Mark Bostridge

The great betrayal

Rebecca Fraser describes how, within a generation, love and peace between Puritans and Indians had turned to genocide

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).

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