TAITMAIL The Mayflower legacy and the Wampanoag

We were wondering, weren’t we, what the next 14-18 NOW might be, the next national celebration of an historical event that could have a variety of interpretations to clarify a significant moment in our collective past but at the same time have an international resonance. Is it Mayflower 400?

There’s no end of fascinating concomitants to the Mayflower story; the persecution of the Puritans, the kind of vessel they sailed in, the other passengers, the character of the Mayflower’s captain and crew, the conditions in the towns and villages from which the separatists fled, where they first went to and why, why they wanted to move on, what they found in  Massachusetts, how they survived, the native Americans that helped them, why those native Americans were able to greet the colonists with “Hello Englishmen!”, what happened to the colony, what happened to the natives, and so on.
 
It isn’t the huge five-year programme 14-18 NOW was, and has nothing like the budget or the central government backing, but Mayflower 400 – marking the sailing of the ship from Plymouth for, they thought, Virginia on September 16th, 1620, and eventual landfall 64 days later many miles north of their target – could be that national event that takes our minds off the awfulness of other aspects of public life.

It was a crazy venture, but no less so than Walter Raleigh’s in the previous century, and William Bradford’s pilgrims were lucky to make it. There should have been two ships, and we should be celebrating the sailing from Dartmouth from where they first set out, but the Speedwell couldn’t make it past Land’s End and the two vessels had to make it back to Plymouth where both passenger loads were crammed into the Mayflower. She made it, and even got back the following year to Rotherhithe where she – and her skipper Captain Jones – gave up the ghost.
 
Of the 102 passengers that arrived at Cape Cod, 41 were separatist Puritans. The settlers had no idea how to manage the land, brought the wrong seed, and would all have starved to death; as it was only half of them survived. The local native Americans, a sept of the Wampanoag, were hostile – why would they not be? – but after six months of watching burials took pity and thanks to English-speaking Squanto, who had been kidnapped into slavery by pirates but had made his way back to his tribe, offered to help. They taught the colonists what to plant and how, how to fish and hunt, and how to manage the unforgiving terrain. They became close collaborators, each coming to the other’s rescue when they were attacked and celebrating Thanksgiving together in November 1621. 
 
But the eventual success of the Plymouth settlement brought many more adventurers seeking a new life in the new world, and they were less neighbourly with their hosts. In 50 years the Wampanoag were all but wiped out by the insurgents who, against their better judgement, the natives had helped survive.
 
So Mayflower 400 has a duty to make some redress, and so the Wampanoag are part of the planning.  “The Mayflower story cannot honestly be told without including the Wampanoag nation and the devastating impact of colonization on indigenous people" says Paula Peters, a member of the Mayflower 400 Wampanoag Advisory Committee. "We are grateful to have been invited to contribute our historical and cultural knowledge to this commemoration unencumbered by centuries of marginalisation and uncensored by contemporary event planners. Exhibits, events and activities produced by the Wampanoag or developed under our guidance will challenge what you may think you know about colonisation in a very authentic, and we hope thought-provoking way.
 
“But the biggest takeaway we hope you discover is that we are still here.”
 
The year also allows us to discover how small a part Plymouth itself played in the story. The pilgrims had come mostly from Midlands towns and villages, and fled persecution at first to Leiden in Holland, and Plymouth's part lasted only few days. The planning therefore links 14 different places that are part of the story, including Leiden and the Wampanoags of Massachusetts, with events scheduled in all of them. It's a truly national event.
 
But the third effect will be to Plymouth itself whose name, however tenuously connected to the tale, will for ever be tagged to it. The huge Mayflower 400 exhibition being put together will go into The Box, the £45m remake of the museum and art gallery opening in the spring; the Grade II Listed Devonport Market Hall in Plymouth is in a £5m transformation to turn it into a digital arts centre; the Theatre Royal Plymouth (TRP) is putting on a massive theatre event, This Land, involving 30 Wampanoags and 70 Plymothians; the Elizabethan House, the boarding house where some of the pilgrims would have stayed before embarking, is being restored.
 
 “It’s a great opportunity for the city to take advantage of international interest, j so it does have a currency way beyond Plymouth to give a transformational legacy to the city” says the chair of Mayflower 400 and CEO of the TRP. “If not now, when?”


 

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