The Mayflower Voyage

WHEN the Leyden Pilgrims heard what had been decided in London, they held a day of solemn devotions to prepare for their journey. “And their pastor took this text, 1 Sam. xxiii, 3, 4. ‘And David’s men said unto him, See, we be afraid here in Judah; how much more if we come to Keilah against the host of the Philistines? Then David asked counsel of the Lord again.’ From which text, he taught many things very aptly and befitting their present occasion and con­dition, strengthening them against their fears and perplexities and encouraging them in their resolutions (79).”

When the prayers were over, they arranged who should “go with the first: for all that were willing to have gone could not get ready, for their other affairs, in so short a time. Neither, if all could have been ready had there been means to have transported them all together (80).”

It was decided that the Pastor, John Robinson, should stay behind in Leyden, and that the Elder, William Brewster, should lead the American party: “Those that stayed, being the greater number, required the Pastor to stay with them; and, indeed, for other reasons, he could not then well go: and so it was the more easily yielded unto. The others then desired the Elder, Master Brewster, to go with them, which was also condescended unto (81).”

A small ship named the Speedwell was purchased for the voyage,

and a larger vessel, the Mayflower, was hired: “At length, after much travail and these debates, all things were got ready and pro­vided. A small ship [the Speedwell] of some 60 tons, was bought and fitted in Holland: which was intended as to serve to help to transport them; so to stay in the country and attend upon fishing such other affairs as might be for the good and benefit of the Colony when they came there. Another, was hired at London of burden about nine score [1 80 tons], and all other things got in readiness (82).”

Winslow described the farewell feast held at Leyden. “When the ship was ready to carry us away, the brethren [that] stayed at Leyden feasted us that were to go at our Pastor’s house, being large, where we refreshed ourselves after our tears with singing of Psalms, making joyful melody in our hearts as well as with the voice, there being many of the Congregation very expert in music. And indeed it was the sweetest melody that ever mine ears heard (83).”

William Bradford told how the voyagers made their way from Leyden to the coastal embarkation point. “They were accompanied with most of their brethren out of the city unto a town sundry miles off, called Delfshaven, where the ship lay ready to receive- them. So they left that godly and pleasant city which had been their resting place near twelve years. But they knew they were pilgrims and looked not much on these things, but lifted up their eyes to the heavens, their dearest country, and quieted their spirits (84).”

Bradford himself left his five-year-old son behind, fearing for his safety on the voyage, other parents were very anxious to take their sons and daughters with them. Only two of William Brewster’s five children went on the voyage, and Brewster himself was forced to stay in hiding; his wife sailed without him. In many cases, years passed before such families were reunited.

The Pilgrim Fathers spent their last night at the port of Delfshaven where the Speedwell lay at anchor: “When they came to the place, they found the ship and all things ready: and such of their friends as could not come with them followed after them; and sundry also came from Amsterdam to see them shipped and to take their leave of them. That night was spent with little sleep by the most, but with friendly entertainment and Christian discourse, and other real expressions of true Christian love (85).”

Next day, the wind blew fair to carry them across the Channel to England, and the voyagers went aboard the Speedwell. There were sixteen men, eleven women and nine children. “Truly doleful was the sight of that sad and mournful parting. To see what sighs and sobs and prayers did sound amongst them; what tears did gush from every eye, and pithy speeches pierced each heart: that sundry of the Dutch strangers that stood on the quay as spectators, could not refrain from tears. Yet comfortable and sweet it was to see such lively and true expressions of dear and unfeigned love (86).”

“But the tide, which stays for no man, calling them away that were thus loath to depart; their Reverend Pastor, falling down on his knees, and they all with him, with watery cheeks, commended them with most fervent prayers to the Lord and his blessing. And then with mutual embraces and many tears they took their leaves one of another, which proved to be the last leave to many of them (87).”

Edward Winslow, who sailed on the Speedwell, remembered the sad leave-takings: “After prayer performed by our Pastor, where a flood of tears was poured out, they acconpanied us to the ship: but were not able to speak one to another, for the abundance of sorrow to part.

“But we only going aboard, the ship lying to the quay and ready to set sail; the wind being fair we gave them a volley of small shot and three pieces of ordnance: and so lifting up our hands to each other and our hearts for each other to the Lord our God, we de­parted—and found his presence with us, in the midst of our mani­fold straits that he carried us through (88).”

