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In front of the Mayflower | History today


A fishing fleet on the Grand Banks off the coast of Newfoundland, copper engraving, French, 1683 © Bridgeman Images.

This year, the United States looks back four centuries on an intrepid group of refugees who have found a dangerous home in New England. The Mayflower Pilgrims had been outlaws in England, members of an underground church known as brownists or separatists. They believed that the church should be a voluntary community and not a mandatory state religion. For their refusal to submit to the Church of England, they have faced raids, prison, exile and death for the past 60 years.

The pilgrims were not the first British settlers in North America. The officially recognized colony of Jamestown, Virginia, was 13 years old in 1620 and the Roanoake colony, founded in the 1580s, had disappeared. What is less known is that the Brownists themselves had undertaken an earlier expedition to North America. They had already tried to become pilgrims in 1597 and were trying to settle in Newfoundland.

The idea of ​​a Canadian colony arose from the crisis surrounding the execution of separatist leaders Henry Barrow and John Greenwood on April 6, 1593, the morning after Parliament passed the seditious sectarian law against them. The surviving brownists were effectively banished by law due to the death penalty, and much of the underground church moved to the Netherlands.

The more dangerous members, including their pastor Francis Johnson, were held in prison in London. They unsuccessfully applied for the government's release until they presented a new plan in March 1597. The incarcerated Brownist leaders proposed to the Privy Council to release them for a colonial expedition to Canada. The colony would claim fishing and hunting grounds for England, the separatists said, and "very annoy the bloody and persecuting Spaniard" to ensure that America did not fall entirely into the hands of the Catholic Empire.

The separatists' own reasons were similar to those of the later ones Mayflower Pilgrims – to establish a settlement where they can exercise the faith that made them outlaws in their home country, transformed them into state-sanctioned pioneers, and for the first time gave their church some degree of authorization. However, this first attempt was a more desperate gamble than the 1620 voyage. These brownists were prisoners whose lives were at stake. They fled their fate to a continent on which no English settler had survived. The Mayflower In contrast, pilgrims had escaped English law before 1620 by emigrating to the Netherlands and assumed the dangers of North America in the sense that God had called them to the promised land.

In April and May 1597, four separatists made the trip to Newfoundland in two ships, which were doubtfully named Hopewell and chance Well – a generous determination towards the Mayflowerwhich alone had to carry 102 passengers with all their possessions and provisions. The four included Francis Johnson, the surviving leader of the movement, who lived on the. traveled Hopewelland his brother George on chance Well,

A fishing fleet on the Grand Banks off the coast of Newfoundland, copper engraving, French, 1683 © Bridgeman Images.

When the ships arrived in Canadian waters in May, they separated in the fog and in the Hopewell The Magdalen Islands in the Gulf of St. Lawrence alone reached their destination. They thought the fishing there was fantastic and caught 250 cod in an hour with four lines, although their attempts to catch walruses ended up fleeing for their lives. Their bigger problem was that the place was already quite crowded with numerous French and Spanish ships and hundreds of indigenous Canadians who had come from the mainland to hunt and fish. After a skirmish with the Europeans, the captain decided to explore the north coast of the Gulf, but the crew refused and turned the ship home.

The chance WellHe was now on Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia, where he met the rocks. The garrison managed to get it into a bay, but it was raided by more French sailors who took all the settlers' possessions. The captain offered his two separatists the choice: stay on the island and let the wilderness devour you. Handover to a French ship where "they should be asked to hear the fair"; or join the crew to try to hijack a Spanish ship. George was too scared to vote and asked the captain to make the choice for them, but he refused.

At that moment they were extremely fortunate – or Providence, as the separatists saw it – to see that Hopewell They left the return journey behind and held on to them. After reunification, they negotiated the return of some of their lost property and seized a French warrior. So they could at least return home with as many ships as they started. The Canadian adventure was over and the separatists decided to settle in Amsterdam.

The Newfoundland Expedition developed a tradition that the Mayflower Pilgrims followed. Francis Johnson's community also appears to have made two further attempts to settle in the New World before 1620, very little of which is known to have ended in disaster. The 1597 voyage was hardly recognized as an early attempt at colonial rule in North America, partly because nothing came of it, but also because even those involved seemed to have little interest in history. Francis Johnson wrote about eight books without ever mentioning the expedition. The captain of the Hopewell published his logbook detailing her explorations and encounters with the French, but did not mention any possible settlers on board and did not appear to be particularly interested in associating his name with the transport of criminals. George Johnson wrote a short account of the trip, but it is buried in a much longer account of his theological and personal arguments with his brother.

For this reason, little is known about the separatists' feelings about the expedition or the destination, their hopes, fears, or disappointments. We know that what they tried and failed was accomplished 23 years later by their spiritual brothers and sisters.

Stephen Tomkins is the author of The journey to the Mayflower: God's criminals & the invention of freedom (Hodder & Stoughton, 2020).

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