Nearly four hundred years ago, 65 men, women and children boarded the Mayflower as it lay berthed on the Thames, to the East of the Tower of London.
Their plan was to rendezvous with friends and family waiting for them on the Speedwell then work their way around the coast and sail to Virginia. Unfortunately, following a comedy of errors, it was only the Mayflower which could make the journey – by then, crammed with 102 passengers.
They sailed late and the voyage was beset by arguments. They failed to reach their planned destination. Within a year about half of the passengers were dead.
They were not the first to sail to America – Vikings, Spanish and English settlers had all travelled before them. Yet their endeavour is the foundation myth of the greatest power in our world today. Their descendants number millions, including presidents as Franklin D. Roosevelt and George W. Bush and celebrities ranging from Taylor Swift to Benedict Cumberbatch.
It might be worth pondering the Mayflower legacy, including some aspects of the story not always understood, and the opportunity it offers our leaders at the moment. As we approach the four hundredth year since their great enterprise, we can learn much from them.
The voyagers were mostly English ‘middling sorts’ – families of religious dissidents who had been trying for years to escape oppression. Many of the families had previously settled in Leiden, Netherlands, but feared loss of distinct identity there and the possibility of Spanish conquest. There were other passengers too – particularly those prompted to sail by connections to the London merchants. Some of them were members of the great Livery Companies of the City – the people who financed the voyage.
In 1620, they started work which over time would change our world. As one of the Mayflower’s leading luminaries, William Bradford, wrote:
“As one small candle may light a thousand, so the light here kindled hath shone unto many…”
The candles lit by those involved with the Mayflower illuminate our world now. What made them different to those who went before? What can we do now to honour their memory and use the imminent anniversary to benefit our world? At a reduced level, what can the world learn from the fate and achievements of just 102 dead English people?
There are a few obvious themes and some which might be less apparent. I believe these are:
We can then consider those themes and, maybe, bring them alive in our commemoration of Mayflower and daily lives more than we have realised so far.
First though, let’s be clear that a reduced perspective on Mayflower is not the best prism through which to view it. There were only a few dozen voyagers and they died centuries back but their story is a universal and an eternal tale. It is a migrant story. They faced dark challenges in a strange place and were bouyed by hope and their capacity for hard work.
At heart, it is a story as much for a Polish family in Boston, Lincolnshire as descendants of the voyagers living in Boston, Massachusetts. It is a ‘plural’ tale. The planned international celebrations will involve British, Dutch and all Americans – especially the Whampanoag, more on that later.
Now, let’s consider the themes briefly.
We tend to picture the voyagers as people motivated by religious conviction. They were but in that they were like most of their fellow English folk of that time. What set them apart, quite literally, was the desire to leave and the structure which enabled that – a trading vehicle established by Merchant Adventurers in the City of London. The voyagers faced many risks for many reasons but a profit motive was apparent in the enterprise (although sadly it took decades for the colony to turn a profit). Many in business now want to take a return yet are fearful of risk. They should recall the Mayflower voyagers.
There were distinct groups on the voyage and they did not entirely see eye-to-eye about matters. When it became clear that they would not make land in the established colony of Virginia, they realised the need to create a framework for governing themselves. That prompted the famous ‘Mayflower Compact’.
The document drew deeply upon Magna Carta and in turn helped to inform the Constitution of the United States. Misty eyed, perhaps, but it reflects an Anglo-Saxon faith in liberty protected by common-sense law, that perfect blend of pragmatism and principle which should guide and underpin domestic political society and international trade.
I recently heard a French Prime Minister declare, sympathetically, that Chinese interpretation of a signed contract is simply that it serves as a ‘guide’ for iteration, essentially ‘work in progress’. Whilst that is appreciable, it is not a concession which serves our world at this moment. We must value ‘contract’ as is the guarantor of our dealings – especially our vital ones.
The voyagers were not simply granted the right to leave at first request. They had to lobby hard and negotiate details over years with Government and business contacts. They did not give up their ambitions but, perhaps like those Britons recently who have felt their political ambitions remain just out of reach for years, they persevered. If ever our society craves instant gratification, in any way, we should recall the Mayflower. Great things do not usually happen overnight,
They landed in the wrong place – a desolate region wracked by illness brought by previous visitors. Within months, half of the voyagers were dead. Their adversity was as dark as any faced by Mankind.
Still, the survivors adapted and prospered. But, this is key, they did not achieve that alone. The local population, the Whampanoag, allowed two natives – Samoset and Squanto – to visit the settlers at their darkest moment and to teach them how to cultivate local crops. As Samoset had been taught to speak English by British sailors. it is perhaps no surprise that his opening words were to ask for beer.
Squanto had visited Europe – a salutary reminder that voyages of discovery went both ways. The peace which followed between the peoples lasted years and is exemplary. So, the Mayflower voyagers faced doom and adapted to survive then thrive. In these times of virus that lesson is worthwhile – we should never abandon hope.
Of course the voyage and survival of the colony is the root of annual Thanksgiving celebrations. This year perhaps they have cadence for the whole world. Maybe, going forward we can all try a daily act of gratitude. Instead of grumbling about what we lack, as many – like me – do too often, we should be happier.
Trite as it might sound, maybe we should count our blessings? We live in prosperous societies at a remarkable time in human history. Technology and trade give us a world of such immense possibility and our lives are much richer than those of our ancestors. Let’s try to keep that in mind.
There are plans to celebrate the voyage. New England is the focus in America and the centrepiece of Plymouth400 has been the restoration of a replica Mayflower. A panoply of events have been planned – with many of course being postponed.
In Europe, the burghers of Leiden have a wonderful series of initiatives (many now virtual) and the UK works have focused on Plymouth and the Compact sites (the principal towns from which voyagers were drawn and – a little late to the party – the City of London, source of the funding).
Many of the UK public and charitable works have been hit – the major focus on inbound tourism and a transatlantic voyage which I am involved with for example – although some projects like the plans to ‘illuminate Rotherhithe’ and take a scroll from the UK Parliament to the House of Representatives, in the US, remain live (as do hopes for national commemoration in September) much has been shelved. However, this moment might allow us to regroup, learn from the inspirations noted above and be bolder.
The Mayflower Compact in the UK has been wonderfully led by Charles Hackett and his team in Plymouth. However, their brief from central government was largely driven by funding from DCMS – thus focused on some local regeneration, public celebration (as in the States, based on Bradford’s theme of Illumination) and ensuring activities for tourists visiting to find out about their family heritage.
Absent, to a large degree, has been maximal use of the themes to promote transatlantic trade and diplomatic engagement. Along with a handful of others I started lobbying City politicians and central government years ago to be bold.
We had allies then – notably Munira Mirza, who wrote in Unherd and is now Head of Policy in No10 – but there was scant interest in the FCO or DiT and even less in the Corporation of London. Eyes were understandably turned to Brexit problems and risks but the lessons of Mayflower, those touched on above, were lost.
All is not lost though. We can still use the Mayflower to celebrate not just shared family heritage between Europe and the States but shared values, shared trade, common commercial and political interests and, above all, shared hope.
Let’s have the Mayflower value inform our trade negotiations with the United States – and even our EU partners, after all the voyage was conceived in Holland.
In forging FTAs, we can honour the vitality of contract, of parties committing to each other. We can shape a world based on that more than the whims of the powerful.
Let’s show that we are enterprising, that we persevere and build something great.
Let’s push outwards and upwards. Let’s honour the Mayflower – let’s face the future with hope and a readiness for hard work. Those are just the qualities we need now, more than ever.
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