Mayflower, by Nathaniel Philbrick

30 Sep

Mayflower, Nathaniel Philbrick

“They were nearly ten weeks into a voyage that was supposed to have been completed during the balmy days of summer. But they had started late, and it was now November, and winter was coming on. They had long since run out of firewood, and they were reaching the slimy bottoms of their water casks. Of even greater concern, they were down to their last casks of beer. Due to the notoriously bad quality of the drinking water in seventeenth-century England, beer was considered essential to a healthy diet. And sure enough, with the rationing of their beer came the unmistakable signs of scurvy: bleeding gums, loosening teeth, and foul-smelling breath. So far only two had died…”

Despite having grown up outside of Boston, I haven’t studied the story of the Mayflower since grade school, and was at first riveted to this history by Nathaniel Philbrick, which put the names I’ve seen all around me since childhood into immediate cultural context. Massasoit was the local Indian chief who first helped the Pilgrims. I pass a park and a community college bearing his name on the way to Cape Cod. The Narragansetts, from now–Rhode Island were the nearest hostile tribe. And Plymouth, of course, was where the Mayflower first landed, except it didn’t. The Pilgrims first set down in now-Provincetown, and spent weeks blundering around Cape Cod, stealing from the local Indians and wondering what to do.

These Pilgrims were not an inspiring lot, I was surprised to learn. They were a religious community already in exile from England and living in Holland, who had no wilderness skills, little money and little business acumen. They were cheated by the men who funded the voyage, abandoned by their pastor on the eve of travel, and arrived in the new world, during an exceptionally cold November (there was a ‘little ice age’ in the 1600s), all set to starve. Also, about half the population of the Mayflower were “strangers”—non religious men, with whom the Pilgrims had to get along. Considering the early political spats, farming setbacks and sheer battle with starvation, it’s surprising anyone survived. (And in fact, they wouldn’t have if they hadn’t abandoned an early attempt at communal farming, Philbrick writes. Before owning their own land, even the founding fathers didn’t want to work….)

But the Plymouth men were princes compared to a more commercial expedition that arrived a few years later and settled at Wessagusset.

“Wessagusset was more like early Jamestown—a group of unattached men with relatively little in common. In the beginning, their energies were directed toward building a fort. But once that was completed they were unprepared to face the rigors of a hard New England winter. As in Jamestown, a state of almost unaccountable languor quickly descended on the inhabitants. Suffering from a deadly combination of malnutrition and despair….”

The colonists at Wessagusset’s bad behavior quickly soured the relationship with the local Indians, and it is here, writing about the politics between Indians and white settlers, that Philbrick’s book finds its heart. I hadn’t quite known how much history survives about specific Indian leaders, guides and dynasties, but Philbrick found a wealth of it. Mayflower also recontextualized for me the cliches about innocent and noble Indians taken advantage of by white men. In Philbrick’s book, the local Indian leaders were rivals and equals to the arriving whites. Or, in some cases, superiors, since the Indians considered themselves Kings, and no English King had set foot in the new world. The Indian cooperation or lack of it with the white settlers was mostly motivated by internal Indian politics, and had little to do with the moral and spiritual superiority now ascribed to Native Americans.

Despite the inherent interest of the subject matter, though, the book was more worthy than well-executed. As the original Mayflower and Indian players were replaced by their descendants, I started getting confused about who the characters were, and became lost in a forest of details, betrayals, and squabbles.

I stopped reading before the outbreak of war between the Indians and settlers, where the goals of both communities were betrayed, with the tragic results we live with to this day.


5 Responses to “Mayflower, by Nathaniel Philbrick”

  1. Grab the Lapels September 30, 2015 at 1:14 pm #

    Maybe I missed it, but was this non-fiction or a historical novel? I grew up on the Saginaw Chippewa reservation, and it always drove me insane when people used the term Indian, more so when I moved off the reservation and made some Indian (as in from India) friends. Then again, even the tribe calls themselves Indians (the full name is the Saginaw Chippewa Indiana Tribe). Even Chippewa isn’t the right name–it’s the Anglicized version of Ojibwe. The reservation now labels all of their signs in English and Ojibwe, and the local college, Central Michigan University, offers classes in Ojibwe. I like this new cultural direction the city is taking. :)

    • Ivalleria September 30, 2015 at 1:30 pm #

      Non-fiction! I failed to note that.

      I questioned my use of “Indian”, but that was what the book used throughout.

      The book made it so clear how much Native American history is still around is. I’m glad it’s becoming more visible.

      • Grab the Lapels September 30, 2015 at 5:43 pm #

        Yeah, it’s always a good idea to go with terminology the book uses. This semester I’m teaching The Autobiography of Malcolm X, and I see the word “Negro” everywhere, so then the students use it in papers and on test answers.

        • Ivalleria September 30, 2015 at 6:42 pm #

          Wait, is that good? Or did you mean “not always a good idea”?

          • Grab the Lapels September 30, 2015 at 6:44 pm #

            No, I mean it IS a good idea to go with the terminology of the book. Of course, the students always put “Negro” in quotes when they are answer exam questions and so forth, but they use the word to stay true to what Malcolm X was saying, which is why I think it’s a good idea.

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