Socialist Studies Socialist Studies

The Mayflower Myth: Plunder, Genocide and Slavery

Capitalism is full of grotesque anniversaries, often celebrating death, war and destruction. A few decades back there were celebrations for the "Glorious Revolution" (1688-9). It was glorious for the merchants of London, the gentry and other members of the ruling class. It was not "glorious" for the emerging working class and its descendents. More recently we had to endure endless documentaries on the end of the First World War and "VE" day. There are other "national celebrations" in the pipe-line.

However, there is no shared history. The capitalist class have their history and we, the working class have ours. Nevertheless their history is thrust down our throats. A history of the ruling class and their exploitation and plunder is not our history. In fact, the working class still has to make its own history by abolishing capitalism and replacing the profit system with the common ownership and democratic control of the means of production and distribution by all of society.

2020 marks the four hundredth anniversary of the Mayflower leaving Plymouth for what was to become the United States. The narrative told by history books, films and museums is a sanitised narrative which plays down or ignores the historical reality.

Rather than telling a story of colonisation against a background of land grabbing and slavery, the Mayflower narrative concentrates on the separatist Puritan half of the Mayflower passengers. But the founding of the New Plymouth Colony by the Mayflower passengers is the start of the New England colonies that led in turn to the founding of the United States of America - that is why the Mayflower is so famous.

In reality the Mayflower journey was part of early English Colonialism which involved:

* The invasion of Virginia, New England and the Caribbean, and land seizure wars against the indigenous peoples of North America;
* Plunder, genocide and slavery;
* The establishment of patterns of violence in the Wars conducted against Indigenous peoples that lasted 300 years
* A history of racism and racist violence

The Mayflower myth with its yearly Thanksgiving festival is the establishment of a tradition of sanitizing the story of English colonialism in the Americas. The capitalist class have a lot to be thankful for, but has the working class, particularly blacks Americans?

Take the example of slavery.

Slavery was one of the more profitable enterprises in the primitive accumulation of capital and the emergence of capitalism from feudalism. And England was one of the first to profit from the slave trade.

One of the first to be engaged in the slave trade was John Hawkins who became a merchant in the 1550s. He organised three ships to Guinea in 1562 with the help of merchants in the Canary Islands.

John Hawkins went on to trade slaves in Spanish ports in the Americas. His most unprofitable voyage, in 1567, comprised a fleet of up to 10 ships, including a ship, loaned by the Queen, and one, captained by the notorious pirate, Francis Drake. The venture was an economic disaster. Out of 500 slaves captured, 120 unfortunates died on the voyage. What this 'unsuccessful' sailing adventure did demonstrate was the need for English colonial bases.

English interest in pursuing the slave trade was interrupted after this period for about 100 years. The slave trade was revived in 1660 following the restoration of the monarchy, with the establishment of the Company of Royal Companies into Africa, reformed as the Royal Africa Company in 1672. Between 1680 and 1686, the Company transported an average of 5,000 slaves a year. John Locke, the philosopher, Samuel Pepys, the diarist, Charles II and many peers and members of the ruling class, were notable investors. The Company continued purchasing and transporting slaves until 1731, when it abandoned the trade in slaves in favour of ivory and gold dust.

Admiral Sir John Hawkins the slaver and Sir Francis Drake the pirate are still heroes of conservative historians; of the Establishment elite of modern buccaneering and swashbuckling post-Brexit capitalism. They can do no wrong: they are held up as role models for the young and impressionable. The port of Plymouth does not have much trouble in celebrating the lives of those like Hawkins who were engaged in the slave trade. There is even a square in Plymouth named after Hawkins and an Island named after Drake which the British navy sails past on to its way to protect trade routes, defend minerals, oil and gas and establish spheres of strategic influence.

And now in 2020 Plymouth prepares to celebrate the Mayflower voyage of 1620 without reference to the capitalist context in which it took place. Union Jacks and the Stars and Stripes will be flown while the historical reality will be played down. Myth rather than history will be taught to schoolchildren.

The myth that Plymouth and its American counterpart wants to remember is of a brave search for religious freedom by the oppressed. But what needs to be remembered is that this was an invasion, seeking plunder, and part of that process was the construction of racial categorisation which placed "whites" at the top and "blacks" at the bottom (see Jennings, F. THE INVASION OF AMERICA: INDIANS AND THE CANT OF CONQUEST, 1976).

