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Those who emigrated on the Mayflower in 1620 seeking religious liberty might not have realised the challenges that lay ahead of them. Roaring summer heat and bitter winters were only part of their test. Economic instability, disease and troubling encounters with the native population meant that the early years of the Plymouth colony were tarnished by hardship.
However, it was not only material and environmental adversity that faced the colonists or their friends and families back home. The distance stretching between those who stayed and those who sailed was felt painfully and persistently.
As such, correspondence played a central role in the pilgrims’ lives. It sustained friendships and kinship over immense distances. Letters extended social habits of communal worship, sharing spiritual knowledge and advice, and collective prayer that had once been practised in person.
Many of the Mayflower pilgrims had left England long before they set sail for the New World. They had radical religious beliefs and did not agree with the way the Church of England was run.
Looking for religious freedom, they fled to Leiden, the Netherlands. There, many worshipped at the Pieterskerk with their pastor, John Robinson. This group of refugees stayed in Leiden for 12 years. However, Holland was not as tolerant of their religious practices as they liked, and they began to fear the spread of the Thirty Years War that was overwhelming much of Europe.
In 1620, many of the group set sail again, this time for the New World. By then, they were a close community, and in 1625 those that had stayed behind expressed their grief that, “[they were] constrained to live disunited each from other, especially considering our affections each unto other”.
Puritans were intensely sociable in their worship. They believed that they belonged to a society of God’s saints. These were radical Protestants.
They had come together as minority groups in the face of criticism and ridicule from those around them. The name “puritan” was originally an insult, made by mocking neighbours poking fun at their intensely pious nature. With the sailing of the Mayflower, the separation of their close communities meant the disruption of the religious practices that defined them, particularly their emphasis on collective worship.
The Bible was a vital text for puritans and they felt strongly that they should study it together as often as they did privately. They did so constantly searching to learn more of God’s intentions for them.
In a practice called “gadding”, many puritans would travel to hear sermons given by ministers who believed the same things as themselves, since not everyone had access to a puritan preacher in their home parish or town. When unable to travel, they counselled each other. This happened in person where possible, but also in correspondence due to networks spread across Great Britain and the Netherlands.
Getting word across oceans
Puritan friendships were spiritual and social, and communion between friends provided emotional and material support. Their dispersal across England and the Netherlands made letter writing essential, even before emigration to the New World.
But these distances proved little in comparison to the Atlantic Ocean. With the prospect of a long term or permanent separation, puritans relied on their letters with increased urgency. Writing to her brother in law John Winthrop in 1629, Priscilla Fones expressed her fear at his impending departure:
… for though the bond of love still continues, the distance of the place will not let us be so useful one to another as now we are.
Correspondence provided the Leiden pastor John Robinson with a space to reassert his ties with his former congregants. In 1621, he wrote that “neither the distance of place nor distinction of body, can at all either dissolve or weaken that bond” between them. He vowed to maintain their spiritual connection with prayer and passed on well wishes from the wives and children of the emigrants, and others of the congregation who had stayed behind in Leiden.
Transatlantic correspondence came with many problems. Ships had to be available to carry these letters, while the journey was slow and the passage unreliable. Roger White, a citizen of Leiden, wrote to the pilgrims in 1625, lamenting that “I know not whether ever this will come to your hands, or miscarry, as other of my letters have done”.
Exercising caution, in 1630 John Winthrop, a leading figure among the Puritan founders of New England, sent news to his wife across two letters and sent it on different ships. These fears were not misplaced. News came to Massachusetts in 1633 that some other letters recently received in England had been washed “white and clean with saltwater” after the ship carrying them was wrecked.
The Mayflower pilgrims and those that later settled in other parts of New England were supported by their letters. They relied on them for the endurance of their friendships, and the lifting of their spirits. Words set in ink provided emotional support; letters were kept, stored, read and reread to bring absent loved ones to heart and mind.
Waiting aboard the Arbella at Southampton, on the eve of his departure for the new world, John Winthrop wrote to his wife. He told her that he often re-read her letters with “much delight”, although he found that he could not “read them without tears”. More than just words on a page, letters were an emotional and spiritual lifeline. Correspondence brought people together in familiar patterns of worship, despite their great distances.
It is July 1620 in Southampton, England. Arriving into port is the Speedwell, a ship carrying a small religious group from the Netherlands. Anchored just off of the west quay of the town is the Mayflower, a larger ship with more passengers aboard, which is loading for a transatlantic voyage with the Speedwell. The passengers have permission and funding to start a trading settlement in the Colony of Virginia (which at the time extended far further than the modern state of Virginia), under the control of the Virginia Company.
