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President's Lecture - Mayflower 400: Legend and Legacy

Jo Bailey asks Jo Loosemore about how she approached the exhibition, decided on its content and whether it revealed new information:

Jo B:  How have you approached the exhibition and this commemoration?

Jo L:  Carefully! This is a challenging story – on both sides of the Atlantic. Here, it’s a story of departure. We waved away a ship and the Separatists and forgot about them for several hundred years. We only really began to think about them in the 19th century, so we’ve created a memory of them over that time. In America, the story is one of arrival – and survival. For the descendants of the passengers today, it’s a history they take great pride in. For the descendants of the tribal peoples who met those early English settlers, it’s a story of collision and conflict. So, it became very clear to me very early on that there were different perspectives on this past, and how it should be portrayed in the present too. 

Jo B:  So, how did you go about shaping the story you would tell?

Jo L:  From the start, I was directed to co-curate this exhibition with the Wampanoag people. They are sometimes called the People of the First Light (or of the Dawn) and they’ve lived along the north eastern coast of America for 12,000 years. They weren’t the first Native Americans the passengers of the Mayflower met, but they were the people who ensured their survival. Today there are about 5000 Wampanoag people living on their ancestral land in what we now call Massachusetts. I’ve been lucky enough to work in partnership with the Wampanoag Advisory Committee to Plymouth 400. This was the group established to bring an authentic Wampanoag voice to the 400th anniversary on both sides of the Atlantic. I can honestly say it has been the privilege of my professional life to work with them. They have influenced all of our ideas, text, images and object selection. For 400 years, we have told the Mayflower story from an English Separatist perspective. It’s a very different story if you look east rather than west.

Jo B:  How has this influenced the content of the exhibition?

Jo L:  It changes the starting point for a start. 1620 is not the beginning. It wasn’t the start of English colonisation in America, nor was it the beginning of contact with Native America, nor a date which reflects the longevity of the Wampanoag. So, we begin in the late 1570s when our cultures first encounter one another. This means we look at England’s earlier colonies in America – at Roanoke, Jamestown and Popham – and we can explore the cultural collisions that resulted. The Mayflower is then placed in its historical – and colonial - context. We are an English institution, telling an English story in a way, but the partnership with the Wampanoag means we can share a much more integrated history, which welcomes a Native American perspective for the first time and describes the impact of this one journey, and others before and after, on a people, which still exist today.  

Jo B:  Has the research led to new discoveries about the English story and the English passengers too?

Jo L: Yes, certainly. In fact, I was overwhelmed with surprises. This history really isn’t the story we’ve been told, or have been telling ourselves, for 400 years. That’s most obviously the case with the passengers. Traditional language obscures the truth. ‘Pilgrim Fathers’ ignores the fact that most of the 102 people on board were women and children. 19 families in fact. Even ‘Pilgrim’ is problematic as the term often suggests a return, and only a few did. It also suggests a religious mission. While this was certainly the case for some, we know very little, if anything about the motivations of the many. Those reasons just aren’t recorded, but are assumed. Yes, what fascinated me more was the demographics of this group. They were a mix of ages (from babies to men and women in their mid-60s), of birthplaces (perhaps from as many as 15 different English counties), and professions (printers, hatters, shoe-makers, servants). This was a diverse group made up of intriguing individuals too. A few appear on the memorial in Southampton – Stephen Hopkins, Edward Doty and John Alden – all of whom had lived in Hampshire. They are all quite compelling characters as their biographies prove. Our colleagues at the New England Historical Genealogical Society have made family history research available to us, and enables us to look at the individual men, women and children of the voyage.

Jo B:  You’ve talked about starting the story in a different place, does it end differently too?

Jo L:  Yes, it does. Often stories about the Mayflower finish in 1621 with a happy feast, which only in the 19th century came to be known as Thanksgiving. But the truth is that the relationships between the English settlers themselves and the Native Americans living around them, changed dramatically and relatively quickly. By 1676, this area had seen the bloodiest war on American soil – ever. There were new settlers, new dynamics and new conflicts. Those continued for 400 years. Our exhibition reflects the legacy and also follows the legend. We look at the story of the story and how the Mayflower has been claimed and reclaimed by patriotic politicians, imaginative artists and persuasive writers. It is a story which has been affected by commemoration too.     

Jo B:  How?

Jo L:  It seems to me that commemorations reflect the time in which they are formed. In 1920 for instance, it was the 300th anniversary of the sailing. It had also seen the rise of America as a power, which saved its allies in the First World War and had the technology to achieve the first transatlantic flight. So, the Mayflower anniversary was seen as way of honouring the America of the early 20th century. By 1970 our relationship with America was more complex, as a result of Vietnam probably, but it was a superpower, so again the commemoration was perhaps more about that than a 17th century ship.

Jo B:  What does that mean for 2020?

Jo L:  Good question. Our relationship with American matters, but at the moment it isn’t easy. The pandemic has complicated that even further. But what I think will define the 400th anniversary is not just how much of it will now have to appear online rather than in person, but how different it will be because of the contribution of the Wampanoag. They offer us a completely new way of seeing this history and its impact. In the 21st century, that really matters now and for the future. 

Jo B:  Thank you so much for sharing your experience of curating the exhibition with us. Dare I ask when it will be opening to the public?

Jo L:  It has been a pleasure. You can ask, but at the moment all I can really say is keep checking our website for the latest news!

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