Documentary exploring the Pilgrims' journey west across the Atlantic in the 17th century. Celebrated each year at Thanksgiving, the event has become shrouded in myth.
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Now faith is the substance of things hoped for.
The evidence of things not seen.
These all died in faith.
Confessing that they were both strangers and pilgrims on the Earth.
But they desired a better country.
That is a heavenly one.
Wherefore God was not ashamed to be called their God.
That he has prepared for them
I think William Bradford knew they were on a journey
in this world towards heaven.
They were transient citizens of the world and ultimately
citizens of heaven.
And they were on a journey towards purity, that is what they sought,
that's what took them out of England,
that's what took them over to Holland.
That's what took them from Holland over to the New World.
Summer was fading fast when on September 6th 1620,
a small group of pilgrims, including a one-time farm boy from Yorkshire,
named William Bradford, set out across the North Atlantic,
on an ageing ship called the Mayflower.
Their historic voyage would come to define the moment America was born.
It is worth reminding ourselves that, at the time,
they were a very, very small group of very extreme people...
..and if we'd never heard of them ever again,
nobody would be surprised.
The fact they are, in the long term, extraordinarily successful,
that they found the world's greatest democracy,
throws retrospective lustre.
They are, one might say, if you wanted to be pretty critical,
they're religious nutters who won't settle
for anything except the most literal
reading of the Bible,
they want to transform a nation state
into something that resembles what they take to be a godly kingdom.
They weren't the people that you would expect to be founding a new colony.
They weren't soldiers, they were not emissaries of a foreign government,
they were not particularly well provided with supplies.
At least half of them were Separatists,
that is to say radical Protestants who were religious exiles.
They weren't the people
you would automatically expect to be founding
a new outpost of the British Empire.
Fewer than 50 of the 102 passengers were adult men,
many well past their physical prime, at least 30 were children,
and nearly 20 were women, including three expectant mothers.
By the time they set sail,
England had still not succeeded in establishing
a truly viable colony on the shores of the New World
and few expected their chances of survival,
let alone success, to be any better.
They don't register at all, numerically.
It's a tiny handful of people, many of whom don't survive.
If we're thinking about migration to the Americas
in the 17th and 18th century,
we're talking about ten million Africans, for instance,
as against this tiny handful of English men and women.
The fascinating thing about the Pilgrims' story is how this tiny group of people
managed to tell the story in such a way as to erase that whole other history.
If you ask people
where does America start,
they'll say it starts in Plymouth Rock.
Despite the fact that Jamestown was founded in 1607,
and Plymouth was found in 1620, it became our story of national origin.
Somehow, with the passage of time, the arrival of this frail,
unlikely band would come to be seen as the true
founding moment of America,
and the story of their coming enshrined as the quintessential
myth of American origins,
commemorated each year on the fourth Thursday in November,
a feast that almost certainly never took place as we imagine it did.
Because the Pilgrims had been so enshrined
in the national imagination,
we need to go back, and ask questions
about why we picked that story.
An important exercise,
when we are thinking about something that has been so central to
our national imagination.
We would scarcely remember the Pilgrims at all
were it not for the unusual man who came to lead them
in the New World,
and the unusual book he left behind,
a luminous text unlike
any other account of early American settlement,
extraordinary both in what it says
and in what it passes over in silence.
He was a person of very delicate sensibilities
and very keen perceptions.
He watched the flutterings of their little conventicle
and its ups and downs with the greatest concern,
and registered it in this wonderful prose.
Bradford's Of Plymouth Plantation is one of the great books of American
literature and history.
That book, more than anything, is a kind of bible in its own way.
It's steeped in the Bible, obviously,
when it comes to its language,
but when it comes to the history of Plymouth Colony, it is the text.
Bradford laboured over the manuscript for more than 20 years,
"scribbled writings", he said, pieced up in times of leisure,
stolen from his duties as governor, and written in the third person,
as if to a far-distant future.
From my years young in days of youth,
God did make known to me his truth.
And called me from our native place
for to enjoy the means of grace.
In wilderness he did me guide
and in strange lands for me provide.
In fears and wants,
through weal and woe...
..a pilgrim passed I...
..to and fro.
