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ReviewsThe Mayflower Generation by Rebecca Fraser reviewed by Bruce Harris

The Mayflower Generation by Rebecca Fraser reviewed by Bruce Harris

How many of the events planned to commemorate the departure from Plymouth of the Mayflower in September 1620 will actually happen in our present situation remains to be seen. It is to be hoped that as much of the intended programme which can go ahead will do, but for those whose knowledge of the event is sketchy, this book will be an invaluable aid.
Rebecca Fraser is a biographer as well as a historian, and her writing is people-led rather than dominated by dates and events, which gives the story a particular poignancy. While the venture had a very religious and political background, it is the extraordinary courage, determination and persistence of the people which is striking from the start.
The Mayflower pilgrims had already fled to Leiden, in Holland, to escape the oppressive religious atmosphere in England. The hopes of greater religious toleration invested in the accession of James 1 in 1603 had largely been dashed, and Puritan clergy were being widely ousted from their livings. When further difficulties began to arise in Holland too, over 100 of the Leiden English Puritan community sailed to England in a small boat called the Speedwell.
Their first attempt to leave Plymouth in August 2020 in both the Mayflower and the Speedwell failed because of the unworthiness of the Speedwell. The Mayflower, in truth, wasn’t much better – the ship was scrapped in 1624 – but if the expedition was to go ahead, the pilgrims had no other choice than to all pack in to the Mayflower, which was 100 feet long and 25 feet wide, a ‘bathtub with masts’. After a profoundly difficult and uncomfortable two month voyage, 102 pilgrims and 30 crew landed on the coast of New England in November, probably the worst possible time to arrive. Half of the pilgrims died during the first winter, and the colony would have been wiped out altogether but for the help of the local Indians.
Central to the success or failure of the expedition was the Winslow family, originally yeomen farmers turned cloth merchants In Droitwich, near Worcester. Edward Winslow became the Governor of the Plymouth Colony, and he was a fascinating and in many ways admirable character whose abilities are adeptly illustrated by Fraser. The persistence and courage of the community in the teeth of dreadful obstacles and a death rate, including some suicides, which would have totally destroyed the morale of lesser people resounds through the story, and at the centre of it all is Edward Winslow, whose negotiating skills and ability to deal successfully with the local Indians gradually improved the colonists’ chances of survival. He established a relationship of trust and mutual respect with the prominent local Indian chief Massasoit which literally rescued the expedition from oblivion.
During the Commonwealth regime of 1650-60, Edward spent some years in England working in senior governmental positions. However, the Restoration changed the situation radically, and Charles II eventually imposed direct government on the New England colonies, which had become used to considerable autonomy. The new government also no longer recognised the Indian wampum shell-currency, meaning the Indians could no longer pay for the English goods they wanted, particularly the tools. Over the years, this also meant the only way the Indians had of paying their debts was by selling their land.
Edward’s son Josiah and Massasoit’s son Metacom, the latter’s name anglicised to Philip, were different characters from their fathers. Josiah had similar organisational and leadership skills while lacking his father’s careful diplomacy and respect for the Indians. Philip saw that the only possible conclusion to the way things were developing would the total subjugation of his people to the English, meaning the loss of their lands and their way of life. In 1675, he achieved an unprecedented union of the tribes, whose combined strength still heavily outnumbered the English, and a vicious conflict which has become known as Philip’s War broke out right across New England and almost brought the colonies to their knees before the Indians were eventually defeated.
We all know the outcome, and while we can respect the colonists’ determination and achievements, there is little to celebrate in the treatment of the indigenous peoples. As the years passed, the original uncompromising Puritanism of the settlers became increasingly diluted with the many and various adventurers escaping the persistent sectarianism of the British Isles. One of the great tragedies of the United States was that, while they sensibly managed to avoid the vast religious conflicts of Europe by setting themselves up as a secular state, they found another issue which would tear the country apart in slavery.
Rebecca Fraser follows the lives of the original pilgrim families until the early eighteenth century, and it is an extraordinary story made all the more remarkable by the author’s diligent and detailed handling of her material. Bearing in mind that these are, in effect, the years when our people gave birth to the nation which was to become the richest and most powerful in the world, it is surprising how little many of us know of them, and I don’t exclude myself from that. Whatever its merits and faults, this story is part of our story.

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