Review of Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community and War

            This work deals with a familiar theme in American history, the first Puritan settlement on American soil, from England and Holland, aboard the Mayflower. It is a story of hardship and courage on both the part of the Indians and the Pilgrims, but most importantly, it is an evenhanded treatment of a complex subject that has been mythologized in two ways: first, the pro-Pilgrim myth, that they were innocent Christians, attacked by an inferior and savage group of tribes, and the pro-Indian myth, that the innocent Indians were massacred and enslaved by a group of adventurers and freebooters using religion and political dissent as a cover for their immorality. Neither of these familiar points of view are remotely true, and punching holes in both sacred cows is the real purpose of the work itself.

            However, before this review can begin, several major issues need to be dealt with. First, the passengers of the Mayflower, under captain Christopher Jones (57-58), were not all Puritans. The Puritans were the larger group involved in the move to North American from England, but there also were Strangers, a smaller group recruited by British merchant interests to act as settlers and labor in the new world. AT the same time, “Pilgrim” is a word that take into itself not merely Puritans, but any and all Protestant dissenters who rejected the Church of England and its crypto-popery. Second, the English government had reached an understanding with the Pilgrims in that the empire needed to expand further west in order to keep up with the Spanish, Portugese and the French. In fact, it is likely that Spanish-English rivalry led to the toleration of the Puritan religious movement–so long as they were out of the country. Third, as Philbrick makes clear: the Puritans were convinced that God wanted them to plant new colonies in the New World. Racial or economic motives were absent from the Pilgrim mentality, but not within either the English state or the merchant community that sought to use religious dissent or poverty to transplant labor to begin working the virgin soul of North America.

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            That being said, it is clear that the Pilgrims (a catch all term including Puritans and other forms of dissent) had the best of intentions in coming to the New World. They were eccentric dissidents that had finally made a deal with the English state that benefitted them both: the English government could get rid of these radicals, and the radicals themselves could follow God’s will and settle elsewhere, making a profit for the English crown and its chartered merchant guilds (such as the Virginia Company) at the same time. It seems that the Puritan motivation was based on apocalyptic concerns, believing that the end was near, and hence, being separate in a virgin territory would be the perfect thing to maintain their purity and cohesiveness when it all hit (6). At the same time, it should be made clear that these settlers were also English nationalists, themselves convinced that England was chosen to re-make and re-claim true Christianity for the world. This point of view cannot be exaggerated in their later dealings with the Indians.

            The main thrust of this work, however, deals with life in the new world and the relations with the Indians. At first, the Mayflower passengers were terrified. They came to a world without draft animals, without anything but basic tools and supplies, and were supposed to eke out a living in an area that none had experience with. The settlers did not have the skills to create a new society, and it seems that they relied on God and their own communal cohesion to being them through the first winter. Making matters worse, they had left Holland late, coming to America right as winter was starting.

            The leader of the Wampanoag Tribe was the famous Massasoit, respected by the first generation of settlers. In fact, this generation, partially due to temperament, partially due to desperation, was the most tolerant of the settlers, viewing Indians as strong and virtuous. Later generations will dispute this. Massasoit had sent several English speaking Indians to welcome the settlers, but this was largely because of a plague that had ravaged his tribe, leaving a few hundred still alive (142-147). In the complex politics of Indian tribalism, alliances with the white man–and especially his ships and guns–was of great importance. Hence, Massasoit’s approach was based on good politics. Characters such as Squanto (cf. 130-1), allied with the Wampanoag, who spoke English and even lived as a slave in London for a time, was happy to see settlers, and taught them several Indian agricultural techniques that certainly helped the community survive (101-2). The initial meetings of settler and Indians were basically good: both had needs that the other could meet, and both had agendas that the other can help fulfil. But this alliance was not to last.

            The major element of warfare treated by this book is King Philips war. This came during the second generation of settlement, when Philip had taken over from Massasoit, and people like Miles Standish had taken military command of the settlers. Confrontation between Indian and settler had grown after the first generation of settlement, based around attempts to make Christians out of the Indians, and the endless indebtedness that the Indians incurred from the settlers, itself leading to the Indians having to sell land to pay debts. In the case of “King Philip” however, the land was sold in order to buy guns (187-191). More and more, settlers and Englishmen in general began to encroach onto Indian territory and interfered with tribal politics.