In England, the place that is most closely associated
with the origins of the Pilgrims is a village called Scrooby,
which is right at the northern corner
of the county of Nottinghamshire.
It was an area where religious divisions
were particularly conspicuous,
where there was still quite a large number of lingering Roman Catholics
in an area that had recently been evangelised
by radical Protestantism.
You have the right people at the right time in the right area
with the same ideas, and I think that's what happened up here,
in this part of the country.
Got John Robinson at Gainsborough.
Got William Brewster there at Scrooby.
You have Richard Clyfton here at Babworth.
William Bradford in Austerfield.
So spiritually strong and so young,
they supported each other,
and I think that is why it took off here and maybe
not in other places.
William Bradford was born in the tiny village of Austerfield,
and baptised on March 19th 1590,
in the ancient stone church of St Helena's,
a three-mile walk down the lane from the village of Scrooby.
His family were yeomen, with farmland of their own.
Though far from wealthy, they were far from poor.
But his childhood would be blighted by the death of virtually everyone
close to him. His father William when he was one,
his grandfather William when he was six,
his mother Alice when he was seven,
his sister Alice and his grandfather John Hanson
when he was 12.
He was sent to live with his uncle, Robert,
who hoped he would prove useful working in the fields.
His family's economic security had been badly shaken by
four failed harvests in a row,
and by the devastating depression that followed.
The standard of living of the average English labourer
was rapidly declining. There was something very close to famine.
It was a very uncertain world in which even people from the yeomanry,
as the Pilgrims were, were always worried they were about to slip back
into this state of near destitution, in which many people lived.
In addition to that,
the kind of people who became the nucleus of the Plymouth Colony
honestly believed that, in England,
they were being forced to live amid sin, amid iniquity,
and there is evidence that there was a great deal of immorality going on.
Incidence of fornication, adultery, drunkenness.
And what emerges from this is a picture of
quite a troubled and disturbed and agitated world.
Lonely and intelligent,
in a world that felt increasingly precarious to him,
William fell ill when he was 12,
with what he called "a long sickness",
which took him from the fields, kept him bedridden for months,
and drove him to seek solace in the Bible.
The reading of Scriptures, he said, made a great impression upon him.
The more that he read, the more troubled he became,
and the gulf between the world he saw around him
and the simplicity and purity of the Gospel.
Our father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name...
He had this profound sense as a 12-year-old
that the congregation he was a part of was corrupt.
That the Church was moving them in a direction that was not right.
That they prayed to the depraved beliefs of mortal men
that were moving them away from God, and so this was a deep conviction.
I think there you have the beginnings of
a very complex and inward-looking person,
who was improbably preparing for the ultimate journey.
When he was well again,
William began to fall under the spell
of an evangelical Puritan preacher named Richard Clyfton.
Not long after, he found his way to the home of William Brewster,
the warm-hearted, Cambridge-educated postmaster, and bailiff
of Scrooby Manor, where he came to feel he had found a spiritual home
and where, each week, a private congregation gathered to hear
Clyfton and another charismatic minister, named John Robinson.
They preached on the need to purify the Church of England
of all Roman Catholic influence and everything worldly,
of anything not contained in Scripture.
Your carcasses shall fall.
'I think the sense of faithfulness to Scripture is at the heart of it.
'They want to go right back to the roots and strip away all the human
'accretions that have come into the worship and the life of the Church
'and get back to a primitive purity.
'It's no accident that the larger movement
'from which the Separatists came
'were called Puritans by their opponents,
'because that's what they were campaigning for - greater purity,
to what they believed they read in Scripture.
Nothing he read made a deeper impression on him
than a passage from the book of St Matthew
in which Christ explains to his disciples
where the true Church lies.
"For where two or three are gathered together in my name...
"..there am I in the midst of them."
That's obviously the key Separatist text,
that Christ will be with you without a bishop, without a Church,
without any ecclesiastical organisation,
and that prayer, conversion,
commitment is enough for the presence of Christ.
That's an extraordinarily radical text, when you think about it.
'They reject hierarchy in the Church,
'the hierarchy of bishop, priest and deacon that has come
'from Catholicism, that still exists in the Church of England.
'So they look for an equality among members of the Church,
'that's an equality of members of the body of Christ.'
Everybody's got equal access to it.
