A whole new world

Hampshire Life|July 2020

A whole new world
This month marks 400 years since the iconic Mayflower docked in Southampton with its pilgrim passengers hopeful for a new life in America, but it wasn’t all plain sailing
Richard Holledge

It was a July day in Southampton, 1620. A crowd gathered to stare as a commotion broke out on West Quay. Raised voices were heard and insults bandied.

These were not traders disputing a dockside deal or drunken stevedores spilling out the taverns spoiling for a fight. No, these were otherwise respectable types who had only recently sailed into port on two ships and moored without fuss by the quay.

One, little more than a 60-ton pinnace was the Speedwell. Older dock hands might have remembered her when she was called the Swiftsure and had seen action against the Spanish Armada more than 30 years before.

The other, much bigger at 180 tons, was a run of the mill vessel normally used in the cross-channel wine trade. Its name, the Mayflower. Hardly worth a glance.

But what must have caught the eye of the dockers was that both ships were loaded, not with barrels of wine or serge, for which Southampton was noted, but men, women and children entire families with their servants in tow.

It transpired that the two ships were planning to sail to Virginia, as the English colony in America was known, where they were to create a new settlement. The Speedwell had sailed from Holland with 67 members of a religious group who had lived in Leiden for ten years after fleeing persecution in England. Pilgrims, they dubbed themselves.

The 65 passengers on the Mayflower who had set off from the London port of Rotherhithe were altogether different; while the families from Leiden dreamed of creating a perfect society in a brave new world, the eager young adventurers on the Mayflower had more a material ambition; to make a fortune from the beaver trade.

Despite their mismatched aims the first meeting of these two groups in late July was amicable. William Bradford, who was to become governor of the settlement, wrote about a ‘joyful welcome and mutual congratulations with other friendly entertainment’, but the positive mood did not last long.

In fact, so bitter were the rows which broke out between the pilgrims and the London businessmen who were financing the voyages, known as the Merchant Adventurers, that the venture itself was threatened.

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July 2020