Written by:
Danny Reilly

Mayflower turns 400: Sanitising History?

Read time:
4 minutes

Ahead of Thanksgiving this year, Danny Reilly of the Mayflower Mavericks writes a timely reminder why teaching history must be more than a story we accept, but a reflection of the reality.

In late 1620 a ship called the Mayflower sailed from Plymouth, UK, in a colonial venture to what is now New England, USA. In what is traditionally told as a story of discovery, democratic progress and the creation of a ‘New World,’ the Mayflower transported 102 passengers, including the famous ‘Pilgrim Fathers’, or Calvinist Separatists, though they made up fewer than half of those on board. The journey was part of the early establishment of the three British colonial centres in the Americas: Virginia, New England and the Caribbean. 

‘The Mayflower Story,’ which was devised some 250 years ago in order to support a powerful myth about the founding of America, has since framed collective understanding of what was, in reality, an invasion.

If we were to tell the unedited Mayflower/New England story, it involves slavery, land grabbing and massacres. Starting with the Pequot War 1636-38, a pattern of warfare that lasted 250 years was established by colonists in North America. It involved attacks on food supplies and the deployment against Indigenous resistance of militias against non-combatants as well as combatants. These militias were later used to catch run-away slaves.

Sadly, the opening of the Mayflower Museum which opened in Plymouth, UK, in 2015, has swallowed uncritically the ‘Mayflower Story’s’ retelling of history. The Museum’s displays present a version of the Mayflower story that, rather than set in the context of British Imperial history, is only about the ‘Pilgrims’.

As we approach the Mayflower’s 400th anniversary commemorations, to be officially launched on 28 November 2019 (Thanksgiving Day), this misleading version of the story, with its uncomplicated praise for the Pilgrims and their actions, becomes ever more deeply entrenched. 

The same skewered understanding serves as the sanitised framework for the ‘Mayflower 400 website,’ which went live soon after the opening of the museum. 

"Every child in Plymouth will know the story of the Mayflower" (Plymouth Council Scrutiny committee, 16/03/2016)

Similarly, a Mayflower teaching and learning project started by Mayflower 400 firmly places the story of the British Separatists, i.e. the Pilgrims, at the centre of the narrative. Even where ‘Native Americans’ are referred to, indigenous people are mostly to be studied for comparison purposes, or as parts of events and changes initiated outside of their societies. A ‘History and the Native American Wars’ module was belatedly included, which very briefly lists issues relating to expropriations and the oppressive conduct of the settlers. The New England connections to the Caribbean are not dealt with. 

This is a huge missed opportunity, as the online resources are extensive, including a Teachers’ Toolkit that has schemes of work covering Key Stages (KS) 1, 2 and 3. The organisation of this project has links to the local authority but is outside statutory educational arrangements, which has enabled Mayflower 400 to use existing channels to establish its influence and promote its materials. The amended KS3 scheme is now 64 pages long, arranged in 18 modules designed to cover all the National Curriculum subjects while studying the Mayflower. 

In 1769, just six years before the start of the War of Independence, the Mayflower commemorations were re-purposed with the inauguration of Forefathers Day in Plymouth Massachusetts. Marking the establishment of the New Plymouth settlement became mixed up with political discontent over colonial government and restrictions on westward colonial expansion. Subsequently, the ‘Mayflower Compact’, signed in November 1620 by the majority of the male Mayflower passengers, was hailed as a forerunner of the Constitution of the USA, and the Thanksgiving of Autumn 1621 was rebranded as ‘The First Thanksgiving’.

By 1775 the rebellion by thirteen of the then fifteen British North American colonies had been made possible because of the economic success of New England in the previous 150 years. The connections between the British Caribbean and New England colonies in the early seventeenth century were developed through trade relations centred on sugar produced by slave labour, initially in Barbados. A Caribbean - New England - West African coast triangular trade of molasses, rum and slaves led to the economic success of the North American colonies and the creation of the Mayflower story, which in turn led to the challenge to the British crown. 

There had been a 90% decline in the indigenous population along the North Atlantic American coast between 1600 and 1700 as a result of disease and colonial war. The resulting land seizures enabled the development of agricultural production, the creation of rum refining and shipping industries, and trade-driven economic growth. 

The plans for the Mayflower 400 commemorations are regional, national and transatlantic, and include a host of projects. A few of the creative arts projects challenge sanitisation of the story. However, the Mayflower education programme does not. Indeed, one of the most recent announcements includes an initiative for young people looking uncritically at the ‘Mayflower Compact,’ see our comment articulating concerns about this here.

The dominant colonial narrative adopted by the formal channels shaping understanding of the Mayflower simply ignores the history - and continuing consequences - of colonisation.

Such a narrow look at history is not only wrong, it is damaging.


The Mayflower Mavericks tweet here: @MayflowerM1620

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