Wednesday, November 25, 2015

American Experience: “The Pilgrims” (PBS, 2015)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2015 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I put on PBS for a fascinating American Experience episode called “The Pilgrims,” a Thanksgiving-themed show directed by Ric Burns (Ken Burns’ brother) aimed at telling the story of the Plymouth colonists and also gently exposing the myth-making surrounding them. It became as much a show about historiography than history, noting how the Separatists (their own name for themselves, though they also called themselves “Brownists”; the common term for them comes from a brief passage in William Bradford’s autobiographical manuscript comparing them to “pilgrimes” — that was the spelling he used, just as he called their colony “Plimoth” in his title — in the original meaning of the term as someone who goes on a journey in search of religious or spiritual enlightenment) created a lot of the imagery by which they’re known today via Bradford’s and (less famously) Edward Winslow’s manuscripts. Ric Burns couldn’t follow his brother’s style of having actors read the surviving letters of the people he was biographing because there weren’t any letters — the only people the Separatists would have written to would have been their co-religionists they had left behind in Leiden, The Netherlands, and they would have no way to get letters to them because no ships were regularly crossing the Atlantic at the time. So he had an actor playing Bradford quote extensively from the autobiography as well as appear on screen in silent re-enactments of the Separatists’ activities in England, Holland and America, and there’s one bizarre shot near the end in which we get a black-and-white image of the actor playing Bradford that I think was supposed to look like what an actual photo would have if photos had existed that early.

The show overall was a quite engaging history of the Separatist clique around the village of Scrooby in England and how they were caught up in the religious politics that had been temporarily settled by Queen Elizabeth, albeit with measures that seem absurdly harsh to us today. Not only had Elizabeth steered the Church of England onto a safe middle course between Roman Catholicism and Protestantism, she had made church attendance mandatory, with heavy fines imposed on people who didn’t show up for Sunday services at the established Anglican churches. For the Separatists, who were basically hard-core Protestants who believed that individual church members ought to read the Bible for themselves and not trust a priestly hierarchy (Catholic, Lutheran or Anglican) to explain it to them, the idea of being forced by law to attend a church they didn’t believe in was horrifying — and things got even worse when Elizabeth died in 1603 and was replaced by James I, son of Mary, Queen of Scots, who in order to answer charges that he and his Stuart family were really closet Catholics seeking to re-impose the rule of Rome on the British church, got even tougher about enforcing the laws regarding Anglican church attendance. The Separatists responded by fleeing to the Netherlands in 1608, which as this show recounts itself was a cloak-and-dagger affair because in order to leave England on a ship you needed an official pass, and the government was not forthcoming with passes for religious dissenters seeking to escape the official church. They settled first in Amsterdam and then in the port city of Leiden, but they grew restive there partly because, for people who had been used to supporting themselves as farmers, they were uncomfortable in an early industrial town in which the big jobs available were in weaving and other textiles. They also grew anxious about wanting to remain an English (and English-speaking) community, and got worried when their kids started assimilating and speaking Dutch instead of English.

So they determined to strike out for a totally new land in the U.S., and for this they got financial backing from someone named Thomas Weston, who headed a company called the Merchant Adventurers. Judging from the way they’re portrayed in this show, Weston was essentially the 17th century’s version of a venture capitalist, underwriting the Separatist colony in the New World in hopes of making money from its exports, and the Merchant Adventurers were basically a hedge fund. (According to Wikipedia, major enterprises that were bulwarks of the British Empire of the 17th and 18th centuries, including the Hudson’s Bay Company and the British East India Company, were spinoffs of the Merchant Adventurers.) Indeed, after some testy business issues that reminded me of what modern-day entrepreneurs have gone through with their “V.C.’s,” mainly due to the failure of the colonists to bring Weston and company any marketable goods (the first ship they sent back — a return voyage by the Mayflower — had an empty cargo hold and the second one was plundered before the Adventurers could have it unloaded and its valuable cargo, beaver pelts, was stolen) — the company wrote them off as a bad investment but insisted that they pay back what they had been advanced (which they were able to do thanks to an unforeseen spike in the price of beaver pelts between 1627 and 1628). One thing I the hadn’t known about the Separatists were that they were not only not the first people in the part of Massachusetts where they ended up (they were originally supposed to colonize around the mouth of the Hudson River but, trying to navigate the stormy North Atlantic in the worst possible time of the year — September to November — they drifted off course and landed 200 miles north of their official destination, at what is now Cape Cod), they weren’t even the first white people. A few years earlier a white Englishman who was there either as a fisherman, a trader or both had shown up among the Wampanoag Indians carrying a plague germ that wiped out huge numbers of their population, so when the Separatists arrived and settled in what is now Plymouth, Massachusetts the place was literally a ghost town; it had had Native inhabitants, but the plague already brought by a preceding Englishman had decimated the population and only a handful of people were left.

