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Mayflower a myth

by Anthony Cooney

One of the illusions of my childhood, which I suppose would be termed a “block” in the jargon of today, was that the “Pilgrim Fathers” were Quakers. It created confusion in my study of history until in my early teens I was able to fix firmly in my mind that… Puritans were Calvinists, Quakers were not Puritans, the Pilgrim Fathers were not Quakers, the Pilgrim Fathers were Calvinists. For many years I supposed that the illusion had arisen, not from school history books nor from a general miasma of misinformation, but from a denseness on my own part. To this day I cannot say exactly how and where I got this impression, but I had a distinct idea that it was general among my peers. When I had finally sorted the matter out and was free of the delusion, I concluded that it was quite impossible that the delusion had been shared and that it must, all through schooldays, have been peculiar to myself.

It came therefore as both a surprise and relief to me to find the Welsh-Quaker author and scholar, the late H.W.J. Edwards, examining this illusion and finding it common — at least among ordinary people, because the response of an Oxford history lecturer when I first aired this matter was “Of course nobody imagines the Quakers were Puritans.” I am assured that no Oxford dons think so, even though some of them apparently still believe the legend of Anglo-Saxon “ethnic cleansing” invented by Professor Freeman, but I am equally certain that the misapprehension was widespread in my youth. The prime evidence for this, is, in the nature of the case, overwhelming and may be stated briefly. Alun Villiers, Captain of the Mayflower replica which crossed the Atlantic in 1957, attended a civic reception at Plymouth wearing Quaker costume! I consider that sufficient evidence that the illusion was popular and widespread.

The dispersion of such an illusion suggests a source, and a source suggests a policy. The purpose of such a policy is not difficult to determine. The Quakers were tolerant and quietist — the Puritans were not. Whiggery however, which is closely allied to Puritanism, pretends to the virtue of “tolerance”. As C.H. Douglas puts it : “That is where Whiggism is so successful in that it puts forward in moral form something which it is extraordinarily difficult to disentangle for its slyness, something which, in fact, it is not really aiming at, at all.” (C.H. Douglas: The Policy of a Philosophy)

This consideration brings us to the second Mayflower myth, that of the “Pilgrim Fathers.” The word “Pilgrim” carries the connotation of someone making a journey for a worthy purpose. There is a general belief that the voyagers on the Mayflower were escaping religious intolerance with the intention of establishing tolerance in America. The word “Fathers” suggests originators, and not surprisingly we find the widely held belief that the Mayflower’s passengers were the first British settlers — and hence the “Founding Fathers” of — British America, and therefore of the United States of America. Indeed, the six hundred families who trace their descent from the Mayflower’s passengers now constitute an American aristocracy.

The facts are otherwise. We may easily dispose of the Quaker illusion: George Fox, founder of the Society of Friends, was not born until four years after the Mayflower voyage. The “Founding Fathers” notion could also be disposed of without difficulty if the mere citation of fact were sufficient to dispel cherished illusion. Columbus did not “discover” America, he did not even see America. America was rediscovered by Cabot, sailing under the English flag, in 1497, some years before Amerigo set foot on the mainland. Nevertheless the established fact of Cabot’s achievement has failed to dispel the popular illusion of Columbus’ so-called “discovery”. The fact of British North America is that Jamestown and “The Old Dominion” of Virginia were established in 1607, thirteen years before the Mayflower sailed.

[3W note : Not, mind you, that the indigenous Amerindian populations were conscious of having mislaid it in the first place.]

It may perhaps be necessary to justify “rediscovery,” in relation to North America. It is now established that there existed, until late in the 13th Century, regular trade between Scandinavia, Iceland, Greenland and Vinland, which was the territory around the St. Lawrence estuary. Scandinavian colonies were established on the southern coasts of Greenland, and possibly on the American coastline itself. Both trade and the Greenland colonies came to an abrupt end, something which remains an historical puzzle. My suggested solution is that this was the result of a dramatic change in climate in the early 14th Century, when Europe experienced several years of wet summers and a general fall in temperature, followed by repeated visitations of the Plague. The movement south of land and sea animals upon which the Esquimaux depended, forced the latter to follow and they overwhelmed the Greenland colonies, probably greatly weakened by failed harvests or even Plague, and contact with Europe was lost. Vinland remained all but forgotten for nearly two centuries until the voyages of discovery began.

[3W note : More evidence was recently discovered of a settlement by Sinclair of Orkney and the Scottish Knights Templar in Newfoundland, and later for security reasons transferred to the shores of the Great Lakes. Most of the colony would probably, like crews of the Viking longships, have been of Norse and Hebridean extraction. According to tribal histories the incomers, unlike later immigrants, seem to have got on fine with the locals.]

