The Pilgrims’ Progress

With every major anniversary, our perspective on the voyage of the Mayflower changes. This year’s 400th will address the legacy of colonialism.

The Arrival of the Pilgrim Fathers, by Antonio Gisbert Pérez, c.1864 © Bridgeman Images.

After two false starts, an unremarkable merchant ship called the Mayflower departed the English port of Plymouth on 6 September 1620, bound for the wilds of America. On board, apart from the 30 or so crew, were 102 passengers – 37 of whom would go on to be immortalised as the ‘Pilgrim Fathers’, who settled in New England and gave rise to one of the most enduring and controversial origin myths in US history. This small body of extreme non-conformist Puritans, sometimes called Separatists, drawn largely from the English Midlands, had been searching since the late 16th century for a country that would allow them to worship freely. After a decade in Leiden, they decided that the Netherlands did not suit their tastes, either: too much freedom could be equally corrosive to morality. The congregation thus decided to travel thousands of miles across the ocean and trust that God would help them find freedom in a ‘New World’.


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