When they docked at Southampton four days later on 26th July, the Pilgrims found their sister ship the Mayflower awaiting them. After several days of last-minute preparations, they set sail on 5th August, 1620. But they were desperately short of supplies, because their money had given out. £700 had been spent in South­ampton. As they wrote in a letter on the eve of their departure they had little “butter, no oyle, not a sole to mend a shoe nor every man a sword to his side, wanting many musketts and much armour (89).” Outstanding debts amounted to £100.

The two brave ships contained about a hundred and twenty passengers, about eighty aboard the Mayflower, and forty (in-eluding most of the Pilgrims) aboard the Speedwell. Even before the ships had passed the English Channel the Speedwell was found to be unseaworthy: “Having thus put to sea, they had not gone far when Mr. Reynolds, the captain of the smaller ship, complained that he found her so leaky that he dare not go further till she was mended. So the captain of the bigger ship, Mr. Jones, being con-suited with, they both resolved to put into Dartmouth and have her mended, which accordingly was done, at great expense and loss of time and a fair wind. She was here thoroughly searched from stem to’ stern, some leaks were found and mended, and it was then be­lieved that she might proceed without danger (90).” Many of the Pilgrims must have begun to doubt the wisdom of such a dangerous undertaking.

The Speedwell soon began to leak again and the leaders faced a difficult decision: “After they had gone 100 leagues beyond Land’s End holding together all the while, the captain of the small ship again complained that she was so leaky that he must bear up or sink at sea, for they could scarcely keep her afloat by pumping. So they consulted again, and both ships resolved to bear up again and put into Plymouth, which accordingly was done. No special leak could be found, but it was judged to be the general weakness of the ship, and that she would not prove equal to the voyage.

“Upon which it was resolved to dismiss her and part of the company, and proceed with the other ship which, though it caused great discouragement, was put into execution. So after they had taken out such provisions as the other ship could well stow and decided what persons to send back, they made another sad parting, the one ship going back to London and the other proceeding on her voyage (91).”

The loss of the Speedwell meant that only a smaller party could cross the Atlantic. But it also meant that those who did go were best fitted to face the hazards of the enterprise. Those who re­turned “were mostly such as were willing to do so, either from dis­content or fear of the ill success of the voyage, seeing they had met with so many crosses and the year was so far spent. Others, owing to their weakness and having many young children, were thought least useful and most unfit to bear the brunt of this arduous adventure. And thus, like Gideon’s army, this small number was divided, as if the Lord thought these few too many for the great work He had to do (92).” About twenty people stayed behind at Plymouth.

Actually, the Speedwell’s captain and crew who did not want to go to America, had tricked the Pilgrims by fitting a mainmast that was too high for the ship’s tonnage, and that carried too much sail. This strained the ship, forcing open her seams and letting in water. Later, the Speedwell was sold and put into trim, when “she made many voyages, to the profit of her owners. But it was partly due to the cunning and deceit of the captain and his crew, who had been hired to stay a whole year at the Settlement, and now, fearing want of victuals, they plotted this stratagem to free themselves, as was afterwards confessed by some of them. Yet, in order to encourage the captain the majority of those who did come from Leyden had been put aboard this ship, to content him. But so strong was self-love that he forgot all duty and former kindnesses, and dealt thus falsely with them, though he pretended otherwise (93).”

At last they set sail in the Mayflower: “Wednesday, the sixth of September, the wind coming East North East, a fine small gale, we loosed from Plymouth, having been kindly entertained and courteously used by divers friends there dwelling (94).”

The Mayflower carried 102 passengers, and conditions aboard the 180-ton vessel were very cramped. The ship was only ninety feet from bow to stern, and about twenty feet in the beam. The crew lived in the wooden forecastle. Captain Christopher Jones, his first mate John Clark, his second mate John Coppin and the other officers lived in the sterncastle, where some of the passengers’ leaders also slept. Everyone else was packed with their baggage on the main deck without any bunks or hammocks. As the Mayflower had once been used as a wine trader, she carried a sweet smell in her timbers; which was at least preferable to the more common stink of fish.

Bradford remembered how a young seaman teased the seasick passengers. He “was insolent and very profane young man—one of the sailors, which made him the more overbearing—who was always harrassing the poor people in their sickness, and cursing them daily with grievous execrations, and did not hesitate to tell them that he hoped to help throw half of them overboard before they came to their journey’s end. if he were gently reproved by any one, he would curse and swear most bitterly.

