After more than two horrendous months at sea, Cape Cod on the horizon must have been an extremely welcome sight for the men, women and children who had boarded the Mayflower on 16 September, 1620.
With many suffering from crippling seasickness - after battling strong winds and monstrous waves during their epic 66-day voyage across the Atlantic - few of the 102 on board would have cared about missing their planned destination of Northern Virginia, and the Hudson River (today New York).
But, with America almost close enough to touch, the battered and broken passengers knew their journey was far from over, for they had no right to settle on the land upon which they had unintentionally arrived.
Of the 50 men on board the Mayflower, only 41 were classed as “true” Pilgrims, religious separatists seeking freedom from the Church of England. The others, meanwhile, were considered common folk and included merchants, craftsmen, indentured servants and orphaned children. They were referred to by the Pilgrims as “strangers”.
The Pilgrims anchored in what is now Provincetown Harbour, Massachusetts, and decided to draw up an agreement that would give them some attempt at legal standing.
An illustration of the signing of the Mayflower Compact
The Mayflower Compact - as it is known today - was signed by those 41 “true” Pilgrims on 11 November, 1620, and became the first governing document of Plymouth Colony.
It declared that the colonists were loyal to the King of England, that they were Christians who served God, that they would make fair and just laws, and that they would work together for the good of the Colony.
The men also chose John Carver as Plymouth Colony’s first governor. The women and “strangers” were not allowed to vote.
The original Mayflower Compact has been lost, but three slightly different versions exist from the 17th century.
One was printed in ‘Mourt’s Relation’ in 1622, and was reprinted in ‘Purchas his Pilgrimes’ three years later, hand-written by William Bradford in his journal, ‘Of Plymouth Plantation’ in 1646 and printed by Bradford's nephew, Nathaniel Morton, in ‘New-Englands Memorial’ in 1669.
The document itself read:
In the name of God, Amen. We, whose names are underwritten, the loyal subjects of our dread Sovereigne Lord, King James, by the grace of God, of Great Britaine, France and Ireland king, defender of the faith, etc. having undertaken, for the glory of God, and advancement of the Christian faith, and honour of our king and country, a voyage to plant the first colony in the Northerne parts of Virginia, doe by these presents solemnly and mutually in the presence of God and one of another, covenant and combine ourselves together into a civill body politick, for our better ordering and preservation, and furtherance of the ends aforesaid; and by virtue hereof to enacte, constitute, and frame such just and equall laws, ordinances, acts, constitutions and offices, from time to time, as shall be thought most meete and convenient for the generall good of the Colonie unto which we promise all due submission and obedience. In witness whereof we have hereunder subscribed our names at Cape-Codd the 11. of November, in the year of the raigne of our sovereigne lord, King James, of England, France and Ireland, the eighteenth, and of Scotland the fiftie-fourth. Anno Dom. 1620.
The signing of the Mayflower Compact. Video courtesy of SmokeSygnals and DKR Films
The legacy of the Mayflower Compact lives on today and its significance has often been debated in the centuries since it was drawn up by the passengers of the ship.
It has often been cited as providing the basis for modern American democracy and, while its influence may have been overstated, there can be no denying its importance in establishing a social contract for the settlers to live by.
Its presence helped ensure order and survival in Plymouth Colony and the basis for self-governance which went on to inspire future generations.
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