The Mayflower Pilgrims: Behind the Myth – BBC 2


Word PressThis did what it said on the tin, which was fair enough, but it did look at the beginning of the programme as if it was going to explore beyond the basic facts … and then it didn’t!

We started off with the Pilgrims in Scrooby – and the point was made that these people were religious extremists. That often gets overlooked, with the idea of them escaping “persecution”. Yes, by today’s standards it’s absolutely appalling that recusancy and holding non-Anglican religious services were crimes in Jacobean England, but, by the standards of the time, and compared with what was going on elsewhere, things here really weren’t bad. I’m not saying that there wasn’t persecution, because obviously there was, and a number of people were executed as a result of it … but plenty of Dissenters and Catholics managed all right by practising occasional conformity and keeping a low profile.

Anyway, that didn’t work for the Pilgrims, so off they went to Leiden – the Netherlands having for some time been the destination of choice for Protestants (and Jews) in search of greater religious toleration. But were they in search of toleration, or were they hoping to find a society where everyone was a Puritan? Probably the latter. Anyway, they didn’t like being in Leiden, because the work available to them didn’t suit, and they didn’t like living somewhere that wasn’t English. At this point, the programme started going on about the Thirty Years’ War and how that made people feel that the end of the world was nigh. Hang on a minute! Yes, there was a lot of millenarianism going on in the 17th century, but, when the Pilgrim Fathers left for the New World, the Thirty Years’ War had barely kicked off. They left Plymouth two months before the Battle of White Mountain. No-one’s telling me that they decided to cross the Atlantic because a few people had been shoved out of a window in Prague. Their decision may have had a lot to do with the fact that the latest truce in the war between Spain and the Netherlands was about to expire, and the Black Legend stories were panicking them, but I don’t know why BBC 2 brought the Thirty Years’ War into it!

Then they set sail at completely the wrong time of year, and had a rotten journey … but they made it. And this is where the myth begins.   No-one’s really sure whether or not they actually landed at Plimoth Rock. Fascinating place – I’ve been there – but was that really where they landed? And a lot of the initial explorations were carried out not by the Pilgrims but by the “Strangers”. The BBC 2 programme didn’t really pick up on that, which was annoying. I always find Myles Standish very interesting, because I like the idea that he actually was from the Standish area. And then there’s the idea of Thanksgiving. It’s a lovely, lovely idea, and I wish so much that we’d adopted that tradition rather than “Black Friday”, but the Thanksgiving of the story, the feast attended by the Native Americans and the Pilgrims, probably never happened. And, sadly, many of the Pilgrims died during their first winter in the New World.

So how did this whole myth, the idea that this was the foundation of what became the United States, come about? It looked early on as if the programme would go into that, but it didn’t. This wasn’t the first successful English settlement in the Americans. Jamestown was there 13 years earlier. And it’s not as if people don’t know about Jamestown – everyone’s heard the story of John Rolfe and Pocahontas, even if it’s only from the Disney cartoon!

But it’s the Mayflower story that’s become the founding myth of the United States. So how, and why? And the term “Pilgrims”, although it was used by William Bradford, the member of the group who recorded their story, wasn’t really in popular use until the very late 18th/early 19th century – maybe a post-independence thing, or maybe something to do with the Second Great Awakening?   And the Mayflower Compact, like the Magna Carta, has come to be regarded as an almost sacred document.

There is something really special about the idea of the USA. I remember going to the National Archives in Washington and seeing the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights and the Constitution and being very moved by them – and that’s me, a British tourist.   And that’s all got tied up with the story of the Pilgrim Fathers. Maybe it’s this whole idea of a New Jerusalem and this grand vision of a New World, whereas most settlers were thinking more about the economics of things. I mean, it’s hard to talk about grandiose ideas if you’re thinking about people looking for a quick buck, convicts being packed off to Australia, or people from slightly dodgy backgrounds being pressed to go and populate Quebec.

But the New Jerusalem idea is very problematic … and I think there’s room for a programme on how extreme Calvinist culture has influenced politics, in the United States and in mainly Afrikaner parts of South Africa. It’s a controversial subject, and maybe there are enough tensions around at the moment without anyone going into it too deeply, but it’d still be interesting to see.

Anyway, we have this glorious story – and it is a glorious story – about this small group of people, with little money and no political influence, crossing the Atlantic Ocean, in horrendous conditions, in search of religious freedom, and signing this democratic “compact”, and then holding a thanksgiving feast in peace and harmony with the local Native Americans. This programme tackled the issue of how that wasn’t exactly what happened J, but it would have been nice to see it go into the issue of how the myth developed. But, to be fair, that wasn’t what the programme said it was going to do – and it did a decent enough job of what it did say it was going to do :-).

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