“But it pleased God, before they came half seas over, to smite the young man with a grievous disease, of which he died in a des­perate manner, and so was himself the first to be thrown overboard. Thus his curses fell upon his own head, which astonished all his mates for they saw it was the just hand of God upon him (95).”

When a storm cracked one of the ship’s main beams, a Pilgrim placed a screw (jack) beneath it, forced it back into place and held it there until a post could be wedged under it. “After they had enjoyed fair winds and weather for some time, they encountered cross winds and many fierce storms by which the ship was much shaken and her upper works made very leaky. One of the main beams amid-ships was bent and cracked, which made them afraid that she might not be able to complete the voyage. So some of the chief of the voyagers, seeing that the sailors doubted the efficiency of the ship, entered into serious consultation with the captain and officers to weigh the danger betimes, and rather to return than to cast themselves into desperate and inevitable peril.”

The crew themselves were in two minds. “They wished to do whatever could be done for the sake of their wages, being now half way over. On the other hand they were loth to risk their lives too desperately. But at length all opinions, the captain’s and the others’ included, agreed that the ship was sound under the water-line, and as for the building of the main beams, there was a great iron screw the passengers brought out of Holland, by which the beam could be raised into its place; and the carpenter affirmed that with a post put under it, set firm in the lower deck, and otherwise fastened, he could make it hold (96).” During gales and storms, the Mayflower was forced to take in all sail and ride the sea with bare masts.

Rather surprisingly, only one passenger died during the voyage. But one youth had a very narrow escape from death when “the wind was so strong and the seas so high that they could not carry a knot of sail, but were forced to hull for many days. Once, as they thus lay at hull in a terrible storm, a strong young man, called John Howland, coming on deck was thrown into the sea; but it pleased God that he caught hold of the top-sail halliards which hung overboard and ran out at length; but he kept his hold, though he was several fathoms under water, till he was hauled up by the rope And then with a boat-hook helped into the ship and saved. And though he was somewhat ill from it, he lived many years and became a profitable member both of the Church and commonwealth (97).” One child was born during the voyage, and appropriately christened “Oceanus.”

Two months after leaving England, the Pilgrims joyfully sighted land; but it lay much farther north than they had intended. It was a headland which they knew to be Cape Cod from a copy of a coastal chart drawn by Captain John Smith in 1614. Bradford and Winslow described their first sight of the Cape: “After many difficulties in boisterous storms, at length, by God’s Providence, upon the 9th of November following by break of the day, we espied land; which we deemed to be Cape Cod, and so afterward it proved.

And the appearance of it much comforted us: especially seeing so goodly a land, and wooded to the brink of the sea; it caused us to rejoice together, and praise God that had given us once again to see land (98).” Cape Cod had been so named by the settler, Bartholomew Gosnold, in 1602.

William Bradford described how they tried to turn south along the coast. They soon encountered dangerous waters and, fearing the ship would run onto a sandbank, turned back and anchored by the Cape in Province town Harbour. The day was 11th Novem­ber, 1620: “After some deliberation among themselves and with the captain, they tacked about and resolved to stand for the southward, the wind and weather being fair, to find some place near Hudson’s River for their habitation. But after they had kept that course about half a day, they met with dangerous shoals and roaring breakers, and as they conceived themselves in great danger—the wind falling—they resolved to bear up again for the Cape, and thought themselves happy to get out of danger before night overtook them, as by God’s providence they did. Next day they got into the bay, where they rode in safety (99).”

Bradford and Winslow wrote of their pleasure at seeing land after their nine-weeks’ voyage: “Upon the 1 ith of November, we came to an anchor in the Bay: which is a good harbour and a pleasant bay circled round except in the entrance, which is about four miles over from land to land; compassed about to the very sea, with oaks, pines, juniper sassafras, and other sweet woods. It is a harbour wherein a thousand sail of ships may safely ride (100).”

Safely there, the Pilgrim’s thanked God for their safe arrival: “Having found a good haven and being brought safely in sight of land, they fell upon their knees and blessed the God of Heaven who had brought them over the vast and furious ocean, and de­livered them from all the perils and miseries of it, again to set their feet upon the firm and stable earth, their proper element (101).” Having survived the hardships of the voyage, few of the Mayflower Pilgrims imagined how high would be the fatalities of the coming months.