (which is how the Europeans referred to them at the time) who inhabited this coastal region. Inadvertently, these visitors almost certainly introduced lethal pathogens and diseases which cleared swathes of of the native population. I am not sure I had realised just how devastated the area where the Pilgrims landed had been by disease. Estimates of up to 90% of Indians dying in some tribes meant that the Mayflower was landing in an area that had accidentally been denuded of much of its population. Had they landed even five years earlier, the outcomes may have been very different for these pious if ambitious settlers.

The Dutch influence is also underestimated, or at least it was by me! The Pilgrim Fathers had spent years in Protestant Holland hoping to gain the religious tolerance and freedom they felt was lacking back in England with its powerful Anglican Church. It seems as if their major concern was that their children were becoming more Dutch than English and so they wished to protect their religion as well as their language and culture. A new settlement thousands of miles away from government control seemed to offer the best of both worlds. But their time in Holland did imbue them with some important concepts that they would take with them to America. Most importantly, perhaps surprisingly for such religiously motivated settlers, was their willingness to separate church and official business. Marriages were conducted as civil rather than religious ceremonies in accordance with "the laudable custom of the Low Countries". Their Dutch contacts would also come in use when Holland set up its own colony in Manhattan. The Dutch speakers of Plymouth Colony would make natural customers and suppliers to the Dutch who were formidable traders in their own right. However, Dutch influence may not always have been so benign. I was intrigued with the author's theory that the second ship 'Speedwell' may well have been deliberately damaged through bribes by the Dutch to frustrate these colonists as they were planning their own colonial expansion at that time and did not want another rival colony to compete for resources. It appears that many felt the captain of the Mayflower was under suspicion, but the author seems to make it abundantly clear that the Mayflower's Master, Captain Christopher Jones, bent over backwards to aid the settlers and almost certainly paid for his generosity of spirit with his ship and ultimately his own life. He died within a year of his return, his health almost certainly compromised by the voyage and over wintering in New England. Similarly, the Mayflower lay idle after the Master's death at which point it is thought that it was broken up for scrap.

The ship may have exhausted itself, but it did at least achieve what it was supposed to achieve and after an arduous journey delivered its 102 passengers to the North American coastline. This mix of passengers into two distinct groups is also intriguing and would have lasting implications down through subsequent American history. You had the Pilgrim Fathers from Leiden in Holland who hired the vessel and who made up about half the passenger list. However, you also had another group who the Pilgrims pejoratively referred to as 'strangers'. These were largely provided by the Merchant Adventurers who provided the funding for the transportation and supply of the colony in return for exclusive trading rights and for payments in North American products such as furs and fish. These settlers had far different motivations and often clashed with the religious settlers who tended to act in concert with one another and maintained their unity of purpose for a surprisingly long time. It was to avoid potentially fatal divisions that upon arriving in the New World, they agreed to sign the 'Mayflower Compact' before going ashore in order that they all respect the group endeavour and would follow their leaders and rules. This agreement for a common purpose would contrast sharply with the response of the local Indian tribes who had no such similar binding body politik and who would offer varying degrees of helpfulness and danger to the fledgling colony. Ultimately, this key difference between the actors would play a fundamental part in the success of the former and difficulties for the latter.

