Fashioned as a typical merchant ship of the 17th century, the Mayflower was square-rigged, beak-bowed and believed to have been between 90 and 100 feet long. Many ships were retired after they had served their merchant’s life but the Mayflower was to undertake one final, and incredibly important, journey. Determined to escape the corruption of the Church of England, a group of Separatists got permission from the king and funding from the London Adventurers to create a colony in Virginia.
The Mayflower along with a smaller ship, the Speedwell, was commissioned to take the voyagers to their destination. After leaving England in August 1620 both ships had to turn back, due to the fact that the Speedwell developed a problem and could not continue. All the passengers were then transferred to the Mayflower, which restarted with over 100 people instead of her original 65. This delay meant that the now overcrowded ship was making the voyage at the height of the storm season.
Many passengers became ill, during the arduous journey, and had to remain stationary throughout. In spite of this the ship only sufferer two deaths; one of which was a foul-mouthed sailor who was believed to have been struck down by the hand of God, when a wave washed him overboard.
When the Mayflower left the harbour those aboard expected to arrive in Virginia, after a two month journey. Here they were hoping to join other settlers, which had already separated from the church and colonised the area. As a result of the terrible sailing conditions, and poor navigation, the ship was thrown almost 500 miles off course. After 66 days at sea, it arrived in Massachusetts in November 1620. They explored their surroundings, and settled down to form the first permanent English colony in December of that same year.
Naming the colony after the port they sailed from, Plymouth, these ‘pilgrims’ spent their first winter in the New World aboard the ship. During this time about half the original travelers died from disease or extreme cold. When the Mayflower sailed back to England in April 1621, the colonists were taught survival techniques by the Native Americans that they befriended. Grateful for what they had accomplished and learnt during their first summer, they held a three day celebration. This was the beginning of the holiday that is now celebrated as thanksgiving in the United States.
The colony was formed in the name of the British king, to whom those on the ship had signed allegiance to during the journey. Called the Mayflower Compact this document was an agreement also binding them into a ‘civil body politic,’ establishing government by elected officials and just and equal laws. William Bradford, who wrote letters describing the journey, became the colony’s first governor. This correspondence made the ship a symbol of early European colonisation in the United States. In 2020, the Mayflower 400 will be held to commemorate the anniversary of its sailing.