Despite the historical significance of the Mayflower, we know very little about the ship and its voyage. We only know its name from a document written three years after the voyage. At the time the Mayflower was not notable or special and – because some of the passengers faced persecution for their religious activities – they probably kept a low profile.
Evidence suggests that it was “burden about nine score” or 180 tons. “Burden” was a term for cargo capacity, while a “tun” was a large cask of wine. The ship could therefore carry the equivalent of 180 tuns of wine.
There are unfortunately no illustrations or plans of The Mayflower from the time, so we don’t even know for certain what the ship looked like. We do know, however, that ships around this time were built to a series of similar rules (outlined in Swedish shipbuilder Fredrik Henrik af Chapman’s Architectura Navalis Mercatoria, published in 1768). We can therefore begin to estimate the proportions for the cargo carried, but with a caution that the rules varied between shipwrights, with many details not recorded and drawings not made.
In fact, the famous 17th-century diarist Samuel Pepys tells us that shipwrights “depended on their eyes … never pretending to the laying down of a draught, their knowledge lying in their hands so confusedly”. Based on typical proportions from the time we could expect that The Mayflower would have been around 30 metres in hull length and about 7.5 metres in breadth.
English merchant vessels were also expected to form a navy to protect the country if required. From similar vessels of the time, we can therefore reasonably assume that The Mayflower had raised “castles” at the bow and stern. A height advantage from the castles would have been useful in battle to fight and resist boarding.
The ship would also have carried a small number of cannon – mainly for self-defence. These would have been on a cramped gun-deck (where the passengers would also live) with gun-ports.
On August 15 1620, the two ships sailed for the New World from Southampton, but as soon as they departed, the Speedwell started leaking badly (despite some repairs already having been made in Southampton), requiring a diversion to Dartmouth to make repairs.
In mid-September 1620, they again departed England, but around 300 miles west of Land’s End the Speedwell leaked badly again, with the ship’s master complaining that “his ship was so leaky, as he must bear up, or sink at sea”. They returned to Plymouth, transferred as many passengers and stores as possible to the Mayflower, and set sail west again on 16 September. At the time it was suggested that the leaks were a plot by the captain and crew of the Speedwell to avoid a long and dangerous voyage.
Navigation in the 1600s was comparatively more advanced than many other sciences at the time. Sailors could measure their heading with magnetic compasses, and their speed with a log that was trailed behind the ship.
By measuring the height of the North Star above the horizon with instruments that were the forerunners of sextants, sailors could determine their position north of the equator (known as the “latitude”). However, on a rolling ship under cloudy skies taking accurate measurements and finding accurate positions was far from easy.
Knowing your position west or east of a point (“longitude”) was far more complicated. It could be found from measuring the local time when the sun reached its highest point in the sky, and comparing it to the time at a known point on land, as the local noon occurs four minutes later for every degree of longitude travelled west around the world.
Sadly clocks at the time were nowhere near accurate enough to measure this, and accurately measuring the height of the sun was difficult. Instead, sailors at the time used a combination of the compass, hourglasses and a log to record direction, time and speed, calculating a resulting position based on “dead reckoning”, which would become more inaccurate as the voyage progressed.
Despite some treacherous storms that nearly destroyed the vessel, The Mayflower arrived in North America after 66 days’ sailing. The ship was, however, just off Cape Cod, slightly north of the Colony of Virginia (which at that time extended north to Long Island Sound) where the colonists had permission to settle.
They tried sailing south, but encountered treacherous reefs and breaking waves and, low on provisions, they wisely headed north again, coming ashore initially at Provincetown, Massachusetts on November 21. But having landed outside of the Colony of Virginia, they had no contract to settle, or laws to follow.
Their solution was to draw up a democratic agreement (known as the Mayflower Compact), which governed them independently from England until they could obtain permission to settle where they landed. This was the first western example of a consensual government without a monarch. If their navigation had taken them just 65 miles further south, they would have landed in the Colony of Virginia, and history may have been different.
The Mayflower itself returned to England the following year, but sadly her Captain died in 1622. Left on the riverbank of the Thames, she fell into disrepair and was in such a poor condition that she was sold for parts in 1624. Ironically the Speedwell lasted far longer, sailing from Southampton to Virginia and back in 1635.
They were enemies of the state – religious malcontents and political subversives. This left England’s most radical puritans with just two options under Tudor treason law (besides execution, of course): either shut up or pack up and leave.