The propagation and perpetuation of the Pilgrim/tolerance image is entwined with and contingent upon the Quaker illusion and the “Founding Fathers” myth. The Mayflower’s destination, in company with a supply ship which had to return to port, was not the barren coast of Massachusetts, nor was the intention the founding of a new colony. The Mayflower arrived at Plymouth Rock as the result of a combination of bad weather and poor navigation. The intended destination was Virginia, and their purpose was to reinforce the Puritan element there. In 1619, Argall, the Puritan governor of Virginia had been deposed by the Episcopalians, and there was clearly a determination to reverse this setback to the Whig-Puritan cause. In short, the “Pilgrims” left not England, where they were restrained, but Holland, where the Puritans enjoyed power, not to escape religious intolerance but to establish it in the New World.

Having failed to reach Virginia, the Puritans established the new colony of Massachusetts on the basis of a rigorous intolerance of all beliefs other than their own. The public flogging, often on the basis of mere accusation, of “unchaste” women became commonplace. Those who disputed the doctrines of the Puritan Divines were branded on the forehead as “blasphemer” and stocked. Ironically, a particular object of Puritan bigotry and cruelty were the Quakers. The “Cart Tail Law” provided that any Quaker found in the Colony be tied to a cart and given ten lashes as he was dragged through the town. In 1660 the law against Jesuits was used to hang the Quakeress, Mary Dyer. Roger Williams who went out to be pastor at Salem, was so disgusted by the Puritan bigotry he found there that he left Massachusetts and founded the colony of Rhode Island, where he penned his indictment of Puritanism, The Compassionate Samaritan. Salem later became notorious for the witch-hunt in which a number of innocent people were hanged upon the accusations of an hysterical adolescent female and her minions.

[3W note : The accusers might not all have deliberately lied, as the Salem area was prone to outbreaks of poisoning by ergot, a fungal infection of rye, the symptoms of which include hallucination. No such excuse could be made for the prosecutors, who executed fourteen women and five men.]

After the Restoration, George Bishop compiled a massive dossier of Puritan outrages, New England Charged, which he presented to Charles II. The King summoned a Quaker named Shattock who had been lashed out of Massachusetts and threatened with hanging if he returned, and dispatched him as his envoy complete with seal and warrant for the release of all those imprisoned for religion. Shattock was recognized on landing and brought before the Governor, Endicott, who raged at him with threats of the gallows. Shattock calmly asked “Is this a fit way to treat the envoy of His Majesty?” Upon seeing the seal and the warrant, Endicott fainted.

This however is not the full tale of Puritan “tolerance.” Their co-religionists in Virginia got the upper hand over the Episcopalians and Virginia and Massachusetts together invaded Maryland, a colony founded by Catholic refugees upon a genuine basis of religious tolerance. After the Puritan coup the “Act of Toleration” written into the Maryland Constitution was replaced by an “Act Concerning Religion” which enforced Puritan doctrine and tenets upon all.
A codicil may be added to the story : during the Commonwealth the infant Society of Friends was persecuted with great violence by the Puritans. With the Restoration such persecution ceased and William Penn, through his friendship with the King and the Duke of York (later James II), was able to found Pennsylvania where the Quakers tried with some success their “holy experiment”.

The entrenchment of the Mayflower Myth in the American consciousness received a powerful boost during the American Civil War. Virginia, Iynchpin of the Confederate States of America was “the Old Dominion”, the mother state of America, and as such carried great prestige. The Union government in Washington felt it necessary to their propaganda war to counter this prestige. It seized upon the idea of publicizing the Mayflower colonists as the “Pilgrim Fathers” of America, and this propaganda was intensified after the war — especially by the invention of “Thanksgiving Day”, which was finally made America’s National Day by Roosevelt.

Is this just a matter of historical controvery? Whiggery has been successful in obscuring the fact that Calvinism was an international body which expanded its power by conspiracy, rebellion and terror; a social discredit. The promotion of the Mayflower Puritans to “Pilgrim Fathers” of the nation, and their misidentification as tolerant Quakers is, I suggest, the result of conscious policy. The intention was to obscure the facts of Puritan/Whig intolerance. Puritans in the original sense of the word are now of course rather thin on the ground, but the bias toward intolerance they injected into the beginnings of American society has remained in the bloodstream.

The triumph of Puritanism in America through the Mayflower myth is still resonating. Hybridized with secular Liberalism, your common or garden Puritan of today need have no Christian beliefs whatsoever, but is essentially a prohibitionist. Undismayed by the disaster of alcohol Prohibition, such bigots moved effortlessly on to the prohibition of tobacco, and from thence to the prohibition of flirting, flattery, gallantry, and even of thought itself via the hypocricy and control-freaking dogmas of “Political Correctness” — a charter for the bigot and the bully which the Mayflower’s morose cargo would have thoroughly appreciated.


One thought on “Mayflower a myth

  1. Good summary of the truth, but there is another reasonable origin of the name America. John Cabot was helped enormously by a customs agent in the port of Bristol, his seafaring base, who facilitated his movement through the complex field of dues and taxes. The agent was Welsh born Richard ApMericky, pronounced Americky in bristolese (I am a native speaker of same). The Ap was a common way in Welsh of denoting an “illegitimate” son. As a reward for his help Cabot promised to name a discovered area of land after him.

    Posted by Bristol Man | December 19, 2012, 7:53 pm

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