Painting of the Mayflower by Mike Haywood
One year, sailing east across the Atlantic, we met September storms. The ship was big, but it was difficult to stand upright, and most of the passengers were ill. Ever since I have empathised with the 102 men, women, and children who on 5 September 1620 left Plymouth in two ships to sail west across the Atlantic. They immediately discovered that one of their ships, the Speedwell, would not sail, and turned round, piling everyone into the Mayflower and setting off again.
Loaded into the Mayflower with their ploughs, guns, a spaniel and a mastiff, they were so crowded that many men slept on deck, sheltering under rowboats. They headed straight into the equinoctial gales of the Atlantic. Halfway across, storms cracked a main beam, but they managed to repair it, and they sailed on, not toward civilization, as I had, but toward an unknown continent.
Whatever persuaded them to make the voyage?
According to their own journals they decided to go to America because they wanted to share the Gospel and worship as they pleased and because they longed to retain their English language and customs.
By late November, after almost two months on the Atlantic, they had been blown off course, and decided to land wherever they could. As they gazed at the wintry wilderness of Cape Cod they realized they had to have some kind of plan of action.
On deck they drafted an amazing agreement. They bound themselves to cooperation and self-government under majority rule.
They did not waffle on, piling sentence on top of sentence. Their Mayflower Compact was just three sentences long. They didn’t go into detail because their lives were already governed by the Ten Commandments and by the teaching of Christ to love God and each other. Their agreement to govern themselves cooperatively and democratically was remarkable then. It is still remarkable today.
After they landed on the Cape they fished, and hunted for food with the help of the spaniel and mastiff. The Indians brought them corn. Nevertheless half the Pilgrims died of malnutrition and exposure before a year had passed. The Indians also suffered, from the hands of unscrupulous settlers and because they had no resistance to infectious diseases from Western Europe.
In 1619, British settlers in Virginia celebrated “a day of thanksgiving to God”. In 1621, the Pilgrims thanked God and their neighbours with a three-day feast with the Grand Sachem Massasoit and the Wampanoag people.
Edward Winslow left a fascinating description of relations with the Indians, and a journey to visit the ill Massasoit. It is here.
By 1640 there were 20,000 British in New England, and they were flourishing. Despite death and loss, and sometimes despite themselves, they helped to plant freedom in their newfound land.
To all those who defend justice and freedom today, thank you.