William was on the road to being committed to the radical idea that
the true love of God might mean
separating from the Church of England altogether.
And that's when the real trouble begins,
because you look at who is the head of the only Church in England,
the head of the Church from Henry's time is the monarch.
It's not just the Church, it's the monarch that you are flying
in the face of. That's what makes this so dangerous
and so worrying for the authorities.
If you are going to make a stand on religion and get away with it,
then what else are you going to make a stand on?
Your carcasses will fall...
'The issues at stake are literally more important than life and death,
'it's your eternal life, or your eternal death.
'If your monarch is jeopardising your eternal life,
'you are a very unreliable subject,
'because anyone who separates from the Church
'is not just separating from the Church
'but they're separating from royal authority,'
and that's potentially very dangerous.
Bottom line - what was at stake?
You can punish somebody for not attending the church,
you can be fined.
If you persisted, you could be imprisoned,
so you could think about it.
And Elizabeth, after the act against Puritans, in 1593,
had made the next step banishment.
But I think, with James, these folk were risking everything.
He was newly to the throne, not popular,
he wasn't going to have any dissenters.
You can't really understand the Pilgrims' story
without understanding James I, King of England at the time,
the man from whom they were fleeing.
James I was a man who passionately believed in unity,
he believed it was immensely important that the kingdom
should be unified under a single canopy of law and order,
and he didn't want to see any form of discord
or the creation of rival factions, rival centres of power.
There were explicit rules that said you couldn't have private religious
meetings in houses, ministers should not convene
private groups of people.
These conventicles were judged illegal and subversive.
In the spring of 1607,
with nothing worldly left to lose
and convinced their souls were hanging in the balance,
John Robinson led the congregation at Scrooby Manor across
the last fateful barrier,
to outright separation from the Church of England.
Be ye not unequally yoked together with unbelievers?
For what fellowship hath righteousness with unrighteousness?
And what communion hath light with darkness?
And what agreement hath the temple of God with idols?
For ye are the temple of the living God, as God hath said,
"I will walk in them.
"I will dwell in them.
"And I will be their God.
"And they will be my people.
"Wherefore come out from among them
"and be ye separate."
So, many, therefore...
..whose hearts the Lord had touched with heavenly zeal for his truth,
they shook off this yoke of anti-Christian bondage,
and, as the Lord's free people,
joined themselves by a covenant of the law into a Church estate
in the fellowship of the Gospel,
to walk in all his ways according to their best endeavours whatsoever it
should cost them.
The Lord assisting them.
And that it cost them something,
this ensuing history will declare.
By the autumn, when William Brewster himself
was fined and threatened with imprisonment,
it was clear that only one option remained.
To worship God as they saw fit,
they must separate not only from the English Church
but from England altogether.
The conventicle began to discuss
where they might go to find the freedom
that they so earnestly sought.
They settled, for the moment at least, on Holland.
Holland had emerged as the Protestant part of the Netherlands,
opposed to Catholic rule in the south.
It was a place of refuge for evangelicals
in a time of threat and challenge.
That looked like the place
where God's purposes might be being served.
It was also a boom time,
because peace brought an expansion in the cloth trade.
So you can see the attraction -
from here to the Humber Estuary and to Amsterdam is not very far.
And so they join the radical Protestants of their time, the Dutch.
But James, for the monarchy, let them go there.
If that's where they're happy, no reason why they shouldn't go there.
The Dutch are our allies, we've been fighting on the side of the Dutch.
If you want to live there, fair enough.
And no doubt, many of them would have thought
that they would settle there quite happily, and that would be it.
Holland was a completely different environment from what they were used to,
and because they were foreigners,
they ended up getting really lousy jobs.
Instead of farms,
they ended up basically in little factories creating clothing,
and they would work literally from dawn till dusk.
A bell would go off in the morning
and they'd work to the very end of the day, often with their children.
But for all the trials and hardships,
at least they were free for the first time to worship
as they wished, in accordance with God's will.
Such was the true piety,
the humble seal and fervent love of this people
whilst they thus lived together,
towards God and his ways...
..that they came as near the primitive pattern of the first Churches
as any other Church of these latter times have done.
In late November 1618,
a brilliant blue-green comet appeared in the night skies.
