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‘Burning heretics in the high street? Bad for business’ say City merchants who financed Mayflower’s epic voyage

PUBLISHED: 10:00 24 July 2020 | UPDATED: 12:11 24 July 2020

The Mayflower finally approaching Cape Cod in Massachusetts after 10 weeks crossing the Atlantic. Picture: Library of Congress

The Mayflower finally approaching Cape Cod in Massachusetts after 10 weeks crossing the Atlantic. Picture: Library of Congress

Library of Congress

The 400th anniversary of the historic Mayflower voyage setting sail to the New World from the Thames is being marked this week by researcher Graham Taylor’s new book making the point that it’s more “a British story” than American.

Mayflower sets sail for the New World in Bernard Gribble's Pilgrim Fathers paintingMayflower sets sail for the New World in Bernard Gribble's Pilgrim Fathers painting

The Mayflower’s epic voyage began in east London when it cast off from Blackwall at the end of July, 1620 — almost the same spot that the first failed American would-be colonists set sail for Jamestown 14 years before in 1606.

The London Virginia Company aroused interest in New World emigration in the years up to 1620.

The Mayflower was chartered to carry 60 settlers and 30 crew which set off for Southampton to load up supplies and be joined by others aboard the Speedwell from Holland to sail to Virginia.

But they had to call at Plymouth for repairs when the Speedwell sprang a leak. The Mayflower was forced to sail on alone on the perilous 10-week Atlantic crossing, but got blown off course and landed at Cape Cod in Massachusetts at a place later named New Plymouth.

“Celebrating the voyage has tended to be about the two Plymouths,” Graham tells you. “But the departure from the Thames is historically much more about London which dominated politics of the day and dominated the economy with the City merchants.

How early settlers to the New World might have appeared... Jamestown colonists setting out on the Thames in 1606 bound for Virginia, 16 years ahead of the Mayflower reaching Massachusetts. Picture: First PortHow early settlers to the New World might have appeared... Jamestown colonists setting out on the Thames in 1606 bound for Virginia, 16 years ahead of the Mayflower reaching Massachusetts. Picture: First Port

“All the key decisions about the expedition were made in London. The Mayflower was a Port of London ship that embarked from Blackwall, financed and organised by City merchants in perhaps their greatest contribution to history.”

Much of Graham’s research is on his own doorstep, just rowing distance from his home by the Cherry Tree jetty opposite St Katharine’s Dock. The East End also maintains that historic link to early New World settlers with a monument at Blackwall to the 1606 Jamestown adventurers often commemorated with a folk band procession marking the first English colony in Virginia, while the Mayflower has a school named after it in Poplar.

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It is through the City merchants that the Mayflower became an icon of liberty, Graham points out. The 17th century merchants were for freedom, backing Parliament in the English Civil War in 1642 against a despotic Charles I and the Glorious Revolution of 1688 against another despot, James II, when ‘Hanging’ Judge Geffreys was caught at Wapping trying to flee abroad who ended up hanged in the Tower of London.

“The venturing colonists opposed despotic monarchs and a repressive State church,” Graham reveals in his book The Mayflower In Britain.

Graham Taylor's 'The Mayflower In Britain' commeorating its links with London 400 years ago.Graham Taylor's 'The Mayflower In Britain' commeorating its links with London 400 years ago.

“The King restricted trade selling monopolies for the royal coffers. The church restricted free speech as ideological guardian of the State, with every pulpit in every parish expected to sermonise government propaganda with compulsory attendance.”

The Church hunted heretics and dissenters with bailiffs and informers, punishing by public whippings, mutilation and even execution by fire.

“City merchants were averse to all this,” Graham adds. “Burning heretics in the high street was bad for business!”

London’s merchants needed skilled settlers tough enough to survive extreme conditions, yet tolerant enough to befriend native Indians whose co-operation was needed. Religious separatists were ideal, with their industriousness in skilled trades and their broad-minded principals.

Colonists were instructed to treat the Indians with consideration and never take anything without trading for it, in true London mercantile tradition. They maintained “government by consent” on their arrival in the New World.

Memorial at Blackwall on the Thames where the first Jamestown colonists set out in 1606 for Virginia in the New World. Picture: First PortMemorial at Blackwall on the Thames where the first Jamestown colonists set out in 1606 for Virginia in the New World. Picture: First Port

“The Mayflower becomes an icon of freedom once London is incorporated into the story,” Graham explains. “Elements of anti-slavery, humane treatment of indigenous people and government by consent were fundamental, all values of freedom and tolerance that it represents to the world today.”

The Mayflower began as a very “London” story, but later adopted by America’s founding fathers to justify independence from British rule.

Graham Taylor’s The Mayflower In Britain is available from Amberley Publishing.


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