Blogs > HNN > Richard B. Speed: Review of Nathaniel Philbrick's Mayflower, (Viking, 2006)

Jun 10, 2006 11:19 pm

Richard B. Speed: Review of Nathaniel Philbrick's Mayflower, (Viking, 2006)

Unlike most vessels in the fifteenth century, which stank of bilge water, the Mayflower was a “sweet” ship—made so by the wine which soaked into the ship’s boards as it sloshed out of the casks used to transport it across the English Channel on the ship’s regular journeys to the continent and back. Those familiar with Nathaniel Philbrick’s recent nautical works, such as Sea of Glory, and In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex, might expect his latest offering, Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community and War, to be an account of the most famous voyage in American history—the one which brought 102 “saints” and “strangers” to American shores. But Mayflower, as the subtitle intimates, is not merely about that solitary voyage.

The journey itself, which Philbrick describes in some detail, serves merely as a springboard for his account of a broader and more significant tale. Mayflower is not so much an account of a trip across the sea but of a journey into another world which began as the Pilgrims scouted Cape Cod during the winter of 1620—a journey which reached a tragic end some fifty-six years later in the sanguinary struggle known as King Philip’s War. It is about the Pilgrim encounter with the native inhabitants of the region of North America that Captain John Smith of Jamestown had named New England a half dozen years earlier.

The encounter began as the hungry Pilgrims stole a cache of apparently abandoned Indian corn while exploring Cape Cod, before settling across the bay at Plymouth. For several weeks, the native inhabitants kept a watchful eye on the new arrivals from a safe distance. They had encountered Europeans before and had learned to be cautious. One English sea captain, Edward Harlow had abducted half a dozen Indians and killed several more in 1611. Three years later, Thomas Hunt, another English seaman had kidnapped as many Indians as he could in order to sell them into slavery in Spain. But these newcomers seemed different. They had brought their women and children with them and, rather than attempting to trade with the natives or pillage their valuables, they kept to themselves and began to build shelters. Unlike their predecessors they planned to stay.

Among those who watched the newcomers was a local sachem who had been abducted and taken to England several years earlier. Tisquantum, or Squanto, whose name can be roughly translated as “Satan,” had escaped and returned to his native land. As he observed the Pilgrims, he was primarily interested in how he might take advantage of them to regain the power and position he had lost during his captivity. Another who watched warily was Massasoit, the sachem of the Pokanokets, the people native to the region.

What the Pilgrims did not know at the time, but soon discovered, was that relations among the local tribes were governed by a delicate balance of power—not unlike that which prevailed in Europe at the time: it was one which they were about to alter. That balance had shifted dramatically against Massasoit and his people just a few years earlier, as epidemic disease introduced by European fishermen had decimated the Pokanokets while leaving their neighboring rivals the Narragansetts relatively unscathed. As the Pilgrims led by John Carver struggled to survive, Massasoit had to decide whether they were a danger to be eliminated or a potential ally to be welcomed. At this point Squanto persuaded Massasoit not to attack the settlers, but to add their weight to his side of New England’s balance of power. He did this, according to Philbrick, by arguing that the Englishmen possessed not only muskets and cannons, but the “seventeenth-century equivalent of a weapon of mass destruction: the plague,” which he said the Pilgrims stored in their barrels of gunpowder. It would be foolhardy, Squanto argued, for Massasoit to attack such a powerful foe, especially when he might enlist them in his own cause against his neighbors the Narragansetts. Persuaded by this logic, Massasoit welcomed the Pilgrims. Unaware of these various stratagems, they were pleased to form an alliance with any tribe in the region which might protect them against other hostile tribes. What they did not yet realize was that by forming an alliance with the Pokanokets they were placing themselves in jeopardy by aligning themselves with a weak tribe and potentially provoking the more powerful Narragansetts. Meanwhile, Squanto made himself indispensable to the new alliance since only he could converse fluently with both the English and the Pokanokets. But as Philbrick makes clear, he had his own purposes.

Eventually Squanto, in his effort to regain power, attempted to provoke the Englishmen to attack Massasoit by telling them that the Pokanokets and the Narragansetts had banded together to attack Plymouth, but his treachery was exposed and war was avoided. The incident revealed how vulnerable the settlers were to manipulation and how badly the Plymouth colony was in need of accurate intelligence. Squanto had betrayed both the Pilgrims and Massasoit. The latter wanted Squanto’s head, but the Pilgrim leader William Bradford, who had replaced Carver, remained loyal to his friend even though it placed the alliance in jeopardy. Eventually the incident faded away, but Massasoit never forgot. When Squanto suddenly fell ill and died, Bradford assumed it was the result of natural causes, but Philbrick suspects that the Pokanoket chief had achieved his revenge.