"We shall have wars," the English ambassador to the Netherlands wrote,
and he was right.
Europe was on the verge of an enormous conflict,
the beginning of what we now refer to as the Thirty Years' War.
A great religious conflict involving all the great powers of Europe,
which Protestants such as the Pilgrims saw as a great confrontation
between good, in the shape of Protestant Christianity, and evil,
in the shape of Roman Catholicism.
And this, in the eyes of many,
was a cataclysmic global confrontation
which might very well lead to the end of the world.
It might herald, if you like,
the Second Coming of Christ and the Day of Judgment.
Things were that urgent, the stakes were that high.
Everything seemed to be on the edge of complete meltdown,
and so they decided it's time to pull the ripcord once again,
even if it meant leaving everything they had known all their lives.
But where do you go? You are Englishmen, after all.
But you can't go back to England.
And I think that's why they plumped for the New World.
If you can't go back to England,
at least maybe they could find the freedom they're looking for there.
After weighing and rejecting numerous options,
they settled in the end on an area
at the mouth of the Hudson River, near present-day New York.
What they had to do to get there required an awful lot of them.
They really had to figure out how they were going to do this.
Like many people from cults,
they were really naive when it came to the rest of the world.
These were not wealthy people.
They had all but despaired of finding anyone willing to finance
the hugely costly, high-risk undertaking when, in early 1620,
they were approached in Leiden by a 35-year-old cloth merchant
from London named Thomas Weston,
who offered to organise financing for the expedition
through a group of businessmen hoping to break into
the transatlantic trade in fish and fur.
And that is the beginning of all sorts of trouble for them.
The right time to make that westward crossing of the Atlantic to
the New World is to set out in the spring
and certainly no later than the summer,
because of the way that the prevailing winds are working, and so on.
So the Pilgrims get themselves ready in Leiden in the spring,
and it's June when they discover that Weston hasn't organised any transport.
With no word about either financing,
supplies or the ship that would take them across the Atlantic,
trusting in God,
the Pilgrims pulled up their roots and set off for England anyway.
And so, they left...
..that goodly and pleasant city
which had been their resting place for nearly 12 years.
But they knew they were Pilgrims and looked not much on these things
but lift up their eyes to the heavens...
..their dearest country...
..and quieted their spirits.
The journey across the Channel was swift and uneventful
and when they arrived, to their enormous relief,
they found waiting for them at the dock a second ship,
which Thomas Weston had secured for them at the last possible moment.
It was called the Mayflower.
Here, they had their first encounter with the Mayflower's master,
Christopher Jones, and with its hard-bitten,
rough-and-tumble crew, and with the strangers,
the motley assortment of non-Separatist recruits
the investors had insisted go with them.
Suddenly, these Leideners, who had spent ten years cultivating
their own spiritual, very inward bond,
found themselves on a ship,
sharing their space with the strangers who came from a completely
different place, with the understanding that,
we're not just sharing this ship with them,
we're going to be living with these people for the foreseeable future.
It was a long process before they could finally get away to sea,
out onto the open Atlantic, and it was far too late in the year.
If you wanted to go to America, Virginia or New England,
you should try to leave February or March at the latest so you could get
there in the spring and give yourself a full spring and summer to
become accustomed to the New World
and to do all the things you had to do before the winter set in.
In fact, of course, they ended up leaving in September,
which was about as bad as it could be.
On September 6th 1620, fearfully late in the season,
undersupplied and overcrowded,
with autumn storms already whipping the North Atlantic into menacing
furrows of white-capped waves,
the Mayflower left Plymouth Harbour
and set out on her own across the Atlantic.
a 24-year-old printer travelling with his wife Elizabeth,
never forgot the moment they set sail.
Wednesday, 6th September.
The wind, coming east, north-east,
a fine small gale,
released from Plymouth,
having been kindly entertained and courteously used by diverse friends
The Mayflower lost sight of Land's End sometime towards the end of
the first week of September 1620.
William Bradford remembered her finally setting forth
under a prosperous wind.
But the journey would be far from easy.
When they finally set sail,
they are going against the prevailing westerly winds,
then struggling against the Gulf Stream...
..and they made incredibly slow progress,
2mph across the Atlantic.
