Plymouth’s ‘Mayflower 400’ festival sounds like 21st-century revisionist ‘history’

The upcoming extravaganza may be impressive, but will Britain’s schoolchildren be fed a one-sided, self-flagellating story?

The Mayflower II, a replica of the original, is berthed in Plymouth, Mass; the British Plymouth is staging a grand celebration of the sailing
The Mayflower II, a replica of the original, is berthed in Plymouth, Mass; the British Plymouth is staging a grand celebration of the sailing Credit: AP

There is, these days, much mockery about the use of the hackneyed adjective “diverse” in any sort of publicity; it usually shows a desire by the publicist to appease not merely any member of a minority who might be reading, but any of their self-appointed, virtue-signalling proxies too.

So when one reads that, in Plymouth’s planned celebrations of the 400th anniversary of the Mayflower’s sailing, there will be “a diverse range of cultural events and projects”, one braces oneself to expect another tale of the exploitation of indigenous people – in this case, Native Americans – by appalling colonialists. One is not disappointed.

To be fair, the Mayflower 400 programme and publicity are not entirely self-flagellating. While the events appear to focus on the acts of wickedness carried out by English or English-descended colonists on the indigenous people, if one searches the website one eventually finds information about why the Mayflower actually sailed, 400 years ago today (September 16), and the sort of people who were aboard it.

Their list of events, however, is headed by details of an exhibition of Wampanoag culture (which is travelling the country, reaching London in January 2021), including the manufacture of a Wampum Belt, a revered tribal artefact made of shells; and to make the point that this is not only an ancient culture – the organisers claim 12,000 years old – the exhibition includes a video proudly entitled We Are Still Here.

The film shows the inevitable changes to the life of the indigenous people that the Mayflower’s arrival brought, but it also makes the point that they and their discrete way of life exist to this day. However, there is a story of betrayal that comes first, and there is an irony in the title of the film (made by a Native American creative agency) alluding to the many tribes that, thanks to the brutalities of the invaders, did not survive.

The Second Peirce Patent, giving the colonists permission to settle, will be on display Credit: The Box

When the Mayflower arrived, the Pilgrim Fathers – who, unlike the lives of the indigenous peoples, are now categorised as being part of a “mythology” – did a deal with the Wampanoag, inhabitants of Massachusetts and part of Rhode Island, that allowed the two groups to co-exist peacefully. By the 1670s, though, the Wampanoag saw the descendants of the colonists encroaching on their land, and a war started. The website says: “The war is seen as a final attempt to drive out the colonists, and is considered the deadliest war America has ever seen.” (That is utter nonsense.-The Civil War of 1861–5 killed between 650,000 and 750,000, and an uncharted number of civilians, according to reliable estimates.)

“The colonist army,” the text continues, “burned villages as they went, killing women and children. The war decimated the Narragansett, Wampanoag and many smaller tribes, paving the way for additional English settlements. Thousands were killed, wounded or captured and sold into slavery or indentured servitude. Decades after the Wampanoag helped the English survive in their lands, they were now enslaved by those very people.”     

So just about every one of the worst iniquities imaginable is laid at the door of the colonists, as if to accentuate and justify the very bad press that colonialism now routinely gets – small-scale genocide, the imposition of slavery, the slaughter of innocents, deceit and treachery, and an implication of white supremacy. The indigenous people are described as “hunters, gatherers, fishers and farmers”, a highly romanticised view: life in the period before the arrival of Europeans in America was as nasty, brutish and short as it was anywhere else on earth.

Among the artefacts will be a Wampum Belt (here held by Paula Peters of the Wampum Advisory Committee) Credit: The Box

It is also emphasised that Europeans made this life worse by bringing to America diseases against which the indigenous people had no immunity, and by shipping some of them off as slaves. However, the narrative also states that the worst effects of disease preceded the arrival of the Mayflower, weakening the Wampanoag so that they easily fell prey to a less-affected neighbouring tribe, the Narrangansett.

The Pilgrim Fathers are portrayed as hypocrites. “They spoke of fleeing persecution, of leaving intolerance behind. In reality, they would create a society just as intolerant towards those who had lived there for thousands of years.” It should be clear by now that little account is taken in this provision of context of the potential horrors the Wampanoag risked from other native peoples; or of the primitive and often bestial standards and practices that prevailed within their own tribe.

Indeed, no account at all is taken of the value to the world of the society in north America that developed as a result of European migration there – and is now the leader of the democratic world and the world’s leading power. The society in which the Pilgrim Fathers arrived was not merely Hobbesian but Darwinian, and it proceeded accordingly.

The Box is opening at last with the Mayflower 400 extravaganza, as well as several other shows Credit: The Box/Paul White

This application of 21st-century sensibilities may nowadays be standard, but it is the opposite of educational or informative. Mayflower 400’s slanted and guilt-ridden story of events will be rubbed in over the months ahead by a “mass street-dance event” and “community theatre”, though the latter will apparently touch on the story of why Englishmen and women were on the Mayflower in the first place, helping to “spread positivity” despite the “challenging” history.

Low on the list is a reminder that in 1608 a group of people from Gainsborough in Lincolnshire went to Holland where they could practise their version of Protestantism without persecution, and in 1620 returned briefly to England and to Plymouth before going off to North America.

Proper history demands that all sides of a story be told, and this series of events does that to an extent. But telling history properly also relies on objectivity and context, and neither of those is visible here.