As we approach a momentous Presidential and Congressional election in the United States, let us turn to one of America’s founding myths: the landing of the Mayflower at Plymouth Rock, Massachusetts 400 years ago, in December 1620–as depicted in this 1877 painting by Henry Bacon (above) and deconstructed by BBC correspondent Nick Bryant last month. Americans have celebrated the arrival of the pilgrims’ disembarkation at Plymouth as a founding moment of the republic, surrounding the event with Ply-mythmaking which–like any unclaimed baggage from the Mayflower–is long past due to be unpacked.
The Mayflower pilgrims created a plantation at Plymouth which was hardly significant in the history of European colonisation in America. Europeans sailed to the Americas since the end of the 15th century, and the English had already settled Jamestown in Virginia in 1607. Some historians have characterised the Mayflower compact, which established the colony, as a forerunner of the Declaration of Independence and American constitution. But the Founding Fathers during the American Revolution paid little to no attention to the Mayflower compact–a document which, after all, maintained political obedience to the British Crown. But the pilgrims did flee what they saw as the religious and political corruption in their homeland, and presumably the English weather, such that April showers brought the Mayflower.
Nevertheless, the fact that the Mayflower pilgrims were loyal to King James meant that their sworn fealty to England was of little use to American revolutionaries seeking to sever ties with British oppression. Instead, the legend of the pilgrims’ arrival was taken up by New England settlers who wanted to emphasise white, Anglo-Saxon, and Protestant culture as foundational to America, as opposed to Catholics and European Jews emigrating to the USA in the 19th century (not to mention African-Americans forcibly transported as slaves). In other words, the pilgrims were deployed by a WASP elite asserting its ascendancy over other groups which could threaten its cultural hegemony. Thus, we might say that the only darker complexions allowed among the ruling class would be those generated by Puritanning salons.
Equally false is the myth of the Mayflower pilgrims celebrating Thanksgiving with the Wampanaog. The story told is that the colonists, facing an unproductive harvest, were rescued by Native Americans; and in gratitude, the white settlers and local indigenous peoples shared a feast of thanks-giving, including turkey and pumpkin pie. While the Plymouth plantation did initially have an uneasy alliance with the Wampanaog in the context of inter-tribal conflict, the local indigenous peoples soon succumbed to European invasion and disease. Indeed, in 1675, Native Americans from various tribes came together under the leadership of Chief Metacom to resist the marauding English settlers: they were brutally defeated, and his decapitated head ‘was displayed on a pike in Plymouth Plantation.’ The myth of Thanksgiving, then, was a story intended to legitimise European colonisation: a tall tale of turkey-feasting which disguised a bloody and fowl legacy of European-indigenous relations.
Till next time,
Director, Early Modern Plymouth Rock and Roll Studies Program