Some of them tried to create little cabins within this,
which just made these little suffocating cells,
and chamber pots everywhere.
There was a boat that had been cut up into pieces that some people were
trying to use for a bed.
There were two dogs, a spaniel and a giant slobbery mastiff.
And it is a voyage from hell.
Somewhere far out in the Atlantic, Stephen Hopkins' wife Elizabeth
gave birth to a baby boy, who they named Oceanus.
They almost turned back.
The sailors, at one point,
said they'd be happy to earn their wages but they are not going to risk
Bradford spells it out.
He describes it as awful.
And these terrible sailors, who were a blight on humanity,
and the strangers, some of whom were worse, loaded up with all this gear,
It's amazing that they came out alive.
And by the end of it, people are getting sick.
And so there was a real sense of urgency aboard,
particularly for Master Jones, who knew, at some point,
he had to get these people off his ship.
Two people had died and more were failing fast when,
early on the morning of Thursday November 9th 1620,
after more than two months at sea,
a crew member spied a line of high bluffs gleaming far off
in the early dawn light, and shouted out excitedly to Captain Jones.
It was the first land they had seen in 65 days.
They've arrived off the coast of Cape Cod,
but they're 200 miles off course,
and so Master Jones heads them south towards the Hudson River and,
unfortunately, there are no reliable charts,
and they unsuspectingly find themselves
in one of the most dangerous pieces of shoal water
on the Atlantic coast,
and it looks like this is going to be the end of them.
And Jones makes a very historic decision.
He says, "We're not going south.
"We're going to take this breeze to the north,
"around the rest of what they called Cape Cod,
"to whatever harbour is there,
"and I'm getting these people off my ship."
On November 11th,
they rounded the tip of Cape Cod and sailed into the relative calm and
safety of the great bay where, even before they dropped anchor,
long-festering tensions between the strangers and the Pilgrims
broke out into the open.
This day, before we came to harbour,
observing some not well affected to unity and concord,
it was thought good there should be an association and agreement that we
should combine together in one body and submit to such government and
governors as we should by common consent agree to make and choose,
and set our hands to this that follows,
word for word.
The point of the compact was to ward off the danger of division
and dissolution after they'd got to the other side.
The thing that is key about it is, it's a contract.
We're going to agree on this particular goal
and get everybody's name
on this document and make a commitment to this.
On the morning of November 11th 1620,
the Mayflower compact was offered up for signature.
The first to sign was John Carver, one of the wealthiest men on board.
The last, a servant named Edward Leicester.
In the end, the vast majority of the men on board put their names to
the paper. 41 adult men in all,
90% of the adult male population of the Mayflower.
Once the signing was complete,
the colonists acted collectively for the first time,
and elected John Carver to be their governor.
And against all odds, here they are, off this very dangerous coast,
knowing that there is this huge continent ahead of them.
This was an alien environment.
It's as if they have been set down on another planet.
And there it is, in all its mystery, before them.
Then, with their ship safely anchored off Cape Cod,
16 armed men ventured ashore in a small boat
and stepped on dry land for the first time in two months.
Being thus past the vast ocean
and a sea of troubles,
they now had no friends to welcome them or inns to repair to
for to refresh their weather-beaten bodies, no houses,
much less towns, to repair to to seek for succour.
As for the season, it was winter,
and they that know the winters of that country
know them to be sharp and harsh...
..subject to cruel and fierce storms.
Besides, what could they see but a hideous, desolate wilderness,
full of wild beasts...
..and wild men?
When they arrived in this territory,
they believed that their journey was ordained by God,
that they had a mission that they were to fulfil,
and the desolation that they found
was God's Providence.
It was meant to be that way for them.
On his return to the Mayflower,
William Bradford was greeted with staggering news.
Five days earlier, his 23-year-old wife Dorothy
had somehow fallen overboard while the ship lay at anchor
and drowned in the icy waters of the harbour.
But in Bradford's history, it is nothing more than a footnote.
He has this double job.
He has to be true to the events but also bring them into
a larger narrative of Providence and care.
Many of the things that he doesn't tell
simply don't fit into that design,
and I think that the death of his wife was one of those.
He couldn't not honour it,
but there was no way to honour it,
so it disappears from the history.
