Wednesday, November 26, 2014

MAYFLOWER - Come on - what else at Thanksgiving?

26 November 2014: Well, it's that time of year again - turkeys, yams, family, football, and Pilgrims. But we're not going to talk about all that stuff today, but rather how that first Thanksgiving - the one we ostensibly celebrate - came to be. Sure, everyone knows about the Mayflower, the Pilgrim's ship that sailed from England to Cape Cod, bringing the religiously persecuted Puritans to start a new life in the new world. But what you may not know - yet - is the story of the ship itself. She's just kind of there, in the background, the transportation that was quickly forgotten once she had done her job. So, let's have a look at Mayflower.
artist's rendition of arrival at Cape Cod

Mayflower was a typical English merchant vessel - designed mostly for coastal trade - of the 17th century. High bowed, with a high stern castle both of which were designed for protection of the crew from the elements. She was square-rigged with a spritsail on her bowsprit. Of particular interest is her size: she was 80-90 feet on deck (her bowsprit added another 10-20 feet to her overall length) and displaced 180 tons. While her actual capacity is unknown, she did carry 135 souls during her most famous voyage. She was built before 1609, most likely at Harwich, in England. She had four decks:

One can only imagine the living conditions aboard - winter, North Atlantic, at sea for over two months  . . .

Of course, the winter winds in the North Atlantic are generally from the west and the design of the ship made her unimaginably difficult to sail in a generally upwind direction. It took her over two months to make the crossing. As a matter of interest, the ship's return voyage to England in April of 1621 took less than one month!

During her trading days, Mayflower would have been fairly heavily armed, a protection against the pirates and privateers of the various European nations where she sailed. Her gun deck, a space of some 50' by 25', housed seven cannons that fired a 3.5 lb ball and three smaller ones for close in defense which fired what became known as grapeshot - a bag of musket balls - which impacted like the discharge of a shotgun, as far as the recipient was concerned. The gun deck also housed the Pilgrims. There was no access to the weather deck for them, save a vertical wooden or rope ladder and no heads - bathroom facilities. They probably used a bucket for that purpose. And of course, there was no heat. It was noteworthy, that Captain Jones off loaded four of his cannon for the Pilgrims to provide some defense for New Plymouth, should it be necessary.

Christopher Jones had been her master for eleven years prior to the Pilgrim voyage, trading across the English Channel to France carrying woolens over and wine back. He owned a quarter share of the ship, which of course, included profits from her trading voyages. For the famous one, there was no trading anticipated and she was chartered for the voyage by Thomas Watson of the Merchant Adventurers investor group.

The voyage had originally consisted of two ships, the Speedwell being the other, and left England in August. Speedwell quickly sprang a leak and the two put into Dartmouth for repairs. A second start was attempted in early September, but again, Speedwell began to leak, only now the two were about 200 miles out. The decision to leave the leaky Speedwell to go back by herself was born by by the time of year, the paucity of funds remaining, and desire of the passengers to get to America. That they were getting low on provisions probably also played a role in the decision. It might be worth noting that some think the leaks in Speedwell might have been "man-made" out of a fear of staving to death in the New World.

As one might reckon, the voyage was miserable. Huge seas, contrary winds, low food stocks, and damage to the structural members of the vessel. In mid-November, they sighted land - Cape Cod - and turned south to head for their intended destination, the Virginia Colony, but after several days of fighting strong and contrary winds and high seas, they turned about to seek shelter in the "hook" of Cape Cod, present day Provincetown. She anchored there on 21 November in freezing conditions.

The rest, of course, is what every school kid learned: they moved across Cape Cod Bay to form Plymouth Colony, help from the Indians, death, disease, and struggle. Captain Jones agrees to stay through the winter (I suspect he was not being terribly magnanimous - it would have been beyond miserable to head back straight away!) 

So, what happened to the ship? She made a couple of trips to France after that, but Jones died in March of 1622 - his health was likely badly compromised by the 1620 voyage - and the ship was laid up in Rotherhithe, England after that. Most probably, her useful life was at an end and she is assumed to have been broken up in 1624. There appears to have been a mill built using some of her timbers. 

A reproduction Mayflower was built and sailed across the Atlantic in 1957. She was/is entirely authentic, a true reproduction. And by today's standards, small! Here's what she looks like: 

 The ship is docked at Plimouth Colony in Massachusetts and is generally open to tourists. She sails infrequently and is, I believe, either in or about to go in the yard for much needed repairs.

               Happy Thanksgiving to all from Maritime Maunder and the Old Salt!

                                             Fair Winds,
                                                    Old Salt

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