Elizabethan severity against Roman Catholics made sense, as Catholic powers across Europe were waging war against England. They united in a series of conspiracies to replace Elizabeth I with Mary Queen of Scots. The pope excommunicated Elizabeth and even ordered English subjects not to “dare obey her orders”.
But why would a Protestant queen outlaw zealous Protestants – and what was so subversive about worshipping the way they wanted?
The trouble was that some reformists went beyond insisting on minor improvements to the Church of England. They denounced it all together as false. They rejected the monarch’s supremacy over the church. And they widely publicised all this, calling bishops monstrous beasts.
When James VI of Scotland came to the English throne in 1603, his attempts to appease both ends of the spectrum fell on deaf ears. Disaffected Catholics hatched an elaborate plan to blow up the king and parliament in the Gunpowder Plot. On the other end of discontent, zealous Protestants separated from the Church of England and decided to pack up and leave. But they refused to shut up.
Many puritan dissenters headed to the Netherlands, where they exploited freedom of the press to print and distribute illicit texts from Leiden. They did so, according to the chief minister and leader of the core Mayflower migrants, John Robinson, because “lesse hurt comes by silence, than by speech” but so too “doth lesse good”.
Recently discovered manuscripts held at Trinity College Dublin Library shed new light on the pilgrims’ views and their later reception. Robinson himself had been strongly influenced by Henry Jacob (1562/3-1624), a Calvinist minister from Kent.
Jacob engaged in extensive underground exchanges with his fellow puritan critics. These hidden debates open up new ways of seeing how Jacob and Robinson played a far more radical role in one of the greatest political, military, and religious conflicts in British history.
According to his critics, Jacob was the first in the English-speaking world to espouse a view of ecclesiastical “independency”. Invoking the ancient Roman Republic’s idea of liberty as non-dependence, he argued explicitly that each particular church was free and not dependent on any higher ecclesiastical authority (whether the pope, bishop or church council). More importantly, he argued for the first time that any group of individual believers had the freedom to set up a new church society if they so chose.
Contemporaries feared Jacob would “begin a new world” by justifying the freedom to create new self-authenticating church societies. And that was exactly what he did. He migrated to Virginia after planting an independent church in London.
He also inspired Robinson, who cited Jacob to justify the freedom to establish new churches. Robinson further developed the idea of the freedom to discover the unknown, warning that injury from falling forward was less fatal than falling backwards.
Brave new world
Two decades after the Mayflower voyage to the new world, these ideas were threatening to create another crisis back in the old world.
Critics claimed that Robinson was responsible for spreading far more radical ideas back in England than in the new Plymouth colony. As the British Isles spiralled into civil war in the 1640s, radicals seized the moment to make new claims to liberty – which ended in the trial and execution of Charles I.
It was here that Robinson reappeared. His work was allegedly plagiarised by revolutionaries in parliament’s New Model Army who were fighting against royalist troops and threatening to dismantle all social hierarchy.
Edmund Chillenden was one such army agitator who appeared to silently lift Robinson’s arguments to make the case for any man – however humble and whether ordained as a minister or not – to preach publicly. No surprise that Chillenden was also a member of one of Jacob’s offshoot churches in London.
Jacob’s brand of independence did more than simply revive the Roman idea of freedom as non-dependence. He was the first person to argue that the church was defined in the New Testament solely as an independent congregation, as opposed to seeing each church as part of a single universal visible church.
This stretched independence beyond a political idea reserved for an elite group of men and made it universally applicable to every believer. This meant it could appeal to men lower down the social order and might even extend to women.
Robinson was careful to qualify the most egalitarian implications of his ideas. For instance, he denied that women had the right to speak and teach in public church assemblies ordinarily. (Exceptional women who were seen as prophetesses could speak openly in church, but this was rare.) New England colonists were at pains to deny their views would result in social anarchy.
But the Jacob connection again tells a different story.
Another member of the Jacob offshoot churches in London cited Robinson to stretch the social boundaries of freedom as independence. Katherine Chidley was one of the earliest and most vocal female writers and political activists in the English Revolution, leading an army of women in London to petition parliament.
She vigorously defended Robinson’s views in her Justification of Independant Churches. For Chidley, there was nothing exceptional about this. She believed in the freedom and natural ability of women to speak independently in public.
Following the Plymouth plantation in the new world, Robinson helped plant a new one in the old. Chidley used his ideas to justify female speech and dissent. Her public interventions were offensive – and even insulting – to many at the time because they challenged traditional hierarchy and overturned social conventions. They were pushing the same ideas in England that had prompted the Mayflower voyage.
One obvious difference, of course, was that she didn’t have to pack up or shut up. Instead, she spoke up.