Late in life, Bradford penned the lines of a simple poem.
Faint not, poor soul
In God still trust
Fear not the things thou suffer must
For whom he loves he doth chastise
And then all tears wipes from their eyes.
On Friday December 15th,
with its cargo of sickened and sea-weary passengers and crew,
the Mayflower sailed west across the vast windswept bay
towards the dark, wintry shore that awaited them.
They called it Plymouth.
It was an Indian settlement that had been abandoned.
It seemed, physically speaking, a proper place.
It had a nice slope down to the harbour and fields beyond,
and that seemed to be a convenient place.
The Mayflower had to anchor a mile offshore,
because the harbour at Plymouth
wasn't deep enough to let the ship right up,
so that they had to ferry the supplies,
the goods, so slowly, in from the Mayflower.
Storm still continued.
But we could not get a land,
nor they come to us aboard.
This morning, goodwife Alison was delivered of a son,
but dead born.
Our people on shore heard a cry of some savages,
which caused an alarm
and to stand on their guard,
expecting an assault.
But all was quiet.
The Pilgrims had just set to work
building a 20-foot-square common house
for protection against Indian attack when the temperature began to drop
and the weather to close in mercilessly.
One by one, the weakened immigrants began to succumb to dysentery,
By February, people were dying in droves,
some huddled in the makeshift settlement,
many more back on the Mayflower.
The conditions on board that ship must have been absolutely awful.
They can't go ashore, they're all suffering from scurvy.
That sweet ship, the Mayflower,
at the end, it was like a death house on the water.
It pleased God to visit us then with death daily,
and with so general a disease...
..the living were scarce able to bury the dead...
..and the well in no measure sufficient
to tend the sick.
The days were growing longer and the death rate
had finally begun to subside
when, on Friday March 16th, cries of panic and alarm rang out,
as a lone Wampanoag warrior,
naked except for a loincloth and carrying a bow,
broke cover from the line of trees near their huts
and walked boldly into the camp.
He saluted us in English, and bade us welcome.
He was the first savage we had met withal.
He said his name was Samoset.
He told us the place we now live is called Patuxet,
and that about four years ago all the inhabitants died
of an extraordinary plague.
The Wampanoags are looking for an ally.
They're suspicious of the Pilgrims when they first come,
they stay away from them at first, they watch them,
but eventually they realise that an alliance
is going to be best for them as well,
because they're being dominated by other Indian tribes who are
not affected by the epidemic, who are forcing them to pay tribute.
It was not just political convenience, it was survival.
If you do not have power backing you, and you are a weakened people,
then the enemies that naturally exist around you
will take advantage.
Our leadership knew very well the tough decisions
that needed to be made at the time,
in order to ensure that Wampanoag people continued to exist
in Wampanoag territory.
Six days later, the emissary returned,
bringing the principal leader of the Wampanoags and 60 of his men,
including one named Tisquantum,
who served as interpreter as the two sides concluded a remarkable accord,
agreeing not to harm each other's people,
and to come to each other's aid in the event of attack.
Tisquantum would remain with the struggling group on the site of
his former home, to help with the spring planting.
The Pilgrims were obviously very close to losing everything
after that first winter,
and I think there was a recognition that they both needed each other.
Not that they understood each other terribly well,
but they were desperate, they were both desperate.
Two weeks after concluding the treaty,
the immigrants gathered at the harbour
to bid a sombre farewell to the Mayflower,
which, on April 5th 1621, set sail for England
with Master Jones, an empty hold and a drastically diminished crew.
It was one of the last voyages she would ever take.
Two years later, the Mayflower, rotting at anchor on the Thames,
would be sold for scrap and disappear to history.
The Pilgrims' only anchor and lifeline was gone.
They were on their own.
Autumn came and the days dipped down into darkness.
With William Bradford now at the helm as their new governor,
the Pilgrims had finished erecting 11 crude structures in all,
seven dwelling houses and four common buildings.
They had also managed to bring in a successful harvest of corn,
thanks to Tisquantum, and as the leaves began to turn, they prepared,
Edward Winslow reported,
to, "in a special manner, rejoice together
"after we had gathered the fruits of our labours."
No-one at the time called it Thanksgiving.
William Bradford made no mention of it in his history.
