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on 31 July 2007
I wasn't sure what to expect from 'Mayflower'. It had been rated as one of the best books of the year by a number of book sellers, but sometimes reading an historical novel can be quite dry and boring- who knew it could be this interesting!

To begin with, I am certain so much of what is written in this book is unknown to most people. The story of the Pilgrims has become so commonplace and hackneyed that I don't think many of us even realize what the Pilgrims were really trying to accomplish by immigrating to North America. This book puts to rest any misconceptions, romantic notions or misperceptions about this group of people called the Pilgrims. It attests to the brutal nature of the world during that time and the sometimes-horrible things a people must do to survive. The fact that any of the Pilgrims actually lived through their first few winters on this continent is truly amazing and speaks to their strong stock.

'Mayflower' begins by documenting the decisions faced by these people in England to start their lives over again in a totally different "world". Freedom of religion was their most overriding reason for wanting to begin anew. They needed a place to live and worship free from persecution. The horrific voyage and their landing on the North American shore are all laid out very vividly, and there are side stories and anecdotes about the people and their families, making it possible to have a real connection to the story. In writing about the Native American tribes in the area surrounding Plymouth Colony, it is obvious Nathaniel Philbrick has done his homework. He speaks in excruciating detail about these tribes, their leaders and particularly about their wartime strategies and nomadic ways. In addition, the relationship between the Pilgrims and the natives was so adversarial, it belies the tradition we know of the "Thanksgiving Meal". I also think most people do not realize that the Pilgrims abused their relationship with the natives and took advantage of them. It certainly shocked me, and I found myself thinking they were bloody thugs, not the cute little stovepipe hat/golden buckle wearing saints they are often depicted as. 'Mayflower' is not glamorous or enchanting, nor is it a homey and heartwarming story, it's a gritty, harrowing, bloody, real-world view of a group of people who had a hand in developing a country known as the United States of America.
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on 8 February 2007
An excellent account of the first half century plus of the settlement of New England. We start with the Pilgrims leaving Lincolnshire for Holland seeking freedom to worship God according to their consciences. We learn of life in Holland and the hazardous decision to cross the ocean. Here their sufferings began. The ocean voyage was bad enough but being tricked by the captain of the second boat was among the other hazards.

As is well known, survival oh a hostile coast was only possible thanks to the co-operation of the friendly local inhabitants. It was a miracle that they survived the first winter. These people were like Cromwell, providentialists, who believed that God was watching over them by his providence. I do not think the author shares their faith but he writes with a sympathetic understanding of it including how the next generation lacked the vital faith of their fathers so later Puritans had the Half Way Covenant rather than requiring credible profession faith from church members.

Philbrick writes well. The book reads like an adventure story at times, especially during the hostilities of King Philip's war when the proportion of the population lost was far higher than any other war on U.S. soil. We also hear that the settler's victory was in part due to the help they received from Praying Indians, converts from the missionary work of John Eliot. The author is thankfully free from the modern trend of political correctness which would view Native Americans as saints and Pilgrims as rapacious colonisers. This is a fair treatment of the good and bad in both communities.I found it a moving read, especially when one read what William Bradford wrote late in life.

Fear not, poor soul, in God still trust,

Fear not the things thou suffer must;

For, whom he loves, he doth chastise,

And then all tears wipes from their eyes.
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As I read Nathaniel Philbrick's brilliant "story of courage, community, and war" in 17th century New England, I recalled one of Charles Darwin's observations, "It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change." That certainly proved true of those who established or later joined Plymouth Colony as well as of the natives who eventually found themselves at war with them. Of special interest to me is what Philbrick has to say about Benjamin Church, a carpenter turned Indian fighter whose maternal grandfather had sailed on the Mayflower. Church seems to embody the best of both groups: courage, decency, cunning, integrity, resourcefulness, and probably most important of all, being "responsive to change." Unlike so many others who have also examined 17th century New England, Philbrick does not think in terms of "heroes" and "villains," although he leaves no reader in doubt about Church's heroism.

I was also grateful to learn so much about King Philip's War. According to Philbrick, "When Philip's warriors attacked in June of 1675, it was not because relentless and faceless forces had given the Indians no other choice. Those forces had existed from the very beginning. War came to New England because two leaders - Philip and his English counterpart, Josiah Winslow - allowed it to happen. For Indians and English alike, there was nothing inevitable about King Philip's War, and the outbreak of fighting caught almost everyone by surprise."