Mayflower 400: the English were relative latecomers to the Americas, despite the USA’s founding myth
Popular anglophone histories tend to play up England’s settlement of the “New World”, but – in reality – England under Elizabeth I was, by comparison with Spain and France, a minor player on the European scene and for the most part non-existent in the New World.
Having lost Calais, its final territory in France, in 1558 – and having experienced the two short reigns of King Edward VI and Queen Mary – England could not compete with the strength, stability and financial resources of Spain. At that time Spain was vastly rich as gold and silver flowed from the mines of the New World, especially from Potosi, into Spanish coffers.
England and Spain had long been allies before Elizabeth’s reign – Henry VIII’s first wife, Katherine of Aragon, was Spanish, as was Mary Tudor’s husband Philip II. But animosities beneath the surface eventually boiled over into open warfare after England intervened in the Dutch Revolt to support the Dutch against Spanish control in 1585.
Philip had entertained the idea of aggression against England prior to 1585, but English engagement in the Netherlands along with piracy on the seas by the likes of Francis Drake provoked the launching of the Spanish Armada in 1588 in an attempt to invade and subjugate England to Spanish control. As the saying goes, “God blew and they were scattered”, and the 1580s mark a turning point in English ambition on the seas and relative to its European neighbours.
With adventurers such as Drake, Walter Raleigh and other privateers, soon independent Englishmen found private investors to finance their voyages to, and activity in, the New World. This was seen as a countermeasure to Spain and an opportunity to explore commercial ventures for trade.
The landing of the Mayflower in November 1620 is a significant historical marker. Its recognition is warranted because of the legacy that followed. But in many ways, the Mayflower represents not only the beginning of an Anglo-American story, for it is just one part of a wider European tale of exploration, settlement, and displacement and subjugation of indigenous populations.
The Mayflower followed the first successful English settlement at Jamestown in 1607, which itself was more than a century after the initial forays of the Spanish and Portuguese in the Americas.
‘In 1492 Columbus sailed the ocean blue’
Christopher Columbus (Cristoforo Colombo) was Italian and sailed to the New World under a Spanish flag. Other Italians followed in his wake – including Amerigo Vespucci, under both Spanish and Portuguese flags shortly after Columbus, and Giovanni Verrazzano under the French flag in 1524. Zuan Caboto (Britain knows him as John Cabot) sailed under an English flag in the 1490s, but his efforts never resulted in any permanent settlements by the English. Spanish exploration and colonisation in the New World stretched thousands of miles from deep into South America to the plains of North America.
New Spain (“Hispania Nova”) dominated early maps of the western hemisphere, and in these lands the Spanish government established colonial governance and administration, complete with churches and missionaries to attempt converting the indigenous. Lands claimed by Portugal in modern-day Brazil were also vast and easily recognisable on such maps.
International acknowledgement of Spanish and Portuguese territories and domination came with the Treaty of Tordesillas in 1494 – which, in the years that followed, earned the pope’s approval in Rome. Not to be outdone, by 1550 the French explored and subsequently claimed massive lands in what is now Canada – “Nova Francia”, though active settlement by the French in this area was limited.
Spain’s activity was not restricted to Central or South America. Spanish exploration in North America continued to expand as the century progressed. Hernando de Soto explored Florida during the 1540s, while Francisco Coronado the south-west (and Grand Canyon) at the same time. What is today Mexico had by this point been thoroughly occupied by Spain, the colonial capital city of Mexico City being built upon the ashes of the former Aztec city of Tenochtitlan.
The Spanish empire expanded further and further across the globe under King Philip II during the second half of the 16th century, especially when all Portuguese lands came under his dominion in 1580. So mighty, so awe-inspiring was Spanish power in Europe and the New World that none dared question it, even if daredevils like Drake drew Spanish ire by plundering along the coasts of South America during the 1570s.
So expansive, so far-reaching were Spanish lands that Europeans – the English very much included – knew how the sun never set on the Spanish empire in the 16th century (long before it never set on the British empire of the 19th).
By the early 17th century, England was more assured of itself on a European level than it had been since the reign of Henry VIII, but it still had a lot of catching up to do. Alongside Spain (especially having absorbed Portuguese dominions), the Dutch and even the Danish soon became active in exploring and claiming lands in the Americas.
The English, led by private companies or religious refugees, such as the Mayflower pilgrims, were in some respects on the back foot until the second half of the 17th century.