            Slowly but surely, the cultural communication between Indians and settlers had broken down, and a more mercenary mentality took hold of later generations. The war itself, lasting from 1675 to 1678, did not necessary see clearly wrought lines: English and Indian fought together, as well as against each other. It seems that it was the personality and intelligence of Massasiot that held the alliance together, but once he and his brother died (and there was suspicious about the cause), Philip, his son, wanted to take greater action, and in fact, sought a tribal and inter-racial alliance (including the Podunk and Nipmuck tribes)  against the settlement. But the ferocity of the Indian attacks poisoned relations from then on. Early victories from the Indians led to massacres of frontier settlements, where women and children were slaughtered. The Indian supplies however, that had been provided by the French, were running out, and the Indians were suddenly on the losing side of the war, leading to similar massacres on the side of the English. Indians were using inter ethnic rivalry from the Europeans to win the war, but it is also true that Indian rivalries were just as intense, and just as utile for the colonists.

            This war was ultimately won by the colonists, and it poisoned relations forever: Indians were tried for sentenced to death for murder and other crimes, other Indians were sold into slavery in Bermuda (252-253). Even worse, the French were encouraging the Indians and paying them to raid other English settlements. The Indians never really recovered, losing about 75% of their population to war, disease and slavery.

            Hence, there are several issues here that should be isolated and critiqued. The first issue is the nature of Indian-settler cooperation. At first, both Massasoit and the colonists needed each other. Both sides were competently led, and it is clear that, prior to the arrival of supplies from England, this cooperation ensured the survival of the colony. The “praying towns” and the land encroachment began the destruction of relations. But even during the “55 years truce,” this peace was absolutely necessary for the survival of the colony, and hence, it was about leadership, not politics, that kept the peace: so long as both sides were competently led, peace could be preserved.

            Second, the war itself was bloody. Nevertheless, it is not the fault of the white man that he was scientifically more advanced, and ultimately, it was his guns and strategy that won the war. The best part of the book is its evenhandedness: myths should be destroyed, but especially if the destruction is bi-partisan: no one is immune from mythologizing their history; individuals do it, countries do it. The Indians did murder and slaughter, and hence, there is some justice to the settler claim. But the settlers gave as good as they got, and ultimately, the population growth of the settlement won the war.

            Third, the parallelism between Benjamin Church and Miles Standish might smack of a morality play, but the author himself is quite ready to admit he is telling a story here, and not merely doing history. One of the real subtexts of the book is unfortunate, and it is the “myth of diversity,” using modern fashion-ideology to remake a historical set of events. That is the book’s greatest weakness. The parallelism between Church and Standish is overdrawn, they wear white and black hats, respectively, and no attempt to understand Standish’s view is made in the work. Standish was acting in complete and consistent accordance with his belief: the belief that God ran the colony, not men, and God sought the conversion of the Indian. Such a view might be excused given the fact that the colony survived at all. But it motivated Standish, and hence, his view must be judged on its merits, not on contemporary ideology.

            Church on the other hand, was interested in winning the war, but not at the expense of the humanity of the Indians. Standish believed that the Indians lost their humanity when they burnt Springfield. The colonists, at least in Standish’s time, took no Indian land, this land was vacant, and was vacated by Indians who contracted disease. The colonists did not want to take anything that was not theirs, they sought only to live in peace. It seems that the merchant interest never quite left the colony, and others other than the puritans came to make decisions, decisions that were far more lucrative than the original Puritan plan.

            The moralizing about “diversity” harms the book and its message: there was no sense of “cultural accommodation” in the mentality of the time, and, hence, to judge them by such a standard is unjust. Diversity can be a weakness as well as a strength, and it is doubtful if the Constitution could have been written had the Indians been there to help write it. BY and large, the Indians were backward, lived in a warrior-oligarchy or at least at gerontocracy (the rule by elders) and had no experience or interest in Constitutional government. The view that the Indians were backward might be excused given the facts of the case.

            Mayflower is a book worth reading. It is far from perfect. When read for the first time, the babble about “diversity” seems to have been forced into the text by the editor, more than being part of a seamless narrative. The concluding thesis that had the Indians been respected rather than attacked, racism would have not existed is also seemingly inserted by Penguin Books rather than the author, as it stands out and is not part of the narrative per se. But other than this glaring problem, the work is easy to read, through it is so saturated with detail that the reader is encouraged to skip ahead. Most readers really do not care about the colors of the flowers or the heights of the trees, and the reader seems to think that this is done in order for the author to “create a reputation” as the “popular historian” that poeticizes his subject matter. It is however, refreshing to read a work that does not romanticize the Indians beyond all reason. This work is even handed, and there lies its strength.

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