Feature: “Perspectives on the 1620 Mayflower voyage”


In 1622, Mourt’s Relation, a narrative report on the Mayflower voyage and settlement in Plymouth, was published anonymously in London.


In contrast to William Bradford’s more famous account of this colonial settlement, Of Plimouth Plantation, which he began in the 1630s in the form of a personal journal, Mourt’s Relation is a multi-authored text with only initials to guide us to the identity of the contributors. Most likely, Edward Winslow and William Bradford contributed to the main narrative of exploration and settlement, with Robert Cushman and John Robinson providing the additional framing material which articulated the religious and legal justification of the colonial venture.

The body of the narrative details the first births and deaths of the settler community. It holds the first copy of the Mayflower Compact, it presents vivid descriptions of initial encounters with indigenous people, Massasoit in particular, and it offers an account of the natural environment, or ‘wilderness’, that harboured as many threats as opportunities for the under-prepared settler community.

Rich in the day-to-day details of survival and subsistence, this short report on the early colony also charts the larger networks of transatlantic and colonial politics that were emerging in this early period of Anglo-colonial expansion.

It’s fair to say that the Mayflower voyage of 1620 was not the first transatlantic voyage to set sail from England, nor was it the last. Plymouth colony was not the first English colony in North America, nor was it the last. So why has this particular voyage and settlement become so significant?

Partly, the answer lies in the fact that following the Mayflower voyage, and the Puritan migration of the 1630s, New England became home to the intellectual elite of the North American colonies: Harvard College was established in 1636 and the first printing press arrived in New England in 1638.

New England culture in the seventeenth century was a literary culture where authorities kept precise and voluminous records on legal and religious matters, tracts and pamphlets from colonists were published in London as well as in Boston, and, as a group, they recorded their own histories on an unprecedented scale.

Quite simply, the amount of material left by seventeenth-century New Englanders outstrips that left by other English-speaking colonial communities and, as a consequence, their voices have dominated our understanding of the early colonial period in North America.

As Plymouth (UK) turns its attentions to the Mayflower anniversary in 2020, marking 400 years since the ship’s original departure from Plymouth docks, it’s worth noting the more challenging aspects of the Mayflower venture.

By the time the Pilgrims left Leiden, and then England, European diseases had had a devastating impact on Algonquian communities in the coastal regions of the North Eastern seaboard. The relative wilderness, as the Pilgrims saw it, harboured a deeper narrative of Native American loss and decimation. While the Pilgrims may well have sought religious freedom when they left England for Leiden, by the time Plymouth was absorbed into the Massachusetts colony a few decades later, tolerance of alternative religious expression was by no means assured nor encouraged.

As well, the Pequot War of the 1630s and King Philip’s War of 1675 illustrate the enduring tensions and conflict between colonial and Native communities, and significant losses were felt on both sides in these brutal military episodes, but these conflicts also illustrate the ways in which colonial settler concerns became embroiled in pre-existing tribal tensions.

In the next few years, as Plymouth (UK) builds towards the Mayflower commemoration in 2020, an education project with children, young people and local communities will seek to explore and examine original texts and narratives from the colonial past. The project will unravel prevailing discourses in a bid to inform narratives of future transatlantic and transnational relationships.


xlarge_kathryn_grayAbout the author:

Dr Kathryn N. Gray is Associate Professor (Reader) in Early American Literature at Plymouth University. She is the author of John Eliot and the Praying Indians of Massachusetts Bay: Communities and Connections in Puritan New England (Bucknell, 2013), and ‘Native American Voices in Colonial North America’ in Deborah L. Madsen (ed), The Routledge Companion to Native American Literature (2016).


Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.