To situate the Mayflower within a broader context of European exploration and colonisation, and to understand early modern England among its mainland European neighbours, is not to belittle the achievements or significance of either. Rather, doing so helps us to see how a wide variety of countries and peoples came together – in commerce and trade but also in rivalry and war – to bring European cultures to the indigenous cultures of the New World with dramatic and often horrible effects.
And so began the great mixing and melding of peoples in the Americas.
How one woman pulled off the first consumer boycott – and helped inspire the British to abolish slavery
While many companies have trumpeted their support for the Black Lives Matter movement, others are beginning to face consumer pressure for not appearing to do enough.
For example, some people are advocating a consumer boycott of Starbucks over an internal memo that prohibits employees from wearing gear that refers to the movement. And advocates are urging supporters to target other companies under the Twitter tag #boycott4blacklives.
Consumers boycotts, which put power into the hands of people of even modest income and can lend a sense of “doing something” in the face of injustice, have a mixed track record. There have been some notable successes, such as consumer-led efforts to end apartheid in South Africa. But others, such as boycotts of the National Rifle Association and of Israel, have yielded little.
But it may hearten Black Lives Matter consumer activists to learn that the first-ever boycott – organized over 50 years before the term was even coined – was ultimately a success, if not in the way the woman behind it intended. I stumbled upon this history during research for my just-published book about the end of slavery in the British Caribbean.
In the 1820s, Elizabeth Heyrick felt disgust over Britain’s enslavement of people on islands such as Barbados and Jamaica in the West Indies, where large sugar plantations produced virtually all the sugar consumed in Western Europe.
Although England banned the British Atlantic slave trade in 1807, it still permitted people to own slaves in its colonies in the early 19th century.
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Heyrick joined the abolition movement from a position of privilege and wealth. But after an early marriage to a hothead husband ended with his death in 1797, she converted to Quakerism and vowed to give up “all ungodly lusts.” She eventually found a passion for the antislavery movement, though with marked frustration for the slow-moving process of pushing bills through the English Parliament.
Contemptuous of the male abolitionists in Parliament whom she regarded as too willing to appease the wealthy slaveholders who clung to slavery as an economic pillar, Heyrick launched a campaign to get ordinary Britons to quit using the sugar produced on these islands and for grocers not to carry it.
If people must have the “sweet dust,” she said, they should at least make sure it was grown in Britain’s colonies in the East Indies – Bengal and Malaya – where canefield laborers were impoverished but at least technically free.
Her campaign involved writing a series of booklet-sized polemics. In one such broadside, she asked those who favored gradual emancipation to reflect “that greater victories have been achieved by the combined expression of individual opinion than by fleets and armies; that greater moral revolutions have been accomplished by the combined exertions of individual resolution than were ever effected by acts of Parliament.”
Heyrick pulled no rhetorical punches:
“Let the produce of slave labor henceforth and for ever be regarded as ‘the accursed thing’ and refused admission to our houses,” she wrote. “Abstinence from one single article of luxury would annihilate the West Indian slavery!!”
Her focus on citizen-driven change through deliberate consumer activism was unpopular with her contemporaries who preferred negotiations among government officials to achieve their ends.
The Baptist War
Heyrick grew despondent with the seeming lack of progress from her boycott effort and died in 1831 without seeing her goal of “imminent emancipation” achieved. Her passing was barely noticed by British newspapers, yet her efforts would come to bear astonishing results very soon after her death.
Heyrick could not have known that an enslaved Baptist deacon in Jamaica named Samuel Sharpe was – while she was pushing for a boycott – reading about the anti-slavery movement she did so much to fuel, almost certainly including the “Quit Sugar” movement.
Heartened by the news that many people in the faraway capital of the empire were actually sympathetic to him and his fellows, he began to formulate his own revolutionary vision and preached about it and his plans for rebellion to select groups of elite slaves.
Sharpe’s rebellion, known as the Baptist War, began on Dec. 27, 1831. The uprising lasted less than two weeks and resulted in the destruction of dozens of buildings and killing of at least 500 slaves – both during the fighting and in reprisals. A giant pit had to be dug outside Jamaica’s Montego Bay to hold all the bodies. Sharpe was hanged a few months later.
But the mere demonstration of military competence – the rebels defeated the island militia in at least one head-to-head confrontation – made an impression like no other uprising had before and helped inspire the British Parliament to pass the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833, which abolished slavery in the West Indies. Full freedom wasn’t achieved until 1838.
The headlines of 19th century newspapers thus performed a double-function as they crossed the Atlantic. News of the sugar boycott helped inspired enslaved people to revolt, and news of their visceral unhappiness to the point of mayhem helped inspire the British Parliament to push for immediate abolition – which is what Heyrick had been saying all along.