The Mayflower Sets Sail for the New World
- August 5th 1620 -
The religious turmoil of sixteenth century Britain, the split from Rome under Henry VIII’s Act of Supremacy in 1535, the establishment of the Church of England under Henry, then completed under Elizabeth I and the leanings of the first Stuart King, James I, led to a group of people deciding that England was not a country religiously suitable for them in which to live. It did not have the religious flexibility they desired and they were disappointed with how James I, possibly worried about Catholic plots again, was not the King for which they had hoped. The group held Calvinist, Puritan beliefs and believed they needed to be separated from the state religion. Having moved to the Netherlands they were concerned, that by staying there, they would lose their English culture so decided to set up a new colony in the New World.
Thus, alongside a group from the Leiden Church, in the Netherlands, they procured the cargo ship, Mayflower, to take them to America, with the King’s blessing. They had arranged a piece of land in Virginia, a colony that was already of English ownership, with the permission of the Company of Merchant Adventurers. Virginia was named after Elizabeth I and had been colonised in her reign. Rather than look to the continent, as her father, Henry VIII had done, she looked west to gain land and wealth in the New World with the help of her ‘Privateers’ such a Drake and Raleigh.
The Mayflower was captained by Christopher Jones, who had already been with the ship for eleven years. The ship usually moved wool and wine between England and France but also traded with the Spain and Norway. It was between 90-100-foot-long with three masts, with six sails, and three main levels. It had two high castles fore and aft, which made it difficult to sail into the wind and particularly the westerlies towards America. The three main decks – the main and cargo decks as well as the hold made for cramped, uncomfortable conditions for the passengers. There were no latrines or privies and chamber pots were used for this purpose.
Initially 65 passengers embarked when it left its home port at Rotherhithe on the Thames in the middle of July 1620. It sailed down the river to Southampton Water to wait for a rendezvous with the Speedwell, another boat that had come from Holland. Eventually on August 5th they set sail but the Speedwell sprung a leak and they put into Dartmouth on August 12th for repairs. 200 miles off Land’s End the same boat sprung another leak and they returned to Plymouth. The decision was made that the Speedwell would be jettisoned and that the Mayflower would go alone. The boat was sold and went on to make its new owners a considerable sum. Thus 102 passengers, plus between 25-30 crew members sailed from Plymouth on September 6th. The first passengers had been on board since the middle of July and provisions were already getting low. Accompanying them were dogs, cats, sheep, goats and poultry as well as 12 artillery pieces in case the natives were not friendly, cannons, gunpowder, weapons and shot. The largest cannon weighed 1200lbs and fired a ball weighing 3.5lbs over a mile.
Most think that Plymouth was the last place the Pilgrim Fathers left before reaching America. It is widely thought, however, that the water on board was leading to disease and that they put into Newlyn to get fresh water supplies. The first part of the voyage was reasonably good but mid Atlantic they faced fierce winds, waves and storms. At times they had to drift as it would have been unsafe to put up the large square sails. Thus they were about 500 miles off course when they first saw land on November 9th. They had hoped to come up the Hudson river, New York, but had gone further north. They tried to sail south but the winds would not allow it and they landed on November 21st off the tip of Cape Cod after a 66-day voyage. Just two people had died on the trip.
Captain Miles Standish, a man brought for his military expertise, led an expedition to find the best area and eventually the area settled on was named Plymouth – after the port they had left in England. During the first year of settlement nearly half of the settlers had died of disease. The first governor, John Carver, lived for just four months after election. His place was taken by William Bradford, who fared batter, serving for over thirty years.
By 1621 the health and economy of the settlers improved to such an extent that Bradford invited some of the neighbouring Indian tribes to share in the bountiful harvest. He also made a number of treaties with the Indian tribes and by the mid-1640s the population had grown to 3,000.
The history of America is now well-known and the part played by the early Pilgrim Fathers will always be remembered and revered both sides of the channel and certainly had a hand in shaping the modern day United States.