Voyage of the MayflowerThe voyage of the Mayflower is one of the foundations of the USA’s view of itself, but it is significant in British history too – not least because for more than 150 years after the voyage New England remained a British colony.
England was plagued by religious strife throughout the Tudor era which continued into the reign of James I . Religious dissent was often regarded as sedition, a situation that led a group of separationists (i.e. those who refused to adhere to the Church of England) centred on Scrooby in Nottinghamshire to seek a new life first in Amsterdam then in Leiden in the early years of James’s reign. When circumstances changed – they were scared of losing their English identity, some were impoverished, they wished to spread their religion, and significantly opportunities beckoned in America – this group provided the core of the settlers aboard the Mayflower, with others of like mind from Norfolk , Kent , Suffolk , Yorkshire and various other counties they made roughly half the passenger list. The rest were men hired by the London backers of the voyage for their skills – farmers, soldiers, and craftsmen.
Originally the ship Speedwell, which brought many of the pilgrim element from Holland to Southampton , was due to accompany the larger Mayflower, but her crew fooled the passengers into believing she was dangerous during two abortive attempts to begin the Atlantic crossing, firstly from Southampton, then from Dartmouth . Thus the Mayflower eventually sailed alone, after several weeks in Plymouth following the second attempt.
The 102 passengers aboard the 180 ton merchant ship, thought to have been about 100 feet in length, and with a beam of 25 feet, shared cramped conditions without privacy or comfort – several were hurt during storms when thrown against the ship’s sides. In spite of this only one passenger, William Butten, died during the crossing. The estimated 25 crew likewise had little space in the so-called Great Cabin.
The first sailing was in early August, the third and successful departure only on September 6 1620, meaning it was autumn weather the ship had to endure, and that after 66 days afloat the Mayflower made landfall in November as winter set in. Worse, rather than as planned reaching the Hudson River near to established colonies they arrived at the tip of Cape Cod much further north having gone drastically off course. Forced to remain aboard ship over the winter, though with stores replenished from sorties ashore (robbing Indian graves among other methods) almost half of the colonists and crew died of a virulent disease over that winter.
It was not until March 1621 that, with shelter prepared by advance parties, the surviving colonists disembarked. More would die soon enough. But many survived and thrived, setting an example for every succeeding generation of Americans; establishing traditions like Thanksgiving; their determination to evade religious intolerance and to disregard the harsh commercial conditions imposed on them back in England providing key elements in the way America would be moulded.
More British History here