Plymouth is gearing up for the Mayflower 400 commemorations in 2020, but what is it, why are we doing this and what’s been going on so far?
Most people know that the Mayflower sailed from Plymouth to America, carrying the pilgrims who settled in modern-day Massachusetts and laid the foundations for the modern USA. But the whole story is an epic tale of hardship, hope, persecution, death and new beginnings which connect cities, countries, people and cultures.
Most of the pilgrims came from Nottinghamshire, Lincolnshire and Yorkshire and were religious dissidents looking to separate themselves from the Church of England. They were known as the ‘separatists’ and a group moved to Holland in 1607/1608, eventually settling in the town of Leiden in 1609. Enduring harsh labour conditions and wary of the influence of Dutch culture, the group decided to form a colony in America, convincing other English separatists to join them. In 1620 the separatists journeyed on the Speedwell to Southampton, meeting other separatists sailing from London on the Mayflower. The two boats set off from Southampton but the Speedwell was leaking. They called into Dartmouth and then Plymouth (which was remarked as being a welcoming city) for repairs. They decided to abandon the Speedwell and many of the pilgrims in Plymouth; 102 separatists onboard the Mayflower embarked for America on the 16th September 1620 – a journey which would change the world.
66 days later (21st November 1620) the pilgrims landed at Provincetown on Cape Cod. They signed the Mayflower Compact (which formed the basis of the Massachusetts State Constitution and then later the United States Constitution), a hugely significant event in the history of the USA. However, the winter posed significant problems for the settlers. Moving along the coast and settling in an area called Patuxet (which became the area now known as ‘Plymouth’), the pilgrims were fatally out of their depth. Unable to farm and forage for food, suffering from malnutrition and disease, over half of the 102 settlers died. It was a Native American called Samoset who came to the pilgrims’ aid, forming an alliance with the local Wampanoag tribe and teaching the pilgrims to fish, hunt and farm. One year after they landed, the pilgrims celebrated their first successful harvest with the Wampanoag – a three-day festival of thanksgiving.
However, this story has another side. Early European contacts in North American had resulted in Native Americans being captured as slaves. European-borne diseases killed up to 90% of local populations between 1610-1619. The Wampanoag are denigrated by other Native Americans tribes after they helped the pilgrims to survive, resulting in local cultures, lands and ways of life eventually being dominated and engulfed by European settlers. The pilgrims themselves were a fundamental religious group who were attempting to escape persecution but instead found intense hardship – their story is not such a happy one either. Plymouth’s connection to the story although significant, is fleeting; Southampton was intended to be the final port before the Mayflower and Speedwell sailed to America, Plymouth was an unintended stopover when it became apparent that the Speedwell was unable to continue.
Yet out of all these controversies, false-starts and improbable circumstances, the journey and story of the pilgrims has shaped the modern world and has bridged a relationship between the UK and the USA which lasts to this day.
A Wampanoag tribe member poses with pilgrim re-enactors and local dignitaries
A map showing the Mayflower’s journey and the hometowns of the pilgrims
Projections at St. Andrew’s Church at Illuminate 2015
A float at the Illuminate event in 2015
The lantern parade at Illuminate 2015
Barbican Theatre’s Sheila Snellgrove discussing the cultural delegation’s visit to Boston, USA
What is Mayflower 400?
Mayflower 400 will happen in 2020 and commemorates the 400th anniversary of the Mayflower’s voyage across the Atlantic to found a settlement in Massachusetts. There will be a series of major projects and events spanning the culture, education, military, sports and business sectors across destinations across in USA, England and Holland. Plymouth has been named by the government as the UK lead city for Mayflower 400, and the other UK Mayflower 400 destinations have signed a ‘Modern Day Compact’, recognising Plymouth as the national lead for this significant project. Destination Plymouth is the organisation tasked with bringing Plymouth’s overall Mayflower 400 commemorations together, and Plymouth Culture is helping to support the cultural side of developments.
What is happening?
2020 is still a long time away, but organisations and individuals have already started coming together to develop projects. Some of the major events will include a US Presidential and a Royal family visit to Plymouth, a joint Armed Forces celebration, the sailing of the Mayflower III and the opening of Plymouth’s new History Centre. In April, Plymouth Culture took a cultural delegation of Plymouth arts organisations and creative practitioners to our partners in the US to explore links, collaborations and projects. Some really interesting ideas are now being developed including a theatre and musical production with Seth Lakeman which explores the Pilgrim and Wampanoag story (created by Nick Stimpson – Theatre Royal Associate Director), and new links between Plymouth’s History Centre and the Harvard Museum of Fine Arts which are investigating joint international exhibitions and sharing artwork.
Major funding applications are also being brought together. The Heritage Lottery Fund has already encouraged an application of up £5 million for a national Mayflower 400 heritage project. This national application will be to create a ‘National Mayflower Trail’ which connects all the UK destinations and showcases the history of the Mayflower story across the country. Future projects are also being investigated to develop a major international public art commission and a public art festival.
Mayflower 400 isn’t just focusing on 2020 – there will be continuous projects and events (such as the annual ‘Illuminate’ celebrations) over the next four years. Plymouth Culture has recently submitted an application to Arts Council England to develop a series of arts projects between 2017-18 which, if successful, will develop the skills and ambition of visual arts in Plymouth so we can deliver large scale events for Mayflower 400 and beyond.
Want to get involved?
Every 4-6 months, there will be a Mayflower 400 event for the cultural sector where creative people can keep up to date with Mayflower 400 developments, investigate ideas and form collaborations. The next event will be held at 6-8pm on Thursday 17th November at Plymouth School of Creative Arts. Over 130 people attended the last event and it was amazing to see some of the ideas, partnerships and projects which were discussed and included a Mayflower 400 font, a combined history and digital game, and a Mayflower children’s theatre programme.