The Mayflower, 1620-2020

10 mins read

Tracing voyages of discovery in Plymouth’s past

Overlooking the landscape at Plimoth Plantation, a living-history museum recreating Plymouth Colony in Massachusetts, which helps to tell the Mayflower’s story.

Four hundred years ago, the Mayflower carried around 100 would-be colonists across the Atlantic to found Plymouth Plantation in Massachusetts. What can we learn of these voyagers, the city they left behind, and the impact they had on the indigenous people who were already living on the land where they settled? Carly Hilts reports.

Today, Plymouth is home to the largest naval base in western Europe, but it boasts a much longer maritime history. For centuries it served as a gateway to new worlds, launching ambitious expeditions towards distant horizons – voyages that brought prosperity to Britain, but which frequently signaled exploitation rather than exploration to the indigenous communities that they encountered. Francis Drake, Walter Raleigh, James Cook, and Charles Darwin all set sail from its port, and the city was the birthplace of another intrepid, if ill-fated adventurer: the polar explorer Robert Falcon Scott.

This year marks the 400th anniversary of another famous journey that set out from Plymouth docks: the sailing of the Mayflower in 1620, which carried the ‘Pilgrim Fathers’ across the Atlantic to found a colony in the New World – a settlement that they named ‘Plymouth Plantation’. This milestone is being marked by an exhibition, Mayflower 400: Legend and Legacy, at The Box, a new museum recently opened in Plymouth to tell the city’s story (see ‘further information’ box on p.55). What can we learn of the Plymouth that the Mayflower passengers knew?

Long-held tradition attests that this ornate cup was presented to Francis Drake by Elizabeth I, as a reward for his successful circumnavigation of the globe – in fact, analysis suggests it is slightly too late in date to reflect this episode. The Box’s ‘100 Journeys’ gallery features objects that reflect many of the intrepid journeys that have set sail from Plymouth during the city’s history, but also offer a nuanced and carefully balanced portrait of what these voyages meant for the indigenous people that they encountered – including a reminder that local hero Drake was also involved in the slave trade. CREDIT: Plymouth City Council, The Box


The Box’s permanent galleries house a host of artefacts reflecting the lives and interests of post-medieval Plymothians. These objects paint a picture, by the late 1500s, of a diverse mariner community with an eager appetite for new styles – they were early adopters of smoking tobacco, and gladly imported foreign fashions such as Venetian glass beads. In the 17th century, this was undeniably a seafaring town, with more than 600 sailors in residence, and with commercial contacts stretching all over the world. Plymouth’s Port Books document local, British, and international ships coming and going, as well as the cargoes they carried: Newfoundland cod and Irish beef, French wine and Dutch beer, Spanish wool and Italian glass.

The city was also a key player in the early slave trade: Francis Drake may be celebrated for his circumnavigation of the globe aboard the Golden Hind, which departed Plymouth in 1577, but a decade earlier he had made one of the first English slaving voyages to Africa, in a fleet led by his cousin John Hawkins. Such journeys laid the foundations for a European trade that Britain came to dominate by the 1700s. In The Box’s galleries, this heritage is openly acknowledged: artefacts associated with Drake’s life stand opposite a case containing iron neck- and handcuffs – stark reminders of the real people who were forced to wear them, and of the dignity that they were denied. Yet post-medieval Plymouth was also a popular destination for refugees fleeing religious persecution on the Continent – French Protestant Huguenots in the 1600s, while a century later northern European Jews established the oldest Ashkenazi synagogue still active in the English-speaking world.

No contemporary images of the Mayflower survive; our understanding of the ship’s appearance mainly comes from detailed research by naval architect William Baker. His work formed the basis of a life-sized reconstruction, Mayflower II, which was built at the Upham shipyard in Brixham, Devon, in 1955-1956, sailed across the Atlantic, and is now on permanent display in Massachusetts. CREDIT:
Drawing by George Clarke, courtesy of The Box, Plymouth. Photo by [email protected], CC BY 2.0

It was religion that motivated many of the Mayflower passengers to travel, too. A significant portion of the founders of Plymouth Colony were ‘Separatists’ – dissenters who were dissatisfied with the progress of the English Reformation, and believed that the Church of England was still not sufficiently Protestant. Instead, they wanted the freedom to form independent congregations with likeminded individuals – something that was seen as a dangerous challenge to the authority of the state. Bloody religious conflicts between Protestants and Catholics had flared during the reigns of Mary I and Elizabeth I, and the 1605 Gunpowder Plot showed that England under James I was no less volatile. Differences of faith were determinedly (and often violently) suppressed by the anxious authorities, and in 1608 the Separatists left England to settle in the Dutch city of Leiden, where they hoped to be able to worship as they wished. In these more-tolerant surroundings they built a comfortable life for themselves – many found work in the clothing trade, as tailors, weavers, shoemakers, and hatters, while others operated the Pilgrim Press, smuggling books that were banned in England back across the Channel. This sense of safety lasted for a decade, but when the Thirty Years War between Catholics and Protestants began in 1618, it was time to move on, and, by 1620, the community had resolved to emigrate to America.

Colonisation was no small step – it was a costly and dangerous venture, spending weeks at sea to create a new life from nothing in an unknown land. But the Separatists were determined, securing permission from the Virginia Company (see box on p.54) to establish a new settlement on the Hudson River, and investment from the Company of Merchant Adventurers in London to finance the journey. They would not be travelling alone – the London merchants had also recruited hired hands, servants, and farmers to help establish the fledgling colony, and in 1620 the Leiden community set sail in the Speedwell to meet their new neighbours, and the Mayflower, at Southampton.

The Speedwell was not a new ship – she was a veteran of fighting the Spanish Armada in 1588 – and soon proved to be barely seaworthy, decried by Robert Cushman, one of the expedition’s purchasing agents, as ‘open and leaky as a sieve’. Shortly after departing Southampton, the voyagers had to put in at Dartmouth so that the Speedwell could be repaired, and the journey was delayed again when further leaks forced the ships to turn back once more, this time to Plymouth. Enough was enough: it was clear that the vessel would never survive the transatlantic crossing. Some of the Speedwell’s passengers chose to abandon their journey altogether, while others came aboard the Mayflower. It was this (now rather overcrowded) ship that set out alone for America.

This plan of Plymouth’s Barbican dates from the early 1600s. It includes a depiction of the steps that the Mayflower passengers may have used to depart Plymouth; today this location is marked with a stone portico. CREDIT: courtesy of The Box, Plymouth

Further information
Mayflower 400: Legend and Legacy runs until 18 September 2021. For more on the exhibition, and on The Box’s permanent galleries, see

This is an extract of an article that appeared in CA 369. Read on in the magazine. Click here to subscribe

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