The great betrayal

14 October 2017

9:00 AM

14 October 2017

9:00 AM

They were at sea for more than two months in desperately cramped conditions. The battered ship, barely seaworthy, pitched violently in storms where the swell rose to 100 feet. One of the beams cracked and there was talk of returning to England before it was temporarily repaired with a house jack. With spray in their faces so fierce that they could barely see, the small band of pilgrims invoked the words of Psalm 107, that God would make the storm calm and the waves still. Finally, on 11 November 1620, the Mayflower made landfall at Cape Cod, and some weeks later the settlers decided on the site of present-day Plymouth, Massachusetts, for their colony.

By the following spring, only half of the 100 or so who had made the north Atlantic crossing were still alive, their immune systems weakened by lack of nourishment and poor weather. Nevertheless, even before they disembarked from the Mayflower, the pilgrims had made history by establishing the bedrock for self-government in the New World.

As Rebecca Fraser says, the so-called ‘Mayflower Compact’ has been much romanticised, not least in all those cutesy depictions of pilgrims in steeple hats putting their signatures to the document in a luxury cabin. Yet in their attempt to bind the community together by drawing up an agreement on the basis of equal laws for the general good, the Plymouth Colony was undertaking a truly revolutionary act: the first experiment in consensual government in western history between individuals, without the sanction of a monarch.

Four months in and the pilgrims met their first native Indian. In what reads a bit like a bad TV sketch, Samoset, a minor chief of the Wampanoag tribe, naked except for a fringed belt, emerged from the forest one day and to their amazement greeted the pilgrims with the words, ‘Hello English’ (of course he had learned the language from passing trading ships).

From this initial encounter developed an extraordinary, mutually beneficial relationship between Europeans and Indians, lasting for more than a decade. The Europeans needed the Indians to access the fur trade, and the Indians were keen to adopt European manufacturing in the production of iron tools. The Wampanoags cast a net of safety around the settlers to protect them from other tribes, while Edward Winslow, one of the separatist leaders, had magical powers attributed to him when he nursed the charismatic chief Massasoit and apparently saved his life.

It is Winslow who provides the focus for this study of one family’s flight from England on the Mayflower and their new life of religious freedom forged among the Indians in America. Sometimes overlooked, Winslow was, as Rebecca Fraser demonstrates, a figure of enormous significance in the early history of the colony. Dubbed ‘Hercules’ for his strength and commitment in dealing with the multiple challenges facing not only Plymouth but New England as a whole, Winslow was a man of innate optimism and curiosity who never lost his sense of wonder at America’s ‘promised land’. There’s a lovely moment early on that epitomises this, as Winslow watches different varieties of whale, still regarded as semi-mythological creatures in Europe, bumping around the Mayflower’s hull.

However, cleverly framed by Fraser, this becomes a story of a dramatic and terrible fall from a state of prelapsarian innocence. Half a century after the Mayflower’s voyage, Edward Winslow’s son Josiah commanded the New England militia against Massasoit’s son Philip in one of the bloodiest wars in American history. The Indians flayed skin off settlers and scalped them. The English set fire to wigwams containing women and children. After his death, Philip’s hands were displayed in Boston and his son was sold into slavery in the Caribbean. As the demonisation of the Indian and his ‘satanic degeneracy’ grew, colonists surveyed their razed towns and blackened fields and wondered whether this was divine punishment for their retreat from the simpler, wiser, more godly values of their pilgrim forefathers.

Fraser handles the epic scenes with as much ease as she does the more intimate ones. Her book has been assembled from hundreds of tiny bits of piecemeal evidence, but one is never aware of the strain of sweated labour (though a dramatis personae would have been welcome, to identify the massive cast of characters). She has threaded the important historiographical innovations seamlessly into her text, paying more attention than hitherto to the experiences of early colonial women, and drawing on the lessons of ethno-history in her portrayal of Indian tribes.

The result is a brilliant combination of synthesis and original research arriving in good time for the celebration of the quincentenary of the Mayflower. It should also give a heavy burp of indigestion to the customary turkey-and-cranberry-sauce celebration of Thanksgiving next month, with its reminder of the way in which Winslow’s ideals of ‘love, peace and holiness’ gave way to a horrible, genocidal sequel.

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