Frankly,I previously had the same "conflicting preconceptions" of the period that Philbrick acknowledges in the Preface: "the time-honored tradition of how the Pilgrims came to symbolize all that is good about America and the now equally family modern tale of how the evil Europeans annihilated the innocent Native Americans." After reading this book, I understood and appreciated that "the real-life Indians and English of the seventeenth century were too smart, too generous, too greedy, too brave - in short, too human - to behave so predictably."
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on 18 October 2007
" Wherever they first set foot on the American continent, it wasn't Plymouth, and it certainly wasn't Plymouth Rock. The first Thanksgiving (in 1621) was indeed attended by Indians as well as Pilgrims, but they didn't sit at the tidy table depicted in Victorian popular art; they "stood, squatted, or sat on the ground as they clustered around outdoor fires, where the deer and birds turned on wooden spits and where pottages -- stews into which varieties of meats and vegetables were thrown -- simmered invitingly."

- Mayflower by Nathaniel Philbrick

How many of us grew up with myths about the Pilgrims and about the first Thanksgiving? We all believed that the Pilgrims and the Indians sat at a beautiful table laden with turkey, cranberries and all of the fixings. Not only was that not the case, they certainly didn't set foot on Plymouth Rock.

Philbrick puts these myths to rest. And he tells us about the beginning of our new country and what was the basis for its foundation. Our myths contained stories about Massasoit and Squanto, Bradford and Winslow and, of course, Miles Standish.

One of the major accounts in the book was that of the King Philip's War. We learned that it really did not have to be. Both sides could have developed solutions which respected the goodness in each other as well as the differences.

We learned about how the Indians were shipped off to foreign places during this war and were separated from all of their families and tribes....never to be heard from again (having been made slaves). Only a few ever made it back like Squanto, for example.

Philbrick discusses why the war occurred after so many years of peace and why the descendants of Massasoit and of Bradford and Winslow came to see things differently than their fathers; losing sight of the faith and the respect for the individual that their forefathers had long revered. They also blocked out the memory of how they all needed one another to survive.

The Mayflower Compact, we learn, is one document that laid the foundations for the country that America was to become. Yet, our forefathers had to live through a nightmare of a war (of their own making) where both sides suffered tremendously. It took many years after the war ended to ever recoup even a portion of what was lost.

Philbrick's book is a story of courage, community and war on both sides as well as a story of how our forefathers lost sight of what the Indians had done for their ancestors and their fathers and what was owed to these people. In doing so, they also lost sight of the need for diplomacy and how to work together to come up with solutions that would be good for both the settlers as well as the Indians.

MAYFLOWER has won many awards and the book deserves all of them. What I have come away with deals first with the myth. This was unraveled for me so that I could understand and gain knowledge of the facts of these early settlements. I learned what worked, what didn't work and why the peaceful compact fell apart. I also learned that we can gain a lot from understanding our past and that we do not have to make the same mistakes over again.

Nathaniel Philbrick has given us hope that our future does not always have to resemble our past. He wrote, "When violence and fear grip a society, there is an almost overpowering temptation to demonize the enemy. But some on both sides refused to succumb. They were the ones whose rambunctious and intrinsically rebellious faith in humanity finally brought the war to an end, and they are the heroes of this story."

During the times that we face now, our heroes can continue to be those leaders and citizens who strive to focus on the faith in humanity and celebrate our differences as well as our similarities finding solutions rather than reasons to turn away from each other.

Four Stars: B+ (Recommend Highly)

Bentley/2007
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on 28 December 2016
History is at its most potent when the lessons of yesterday flow naturally into today. Here, brilliantly constructed, is a river of resonance. We have warlords and constantly shifting alliances, treachery, bribery, bungling. We have religious extremism, racial hatred, military carnage and cover-ups. This could be Afghanistan or Iraq, as bloodily relevant as the latest roadside bomb. Instead, across four centuries, Nathaniel Philbrick offers us the New England of the Mayflower pilgrims, the benign myths that helped shape modern America and what really happened.

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He tells two essential tales separated by the moral corrosion of 50 years. The first, often inspiring in its fortitude, sees a young corduroy worker called William Bradford help lead his Puritan flock from exile in the Netherlands to the promise of Plymouth Rock. These settlers die in huge numbers from starvation and disease. Only a friendship forged with the Pokanoket Indians and their chief, Massasoit, gives them hope, then prosperity. But the one, over time, kills the other.

In the beginning, the Indians trade and prosper as partners. Too soon, though, the market in furs changes and they have nothing left to sell except their land, which means the ability to feed themselves. Gradually, they become hungrier, poorer, more desperate while the second generation of Mayflower pilgrims and the sons of the 'Strangers' who came with them - religious asylum seekers and economic migrants thrust together on a single ship - look on with mounting scorn. Massasoit's son, Wamsutta, is chief now and vows that no more land will be sold. He dies in suspicious circumstances and his young brother, Philip, seeks a policy that may see his tribe survive. But the white men see no point in helping him. They stumble into the slaughter called 'King Philip's War'.

