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On board the Mayflower in 1620: Hell on earth ahoy!

Updated: Aug 17, 2023

Richard Holledge, Author of Voices of the Mayflower, paints a graphic picture of life on board the Mayflower in this extract from the The Daily Mail Australia, 31 July.

This painting depicts the Pilgrims on the deck of the ship Speedwell in July1620.

The ship’s destination was America. Its name was the Mayflower. On board were crammed an incongruous mix of adventurers eager to seek their fortunes in the fish and beaver trade, and a small band of religious extremists determined to create a world where they could practise their faith free from persecution.

To finance the venture, they teamed up with a group of London businessmen known as the Merchant Adventurers, who demanded in return a slice of whatever profits were made in the new settlement.

The plan was to sail across the Atlantic in convoy with the Leiden pilgrims on their ship, the Speedwell, but the undertaking was almost over before it began as the Speedwell had sprung a leak. After a refit and three attempts to put to sea, the Speedwell was still taking in water and the pilgrims concluded that it would never make it to the New World. This left the Leiden group with the choice of joining the adventurers on the Mayflower or abandoning the venture entirely.

Many were frightened of drowning and becoming ‘meat for the fishes’ but 39 did squeeze on board, bringing the total to 102, including 18 women, of whom three were pregnant.

Finally, almost 400 years ago — on September 6, 1620 — the Mayflower set sail, and this time there was no turning back.

Based on comparable craft of the day, the Mayflower was probably about 80ft long and 24ft wide, with three decks: one for supplies, a gun deck and the remaining space for the passengers.

Those on board would have slept on the floor, huddled together, unable to escape the stink of unwashed bodies and fetid breath, and the rank odours of vomit and stale wine. If the weather prevented them from relieving themselves off the bowsprit of the ship — a precarious business even when the sea was calm — they used buckets for chamber pots.

There was little light or air and seawater came in through cracks and joints, drenching the huddled humans and their belongings. And to make matters worse, they were plagued by rats.

Their diet consisted of salt beef or pork, oatmeal and rice, butter and cheese — which soon went mouldy — and beer rather than water. And they could always fall back on hardtack: tough and tasteless biscuits that were invariably infested with weevils.

But hunger and discomfort were minor worries compared with ‘the many fierce storms with which the ship was thoroughly shaken’. One can imagine the unceasing barrage of gales which sent the ship plummeting into chasms between the waves before finally lurching upright again, every timber creaking.

When a towering wave swept John Howland from the ship’s deck, he was dragged underwater and smashed against the side of the ship. Only the quick thinking of the first mate saved him.

To make such episodes all the more terrifying, the hatch would have been closed, leaving the passengers in the pitch black, grabbing at timbers desperately to stop themselves being hurled across the hold that their fingernails were impaled by splinters.

On November 9 — more than two months after they had left Plymouth, in Devon — came the call they had all longed to hear: ‘Land ho!’

The travellers who disembarked on that auspicious day were starving, exhausted and stricken with disease. They were also filthy, with lice crawling over the clothes they had worn unchanged and unwashed since the day they set out.

But they were alive and fell to their knees in the freezing cold to thank God for sparing them. They could not know then that the ordeal they had endured was almost trivial compared with the terrible traumas that were about to engulf them.

Read more in Richard Holledge’s article in the Daily Mail Australia. His book, Voices Of The Mayflower, is out now.

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