What’s more, only about half of the 102 people who made it across on the Mayflower, the old trading ship Thomas Weston contributed to the project (it had primarily been used to ferry wines across the English Channel), were Separatists; the others, whom William Bradford and the other Separatists on the journey called “Strangers,” were people Weston had recruited for the voyage intending that they would govern the colony and contribute needed skills in construction and other work. Bradford’s wife Dorothy made it across the Atlantic but fell overboard, in what could have been a suicide, not long after the ship anchored in Cape Cod (though he eventually remarried), and the first winter was bitterly harsh. The group survived largely by having planted corn they had plundered from the graves of dead Natives, and it wasn’t until the spring that the sachem (chief) of the Wampanoag, Massacoit, cut his famous deal with the settlers that he’d teach them how to farm the New England land and how to keep themselves alive if in exchange they’d help him and the other surviving Wampanoag in their wars with the Narragansett, Massachusetts and other local tribes that had historically been the Wampanoag’s enemies. (At least two Native spokespeople were interviewed for this show, including a survivor of the Wampanoag who’s part of their tribe’s history project.) The so-called “First Thanksgiving” really didn’t take place until 1623, after the colony had been settled for three years, and the event that really kick-started Thanksgiving as a concept didn’t happen until decades later, after a far better supplied and officially sanctioned group of Puritan colonists had established the city of “New Boston” and formed the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1630, and the Natives, led by Massacoit’s son and heir, Metacomet (who became known for some reason as “King Philip” by the whites), led a war to wipe out the English from their territory once and for all. (In this war, ironically, the Narragansett allied with the English against the Wampanoag.)

One particularly cruel story told in Edward Winslow’s memoir, but not in Bradford’s, put a grisly spin on the early years of white-Native conflict; Winslow recalled that the colonists would put people who were nearly dead and prop them up with muskets in their hands, so the Natives would see them and think the white army protecting the settlement was much bigger than it really was. From this reality sprang the myths that the dead settlers were merely being buried at night, not propped up like a phantom army. Indeed, one of the themes that runs through this show is how the “Pilgrim myth” got created in the first place and why Plymouth — not Jamestown, Virginia, which was settled 13 years earlier — is generally considered the “birthplace of America” and the start of Anglo-American culture and life in the New World. (When the narrator mentioned that the so-called “Pilgrims” are considered the foundation of the U.S. and not any of the earlier colonists, Charles joked, “That’s because they were the only ones who weren’t prisoners or slavers!”) The commentary notes that the colonists who wrote their memoirs, William Bradford (who was elected governor after the first one, John Carver, died, and served in that capacity for 32 of the first 38 years of the colony’s independent existence until his own death) in particular, consciously shaped and guided their accounts of events, and after Bradford died later historians — including Increase Mather (father of Cotton Mather of Salem witch trials infamy) — added to and gilded the legend. The Pilgrims is as much a show about how history is written as about what “really” happened — to the extent we can even discern it about things that happened nearly 400 years ago, and how the Separatists’ experience was chopped and channeled by themselves and later historians to provide a suitable “origin story” for what became the United States of America. After the show PBS was showing a Secrets of the Dead episode about Jamestown, which I was rather interested in when it appeared that they were going to be doing an origin story of the real first surviving British colony in the Americas, but I turned off (in both senses: I lost interest and decided to watch something else) the show when it turned out it was going to be about a young woman whose remains were found by modern archaeologists and who appeared to be a victim of cannibalism.