There isn't much of a record, there's a paragraph, I think,
in Winslow, that describes what's come to be known
as the first Thanksgiving.
It says nothing about an invitation,
it was just that the English were doing this thing
and Massasoit showed up with these 90 men.
They stayed for three days,
they went out and got five deer
to add to what the English were cooking.
They played games together.
There's, like, four little facts of what happened,
and then the rest of it is fluff
that's been added over the centuries.
Over time, the humble event,
all but disregarded by the Pilgrims themselves,
would be recast as one of the most important and defining moments
in American history.
We love the story of Thanksgiving because it's about alliance and
abundance and envisioning a future where Native Americans
and colonial Americans can come together
and celebrate the Providences of a single God.
But part of the reason that they were grateful
was that they had been in such misery,
that they had lost so many people - on both sides.
But we don't think about the loss, we think about the abundance.
On November 9th 1621,
a shout went out from a lookout on Burial Hill,
followed by the loud booming of a cannon
as, far out in the bay,
the first sails they had seen since the departure of the Mayflower
loomed on the eastern horizon.
They'd had no contact with the outside world for more than a year.
It turned out to be an English relief ship called the Fortune,
sent by Thomas Weston.
A third the size of the Mayflower,
the tiny vessel carried 35 new recruits
and a stinging letter from Thomas Weston himself,
rebuking the colonists for having failed
to send back any cargo with the Mayflower.
They desperately needed to find something
they could ship back to England to pay their debts,
and that just wasn't available in those early years in New England.
So there were all kinds of challenges
which they were not well prepared for.
Work on a massive fortification had been completed just four months when
two new ships, also sent by Thomas Weston, appeared in the harbour.
Their arrival would trigger the darkest crisis
in the Pilgrims' history.
None of the 60 new colonists were Separatists.
They had come to set up what amounted to a rival trading post
at Wessagusset, 30 miles up the coast.
They were not there for religious reasons,
they did not have a social cohesion, they did not have family structures,
they were there for financial reasons,
and it was a collection of young men.
And things very, very quickly start deteriorating there.
In March 1623,
news reached Plymouth that the settlement
was in the gravest danger from a region-wide conspiracy,
whose aim was to eradicate all English settlements in New England.
Mr Weston's colony had by their evil and debauched courage
so exasperated the Indians among them,
as they plotted their overthrow.
And because they knew not how to affect it
but fear we would revenge it upon them...
they secretly instigated other peoples
to conspire against us also...
..thinking to assault us
with their force at home.
But their treachery was discovered unto us,
and we went to rescue the lives of our countrymen and take vengeance on
them for their villainy.
The veterans of the Thirty Years' War were brutes, hammerers...
..and they went up there, a young Indian boy, they hung,
and then the rest they stabbed to death,
and cut off one of their heads,
and brought it back and put it on a pole in the middle of Plymouth.
Five months later,
William Bradford married a recently arrived 32-year-old widow
named Alice Southworth in a ceremony attended by the entire community.
The Pilgrims usually shunned decoration, ornamentation.
But when Bradford gets married,
people notice one piece of ornament.
A piece of linen soaked in Wituwamat's blood.
Visitors to Plymouth commented upon it.
In 1627, the Pilgrims faced a new problem.
Their investors in London, convinced of the colony would never
show a profit, cut their losses and wound up their partnership.
Most of the massive debt left behind was assumed by eight of the colony's
most stalwart members.
But salvation was at hand in the surprising form of the beaver trade.
The demand for beaver skins arose entirely from
the demand for beaver hats.
The price rocketed up because
England found itself at war with France and Spain.
And beaver fur became more scarce in Europe
and so the price went up dramatically.
So, everything came together in 1627 and 1628.
Price had gone up, Pilgrims had found the furs.
The opportunity presented itself
and back came beaver skins in their thousands.
Investors in London saw that if you took this business model
the Pilgrims had developed, then you might be able to build
a much, much bigger colony with not hundreds of colonists
but thousands of colonists.
And so they took the Plymouth Colony prototype and they turned it into
something far, far bigger on a far bigger scale.
In the spring of 1630,
the first of a massive fleet of 18 ships
left England for a bay
40 miles north of New Plymouth,
bringing 1,000 well-supplied
They named the bay Boston.