The author explains how the Mayflower was blown off course after its dreadful journey. It arrived late into winter making it particularly precarious for the settlers who lost half their number in the coming months. He makes a point that they just missed the far better location of modern day Boston further to the North. They had actually been heading for closer towards Jamestown but the treacherous weather and currents kept them in the Cape Cod area. I cannot help but feel that they actually found the perfect location for what they needed. They were not planning a long term successful entrepot. They wanted a little slice of freedom that they could mould and defend and found it in Cape Cod Bay. As previously mentioned, the local Indians had been severely afflicted by disease and the marginal land that the Puritans stumbled on was not overly missed by the Indians. In fact, they would quickly find themselves enmeshed in local tribal politics. The sachem (leader) Massasoit of the Pokanokets found an opportunity to use the Europeans to his advantage against the Narragansetts, whose relative power had been increased as they had not been so badly afflicted by disease as the Pokanokets had been. Intriguingly, the local Indians had not just one English speaker on hand to translate, but two - although with conflicting agendas of their own! Had the settlers landed in Boston the geography may well have been more benign but there was no guarantee that the stronger Indian tribes there would have tolerated them to the same extent as where they did land. Perhaps providence (or God as I'm sure they would have liked to have believed) really did land them in the one spot that they could cling on and survive where other planting attempts by Europeans would and did fail. Undoubtedly, religion did much to sustain this community through trying and testing times. The belief that God had preordained their lives gave them the ability to sustain travails that others might not have tolerated. Privation, deaths, setbacks were all part of God's plan. And yet, adept diplomacy and intelligence from these early settlers also played its part. As did violence and determination when they felt it necessary. It is something of an irony that they were dragged in to a war with Indians not through their own actions but through a second Merchant Adventurer settlement to their North who indeed did not display the same kind of resolve, determination or intelligence. This new colony's weakness was identified by the Massachussetts Indians who plotted to massacre them, but realising that they would also have to take out the Plymouth colony to avoid reprisals from the Europeans. The Plymouth colonists made a preemptive strike after they learned that they were due to be massacred. But this was no simple Europeans versus Indians conflict as the author explains: By siding with the Pilgrims against the Indians of Massachussetts and Cape Cod, the Pokanoket sachem had initiated a new and terrifying era in New England. It was no longer a question of Indian versus English; it was not possible for alliance and feuds to reach across racial lines in a confusing amalgam of cultures. It is tempting to see this as a mistaken policy by Massasoit, but if you take a step back it is also clear that he was very much an independent actor who was taking control of his own destiny. And indeed, he would personally profit from this alliance. It allowed him to displace his rivals and go from being a minor sachem to a major player in the region. We must also not forget to what extent that the Indians really did enjoy some of the material benefits of European civilisation. They clearly appreciated the manufactured and decorative goods as can be illustrated by the many who were buried with these prized possessions. They also were keen on acquiring weapons like flintlock muskets that would help them with their hunting. They also had new trading opportunities in the form of fish or fur. This was not a one way street of simple exploitation. This book makes it clear that it was far more nuanced and complicated. The author suggests that the fatal weakness for the Indians though was their willingness to trade land in order to to be able to enjoy some of the fruits of European civilisation. It is an irony that the settlers, supposedly in an attempt to protect the Indians, would not allow anyone to buy lands direct it had to go through the Plymouth Colony. This in effect created a government monopoly, however well intentioned. It also meant that the Indians often did not get the fair market value for the land that they did sell.

One other interesting titbit is that the original Mayflower settlers attempted to have communal farming projects in the first two years. However, these were an unmitigated disaster. It was only when they reverted to everyone being responsible for their own land and crops that yields and effort increased. The seeds of capitalism were literally sown in to the ground at this early stage. It is perhaps no accident that America would go on to become the preeminent capitalist society, although perhaps it is a little ironic that religious and pious settlers would discover this route to prosperity.

The second half of the book tells the story of how the fledgling Plymouth colony survived but was joined by even more settlers with a variety of motivations from Puritans fleeing an England plagued by Civil War to non-conformist Christians who were regarded as little more than heretics by the Plymouth Colony to those simply motivated by economic opportunity and land which was sorely lacking back in England in the middle of the Seventeenth Century. Plymouth Colony would indeed be slowly but surely surpassed by settlers to their North spreading out from the fine harbour of Boston. This Massachussetts Bay colony would hem them in from the North and Rhode Island with its many non-Conformists would hem Plymouth in from the West. The only other alternative was the Indian lands which in themselves were becoming more marginal and depleted through sales.

As mentioned earlier, it is something of an irony that it was the son of the Massasoit sachem, Philip who would clash with Josiah Winslow the son of the influential Mayflower settler Edward Winslow. The author explains the complex fuse which ultimately burst in to war in 1675 which involved land sales, impetuous Indian warriors and perceived and real injustices from the Europeans. It is something of an irony that Philip after initially refusing to sell land goes on to sell lots of land. However, the intention was to use these land sales to finance modern flintlocks and gunpowder in preparation for war. The impetuous young Indian warriors were clearly motivated by watching their way of life become endangered as they could no longer move so easily to plant and collect food in the way they had historically done. The injustice refers to the fuse that lit the powder keg of mistrust. A praying Indian (Christian and somewhat Westernised) by the name of John Sassamon had acted as a translator for King Philip but had abused his power and attempted to change the Indian's will to his own benefit. John Sassamon had been forced in to exile but had learned that Philip was approaching other Indian tribes to forge an alliance against the Europeans. He then warned Governor John Winslow. He was found dead just a couple days later. Mysteriously an Indian claimed to have witnessed one of Philip's key advisers (Tobias) and Tobias' son and one other Indian seize and kill Sassamon. It later emerged that this 'witness' had recently had to pay off debts to King Philip's son, Tobias. However, the Plymouth authorities used his witness testimony to convict and execute them. Under English Law, no man could be condemned to die on the testimony of a single witness. The trial was hastened through with remarkable speed. It appeared to Philip at least that he would be the next victim of European injustice. Within weeks, the entire region erupted in to warfare.