The Pilgrims were the junior partners in this alliance. But within a generation this relationship had undergone a reversal. Still, under the leadership of Massasoit and Bradford the Pilgrims and the Pokanokets remained at peace for a generation. It was a peace cemented, as Philbrick explains by the Plymouth diplomat Edward Winslow who, upon finding Massasoit dying of typhus, nursed him back to health. When he recovered Massasoit announced to his people that “Now I see the English are my friends and love me. . . . whilst I live I will never forget the kindness they have showed me.” But it was a personal relationship which did not long survive his passing many years later. Massasoit’s son Metacomet, who changed his name to Philip responded to reduced revenue caused by the decline of the fur trade upon which the Pokanokets had depended, by selling land in great swaths to the English. When this strategy backfired and the Pokanokets were hemmed in by the English on the one side and rivals such as the Narragansetts on the other, Philip lashed out in a series of raids against Pilgrim settlements which escalated into King Philip’s War of 1675-76.

Philbrick ends his account of the Pilgrim’s “errand into the wilderness,” with King Philip’s War which he sees as the tragic point at which half a century of relative comity between the settlers at Plymouth and the native inhabitants gave way to over two centuries of hatred between whites and Indians. It was he says, “one of the most horrendous wars ever fought in North America,” one which, in terms of proportionate casualties was far worse than even the Civil War. As he explains, during the latter conflict the rate of casualties was between four and five percent, but during King Philip’s War, Plymouth’s casualty rate was almost twice as high. But he contends that even these “losses appear almost inconsequential when compared to those of the Indians.” Reckoning the total losses, by calculations which are not entirely clear, at “somewhere between 60 and 80 percent,” Philbrick argues that “Philip’s local squabble with Plymouth Colony had mutated into a regionwide war that, on a percentage basis, had done nearly as much as the plagues of 1616-1619 to decimate New England’s Native population.”

In the course of discussing the war Philbrick describes numerous events, which, although they took place over three hundred years ago, have a modern ring. There is butchery of the worst kind; beheading, quartering, and of course scalping—which was apparently quite common among the Indians of New England. There are spies, and there are preemptive attacks. Among other things he retells the story of Mary Rowlandson’s captivity and how her account of it,The Sovereignty and Goodness of God . . . , became America’s first bestseller.

Philbrick is particularly impressed by the military innovations of Benjamin Church who he contends, emerged as the archetype of the American frontiersman: “a roughneck intermediary between civilization and savagery . . . ,” a man who “forged an identity that was part Pilgrim, part mariner, part Indian, and altogether his own.” The military significance of Church is that he taught Americans to fight like Indians. In short, as Philbrick suggests, he is the predecessor of historical figures like Daniel Boone, and Davy Crockett and fictional ones like Natty Bumpoo and Rambo.

In a contemporary allusion, Philbrick concludes that “There are two possible responses to a world suddenly gripped by terror and contention.” In a reference to Samuel Mosley, an Indian fighter renowned for his savagery, he says, “There is the Mosely way: get mad and get even. . . . . Then there is the Church way. Instead of loathing the enemy, try to learn as much as possible from him; instead of killing him, try to bring him around to your way of thinking. First and foremost, treat him like a human being.” Sounds like advice from the first generation of American fighting men to the most recent generation of American soldiers.

comments powered by Disqus

More Comments:

Lawrence Brooks Hughes - 6/20/2006

If you came in from the fields to find your wife and children scalped and lying in a pool of blood, you would go out and kill Indians, too...

This went on from early New England to the Mohawk Valley, to the Ohio to the Missouri. Our white forefathers were not, by nature, savage killers. They simply adjusted to the circumstances in which they found themselves.

Our Indian forefathers, on the other hand, were savage killers, who had acquired title to their land by butchering previous Indian tribes. They were also illiterate, primitive, dirty, communicating in grunt language, and quite uncivilized compared to the Europeans. It is chic to say they taught the guys in funny hats to plant corn, but we taught them vastly more than they could teach us. Our white forefathers admired their courage, but little else about them.

Perhaps the most instructive aspect of the Pilgrim story is how their cummune failed and was replaced by private property and free markets, which in turn seeded the strongest and richest civilization in the history of the world.

Since the Pilgrims'communist system failed in just a couple of years after 1620, and long before Philbrick's alotted 56 years to King Philip's War, the reviewer should have told us how he handled this basic change in their lifestyle. From Philbrick's treatment of that we could best judge the value of his other scholarship.