The early English colonists of Virginia and New England adopted slavery as a labour practice. The wealth of New England was built on another triangular trade: supplying the Caribbean slave plantations and distilling rum to exchange for slaves in West Africa. That was after the Carib peoples of these islands had been exterminated in acts of ruthless genocide.

But Plymouth, will wax lyrical about "freedom", "democracy" and "US and British exceptionalism". They will be joined by a legion of conservative historians who will write their articles in the popular press denouncing any criticism of the Mayflower celebrations and praising the heroism of the Mayflower passengers. They do not want to face up to the painful truth of the slave trade. They will not place slavery in the context of capitalism's history of class exploitation.

In the autumn of 1620 the ship Mayflower, with 102 passengers, landed in North America and started the colonisation of the area that became known as New England.

The Mayflower had landed in a region where the local tribe helped them survive. This did not last . A generation later, following a rebellion by indigenous Native Americans, the ship Seaflower set sail from New England with a 'cargo" of Native American slaves bound for the English Caribbean colonies. From helping colonists to survive in one generation to becoming slaves in the next is the basis of Thanksgiving Day.

The creation of the New England colonies by thousands of English colonists in the seventeenth century involved the rapid decline in the indigenous population, the violent seizure of territory and slavery. The first slave colony was at Jamestown, Virginia, not the Plymouth colony (see Newell, Margaret Ellen, BRETHREN BY NATURE: NEW ENGLAND INDIANS, COLONISTS AND THE ORIGIN OF AMERICAN SLAVERY, 2015).

And what is the historical reality? Just what is being commemorated?

In 1769, just six years before the start of the War of Independence against British rule, the Mayflower commemorations, particularly what was known as the 'Mayflower Compact' were charged with patriotic fervour with the inauguration of Forefathers Day in Plymouth Massachusetts. Marking the establishment of the New Plymouth settlement was used as an ideological battering ram by the disaffected ruing class in the colonies. They used Forefathers Day to exploit political discontent over colonial government by the British and restrictions on westward colonial expansion.

The 'Mayflower Compact' was a set of rules for self-governance established by the English settlers who travelled to the New World on the Mayflower. Subsequently, the 'Mayflower Compact', signed in November 1620 by the majority of the male Mayflower passengers, was hailed as a forerunner of the Constitution of the USA, and the Thanksgiving of Autumn 1621 was rebranded as 'The First Thanksgiving'.

By 1775 the rebellion by thirteen of the then fifteen British North American colonies had been made possible because of the economic success of New England in the previous 150 years. The connections between the British Caribbean and New England colonies in the early seventeenth century were developed through trade relations centred on sugar produced by slave labour, initially in Barbados.

A Caribbean - New England - West African coast triangular trade of molasses (black treacle from refining sugar cane), rum and slaves led to the economic success of the North American colonies and the creation of the Mayflower story, which in turn led to the challenge to the British crown. Slaves did not register very highly in the draft for the Declaration of Independence and the US is still scarred today by the racism of the past. Many of those who signed the Declaration were slave owners.

What were the consequences in human life of this colonialism? There had been a 90% decline in the indigenous population along the North Atlantic American coast between 1600 and 1700 as a result of disease and colonial war. The resulting land seizures enabled the development of agricultural production, the creation of rum-refining and shipping industries, and trade-driven economic growth. Death and destruction; genocide and plunder - these were the events that kick-started United States capitalism. No wonder the US ruling class want to celebrate Thanksgiving Day.

Workers have nothing to celebrate regarding the Mayflower. They have nothing to commemorate in Plymouth or in the United States. What has occurred is generation after generation of racism and racist violence, splitting the working class in the US into different groups: a divide and rule politics.

Racism exists because the working class do not understand its capitalist cause. They are easily led to blame other workers for the poverty of their lives, their unemployment, poor wages and slum housing. Racism is an obstacle to working class unity.

Workers, therefore, have no interest in celebrating plunder, genocide and slavery. Nothing can be done to salvage the past. What can be done is to end capitalism by establishing socialism; the common ownership and democratic control of the means of production and distribution by all of society. That will be something to celebrate.

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