King Philip decided to head North. The English raised militias with their old fashioned weapons and tactics they were hopeless at responding to the speed and determination of the Indians who avoided open warfare but struck mercilessly with ambushes and at isolated farmsteads and communities. The Plymouth militia was joined by Massachussetts and Connecticut militia but they failed to prevent Philip reaching other tribes on the relative safety of the frontier. Fortunately for the English settlers, Philips' diplomatic skills were no where near as impressive as his father's had been. His attempts to bring the French and the Mohawks into his alliance backfired when he clumsily attempted to frame the English by killing a number of Mohawks and blaming the settlers. Unfortunately for Philip one of those Mohawks survived to tell the tale of who had actually killed them. This would lead the powerful Mohawks into accidental alliance with the English settlers in what would prove to be a remarkably long lasting alliance. The other secret weapon for the English was revealed by the remarkable Benjamin Church who realised that the best way to catch an Indian was to use an Indian. Although horrible massacres were occurring (on both sides) he was strategically minded enough to realise that offering generous terms to any Indian willing to switch sides would provide them with invaluable intelligence and similar levels of capability. Furthermore, many praying Indians had also proved their loyalty to the Europeans. Originally they had been regarded with suspicion but over time, it was appreciated that they also would provide some of the most effective scouts and soldiers against the rebellion. It should be realised that this was a significant war that undoubtedly could have been an extinction event for the Europeans had the full alliance of Indians ever come to be. As it was, some 8% of the male European population of the colonies was killed - nearly double the rate of the American Civil War for instance. Of course, this paled in to insignificance compared to the ultimate fate of the Indians who revolted. Those not killed in warfare were either starved or sold in to slavery. The Indians could not sustain a long campaign and as the war progressed in to its second year, they no longer had the crops or the gunpowder to continue their fight. The Europeans on the other hand could count on a continuous stream of supplies from Europe. This did come at a price though and although they prevailed in New England the cost for the Plymouth Colony was particularly high. The all but bankrupt colonists would be subsumed into a larger Massachussetts Colony. The British Crown, which the Mayflower had done so much to avoid, would be called upon to provide defence and aid to the colony. In doing so, it insisted on appointing a Governor of its own to oversee the Colony and ensure taxes were collected to pay for the defence and recovery of the colony. And lastly, the relative friendly Indian buffer state that the Mayflower settlers had cultivated so assiduously had been removed. The frontier would now become far more chaotic and hostile without intermediary Indian tribes that they could communicate and trade with easily. Although they had removed the immediate threat of King Philip they had replaced it with a long term lack of security and the knowledge that the Indians could indeed do very real damage to their isolated farms and communities. Trust and security had been forfeited by the sons of the Mayflower.

As I said this is an intriguing book that plays out over half a century. I came away from it with a renewed appreciation of the bravery and wisdom of the original settlers. Unfortunately this wisdom could not be maintained as the settlers widened in motivations and passed down to later generations. The book also illustrates that the Indians were also powerful actors in their own story. They were no mere victims awaiting the onslaught of European settlers and civilisation. They had successes and failures and both sides learned more than they often were willing to admit from one another. King Philip was probably not the leader to have pulled off the necessary victory, but the Indians came surprisingly close to pulling together the necessary alliance to frustrate and perhaps even wipe out the European settlements. Fatally, it was their own lack of unity and cohesion that undermined them. The settler ability to call upon resources from Europe combined with exploiting Indian divisions to give them the final edge. There were many possible futures available when the Mayflower came ashore in 1620. The fact that they could eke out a settlement and interact positively with at least some of the local Indian tribes offered hope for the future. It is perhaps why modern Americans are more keen to dwell on this particular foundational story of their nation rather than the far darker undertones around the Jamestown colony's origins. One comes away from the book with an element of awe for many of the characters involved. They were remarkable men and women on both sides. Whether it is starting a settlement from scratch 3000 miles from home or interacting with these strangers with their unfamiliar customs and languages is pretty impressive however you look at it. What this book provides is the nuance to understand the complexities that faced all the actors which is what makes their stories all the more fascinating. We may think we know the story, but we really need to know why this story has prevailed in popular culture for so many centuries. It is a remarkable story!

British Empire Book
Nathaniel Philbrick


Armed Forces | Art and Culture | Articles | Biographies | Colonies | Discussion | Glossary | Home | Library | Links | Map Room | Sources and Media | Science and Technology | Search | Student Zone | Timelines | TV & Film | Wargames

by Stephen Luscombe