happy anniversary, America

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When the Mayflower left Plymouth on 16th September 1620 and set sail for the New World, it carried the hopes and dreams of 102 passengers and the journey would shape the history of modern America.

Almost half the passengers called themselves ‘Saints’ – English Separatists, hard-line, dour, radical Puritans, predominantly hailing from Yorkshire, who felt the Anglican Church too liberal and irredeemably tainted by Catholicism and its rituals. The remainder were termed ‘Strangers’ – soldiers of fortune, adventurers, dreamers and tradesmen seeking a fresh start in an untouched foreign land. The Separatists had struck a deal with shipping investors in London and in return for seven years’ indentured labour, they received safe passage and were given land in what is now, Virginia. Surprisingly, it took over two hundred years for these people to become known as the Pilgrims or Pilgrim Fathers.

The voyage itself, undertaken in the teeth of North Atlantic storms, was difficult and traumatic, lasted sixty-six days and cost the life of at least one of the ‘Saints’. The Mayflower itself, a dedicated cargo ship, was ill-suited to carrying so many passengers, who were crammed into a living space of just 75ft long, 15ft wide and 5ft high. Nice. Nonetheless, having made land on the 9th November, they set about establishing the colony with gusto.

The settlers’ first few months in the New World proved to be even harsher than their journey. They lived on the Mayflower while building what they called the Plymouth Colony of eleven houses but that first winter claimed the lives of forty-five of the remaining passengers who died from what was termed ‘general sickness’ – probably scurvy and malnutrition, along with pneumonia and fevers. However, they managed to draft the Mayflower Compact, stating they would live together under “just and equal law in a civil body politick”. Their values of courage, hard graft and self-reliance, and their ideals of religious freedom and self-rule would prove extremely influential on the new nation.

Crucially, they established good relations with the Wampanoag, a confederation of local native Indian tribes and the indigenous people taught them how to cultivate what they called the three sisters: corn, beans and squash. It led to a successful first harvest in the autumn of 1621, exactly four hundred years ago, which ensured their survival during the fast-approaching winter and was celebrated with a now-famous feast. Without turkey btw. In 1863, during the civil war, Abraham Lincoln reinvented the feast as a fable of racial harmony and established Thanksgiving as a unifying national holiday.

If you choose to celebrate it, Happy Thanksgiving. If not, Happy Thursday!