All through the summer, the great ships continued to arrive.
the new settlement already had a population of nearly 1,000,
three times larger in ten weeks than the tiny community Plymouth had
gathered to itself in ten years.
Those are just small beginnings.
Greater things have been produced by his hand
that made all things of nothing.
And gives being to all things that are.
And as one small candle may light a thousand,
so the light here kindled hath shone to many...
..yea, in some sort,
to our whole nation.
Let the glorious name of Jehovah...
..have all the praise.
Well, in some ways, of course, it is a success story,
because, completely against the odds, they survived.
They put down roots.
They established a colony.
So, in that sense, it was a success.
The sense in which it is poignantly not a success is, I think,
for Bradford, the sense that the community he had hoped for
didn't materialise in the sweet way that he had hoped it would.
In 1630, not long after the founding of the colony at Boston,
William Bradford, 40 now,
and beginning his tenth year as governor,
sat down to write a history of Plymouth Plantation,
sensing, perhaps, from the moment the new settlement began,
how dramatically his own community would be transformed,
and determined to leave an account of who his people were,
and what had happened to them, and why they mattered.
As an historian writing for posterity,
he can tell the story and preserve the meaning
of their vision and their implantation...
..even as that vision is being dissipated
and not being held by others.
And this is a great despair for Bradford,
that they've gone through all of this hell
to create this wonderful, exceptional community of saints,
but it doesn't happen.
It just fragments and blows apart.
Instead of his little congregation of saints,
he has his best friend moving off, forming other towns,
leaving the Mother Church.
Oh, poor Plymouth.
How does thou moan.
My children all from thee are gone.
And left thou art in widow state.
..sad and desolate.
At the end of his life,
in what to me is especially moving,
he turned to Hebrew.
He learned Hebrew.
He thought he'd get closer to God in conversation with the sacred script.
Anything to deepen his understanding of what was happening.
Though I am grown aged...
..I've had a longing desire to see with mine own eyes
something of that most ancient language and holy tongue...
..in which the law and oracles of God were writ.
My aim and desire is to see
how the words and phrases lie in the holy text.
And to discern somewhat of the same...
..for my own content.
HE SPEAKS HEBREW
William Bradford died on May 9th 1657,
having served as governor for 31 of the 37 years
he had lived in the New World.
He was 67 years old.
In the years to come,
the world his people had come to in search of a new Jerusalem would be
and the Pilgrim experience itself could easily have been forgotten.
Bradford's book was lost.
It was taken by the British during the Revolutionary War.
And people tried to recover it, people tried to find it,
people tried to trace it.
And nobody knew what had happened to their history,
their great gospel of the founding of the nation.
All hope of the book's recovery had been lost when, in 1855, a scholar
browsing in a book store in Boston chanced upon a recently published
English history of the Anglican Church in America,
and his eye fell upon an unmistakable quotation
from the missing Bradford journal.
Excited enquiries revealed that the long-lost manuscript
had somehow found its way, no-one knew how,
into the library of the Bishop of London at Fulham Palace.
And eventually they petitioned to bring the book back to America.
That petition was granted.
And when the text itself returned, it was a scriptural event.
So it was another kind of plantation.
It was re-implanting that first history back in its home,
and nationalising that story.
The Pilgrims' story was complete.
The journey was over, and the Pilgrims themselves, 250 years on,
Somewhere, William Bradford might have smiled.
But then a place did God provide
in wilderness, and did them guide onto the American shore...
..where they made way for many more.
They broke the ice themselves alone...
..and so became a stepping stone...
..for all others who, in like case...
..are glad to find a resting place.
The voyage of the Mayflower in 1620 has come to define the founding moment of America, celebrated each year at Thanksgiving. A lavish new drama documentary by Ric Burns, based on governor William Bradford's extraordinary eye-witness account, the Mayflower Pilgrims reveals the grim truth behind their voyage across the Atlantic.
The Pilgrims story has come to define the founding moment of America and all it stands for. Celebrated each year at Thanksgiving, it is remembered as a pious crusade aimed at founding a Puritan paradise. However their journey from a harsh, often violent part of England to a colony assured of survival less than ten years later is also one of wealth, cruelty, and entrepreneurial genius.