How the Mayflower arrived in a world already scarred by slavery

When the Mayflower arrived in America, history often records the event as a ship arriving in a ‘New World’.

But these shores were not new. The colonists aboard the Mayflower were stepping foot on lands that had been home to people for centuries.

They were also not the first Europeans to make the journey. Jamestown was one of several established settlements in Virginia by the winter of 1620.

Records show that by that year, the Virginia colony was already involved in bringing African slaves to America.

When the Mayflower set sail from its final departure point in Plymouth in September 1620, it set a course for Virginia – its intended destination to build a colony. The ship was voyaging to a place already engaged in a slavery.

And its eventual destination of modern-day Massachusetts was one that had experienced the cruel abduction of the Indigenous population to sell as slaves.

European sailors had already landed at the settlement of the Patuxet people, the lands the Mayflower’s passengers eventually settled on and built Plymouth.

Those European sailors had abducted members of the Indigenous population of Native Americans in the years previous, with the intention of selling them as slaves.

While the Mayflower’s passengers did not bring slaves on their voyage or engage in a trade as they built Plymouth, it should be recognised the journey took place at a time when ships were crossing the Atlantic to set up colonies in America that would become part of a transatlantic slavery operation.

The passengers may not have had a direct hand in the birth of slavery in America, but they became part of a world scarred by slavery.

The abduction of Native Americans

When the Mayflower originally arrived in Cape Cod on November 9, 1620, they were wary of sailing south towards their intended destination because of the stormy conditions.

They instead searched the coastline, eventually settling on a place known to the Indigenous population as home to the Patuxet people of the Wampanoag tribe.

Watching on as they explored this area were a small group of Native Americans, people for whom this area was already home. The new arrivals tried to follow them but got lost and stuck among some dense thickets. They decided to change course and came across cleared land where corn had been grown and abandoned houses.

They found buried corn, which they took back to the ship, intending to plant it and grow more corn. They also found graves.

This village they had stumbled upon was once home to the Patuxet people but had since been deserted following the outbreak of disease known as the Great Dying - thought to be a European disease brought to the region by sailors.

This was a legacy of what the Native American people had already experienced from European colonists in the years prior to the Mayflower.

The native inhabitants of the region around Plymouth Colony were the various groups of the Wampanoag people and other tribes, who had lived there for some 10,000 years before the Europeans arrived.

Ships from England had been fishing and trading in North America waters since the beginning of the 16th century. They would also bring Native Americans back to Europe – some as slaves – often to callously exhibit.

Some were taught English so they could become interpreters in future. In 1614, six years before the Pilgrims arrived, 27 natives were seized by a man called Thomas Hunt.

The majority came from Patuxet, the very abandoned village the Pilgrims would later find, and what is now modern-day Plymouth, Massachusetts.

Hunt lured 24 Native Americans on board his ship under the premise of trade. Their number included a man called Tisquantum, often known in history by the name Squanto. Hunt locked them up below deck, sailed for Spain and sold these people into the European slave trade.

It is thought Tisquantum was liberated some years later, when it is thought he returned to America in 1619 working as an interpreter for Captain Thomas Dermer.

Tisquantum later searched for his homeland but tragically, he arrived as the Great Dying reached its horrific climax. His tribe had all been wiped out. His home village, Patuxet, was lost.

He would go on to play a key role in relations between the Wampanoag people and the new colony and is closely associated to the early growth of Plymouth and the survival of the Mayflower’s passengers after the harsh first winter that greeted their arrival.

He is thought to have died in Plymouth Colony in November 1622, after suffering a severe fever.

The below video, recorded with the help of the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe, gives more insight into the legacy of this period.


The Virginia settlements

The Mayflower voyage itself was largely financed by London’s Merchant Adventurers and the Virginia Company, which offered ‘patents’ for colonial settlements.

These merchants wanted to colonise America for profit - that profit would be made from trade.

Several colonies in the Virginia area had already been established before the Mayflower’s arrival, the biggest being Jamestown.

And to grow these settlements, 12 years after Jamestown was established in 1607, the London Company began to import slaves from Africa.

In 1619 slave traders forced Africans to get on a slave ship, the White Lion, and took them to Virginia. The approximately 20 Africans on that ship, originally from the present-day Angola, had been seized by the British crew from a Portuguese slave ship.

In March 1620, 32 Africans were documented as residing in Virginia. By 1661, Virginia passed its first law allowing any free person the right to own slaves. The culture of owning slaves would soon spread.

In the later years of the Plymouth colony, slavery was by no means widespread, but it was present and seemingly accepted. The families of the colony did not possess the wealth to own slaves, though records from 1674 onwards show the presence of slaves in some households.

King Philip's War

When the Mayflower arrived in America, the colonists and the local Wampanoag tribe settled on a peace built on mutual interest.

But just over 40 years later, tensions grew. The Wampanoag no longer believed the Plymouth colony were honouring their agreement and feared the rate at which colony was expanding.

The colonists demanded the peace agreement should mean the Wampanoag hand over any guns and hanged three of the tribe for the murder in 1675 of Christian native John Sassamon, who had told the Plymouth Colony of a plan to attack English settlements.

The Wampanoag leader Metacom - known as King Philip by the English - refused and led an uprising of the Wampanoag, Nipmuck, Pocumtuck and Narragansett tribes.

What followed is what became known as America’s bloodiest war.

One of those often believed to bear responsibility for the war, and the souring of relations between the two groups, was the Governor of the Plymouth colony at the time, Josiah Winslow.

He was the son of Edward Winslow, a passenger of the Mayflower and a diplomatic man who played a major role in the peace between the colony and the Wampanoag.

The war decimated the Narragansett, Wampanoag and many smaller tribes, paving the way for additional English settlements.

Thousands were killed, wounded or captured. Those captured were inevitably sold into slavery. Some worked as slaves in New Englands, others further afield with some exported to work on plantations in overseas territories.

When the Mayflower landed in 1620, it was the Wampanoag who would help the passengers survive in their lands. Decades later, they would be enslaved on their own lands, along with the African slaves brought across the Atlantic.


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