What follows is sometimes unbearably tragic. In 15 months - from May 1675 to August 1676 - Plymouth Colony sees 8 per cent of its men fall in battle, almost double the Civil War killing rate. And a Native American population that once totalled 20,000 counts 2,000 lost in battle, 3,000 dead of sickness and starvation, 1,000 shipped away as slaves and 2,000 more doomed to wander far afield in search of a new home. The casualties and the aftermath are brutal.

Worse, brutality consumes both sides as they struggle for supremacy. Take the 'Great Swamp Fight' that later American writers hailed as 'one of the most glorious victories ever achieved in our history'. But 200 English troops, out of a thousand, are dead or wounded; and perhaps 600 men, women and children from the Narrangansett tribe are burnt to death in the remnants of the fort they built as security against being dragged into the Pokanokets' war. English 'intelligence' wasn't up to deducing that, however. It predicted an attack which never came and mindlessly drove what was left of the Narrangansett to take King Philip's side.

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We are in an echo chamber of horrors here. Who do the English, with their old flintlock guns and creaking European battlefield routines, remind you of? Where did the Indians get the guns they used to such surprising effect? (Yes, from English arms dealers). Who does the bedraggled figure of Philip himself, left roaming the wilderness with only handful of supporters by his side yet still possessing a famed power to inspire, bring to mind somewhere on the Hindu Kush?

Philbrick develops none of these parallels himself, but his gift for understanding, for shrewd humanity, makes the process natural and inevitable. This is more than a small, forgotten war in the first days of America's development. It is a case study in folly, fear and ignorance.

The Native Americans helped the earliest of the pilgrims survive. They became wise friends, not enemies. Forgetfulness pushed them to extremes and almost annihilated them, yet, in the decisive encounters that finally destroyed this rebellion, it was other, loyal Indians who tipped the balance. Read the lessons and wince. Maybe today, on one estimate, there are more than 35 million descendants of those Mayflower pilgrims living in America. It's good that they can read this enthralling, scholarly book and know where they came from: with pride, but also, like all of us, with the pain of self-recognition.
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on 5 October 2007
The story of the Pilgrims is a familiar one. Struggling for religious freedom, a small group of Puritans left their homes and traveled to the New World where they hoped to build a new life. Arriving in New England, they were saved from hunger and the cold of winter by friendly Native Americans. They celebrated by starting the tradition of Thanksgiving. Actually, that isn't quite the way it happened. First, less than half the passengers of the Mayflower were Puritans. And it wasn't really religious freedom they were struggling for but rather the ability to force everyone to follow their religion. Ultimately, the Pilgrims did make friends with the Native Americans but it was not an easy change for them to accept the "heathen" and not all tribes in the area were friendly.

But this book is not simply about those first few years in the New World. Just one generation after the arrival of the Pilgrims, just 100 years before Lexington and Concord, the bloodiest war in the history of North America was fought. King Philip's War saw the slaughter of 15% of the Native Americans in New England with many more sent off to the Caribbean into slavery. The Pilgrim population was also decimated (one in ten white men died) leaving the Pilgrims poorer and less able to defend themselves ultimately forcing them to ask for a Royal Governor to protect them.

This book is the story of how the children of the Pilgrims ignored the lessons learned by their parents and turned against the Native Americans who had saved the Pilgrims from starvation and how by doing so, they ultimately ruined themselves. Philbrick tells the story clearly and looks at events from the side of the settlers as well as the Native peoples. The narrative takes us through the period of peace, acceptance, and accommodation between the original Pilgrims and the Native Americans to a period where the Pilgrims looked upon the Native Americans as their inferiors. Native Americans sell their land to buy guns in order to make war. The children of the Pilgrims arrest and sell into slavery Native Americans on the slightest provocation or evidence. And both sides are drawn into the inevitable war that no one really wanted. Philbrick makes the story fascinating by bringing to life many of the characters on both sides. Whether it is 1620 when the Pilgrims are just landing or 1675 when the war breaks out, Philbrick makes the story highly readable by making the story about the lives of real people.

The book is not without flaws. The pictures are of mostly poor quality and unless you are familiar with the geography of New England it is difficult to follow the movement of the various peoples during the war. However, Philbrick does a nice job of showing how the events of the 17th century were critical in creating the United States that we know today. Overall, this was a very good book that is well worth being on your reading list.
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on 15 December 2007
The first half of this book gets five stars and the second gets three, so it's only fair to learn from the Pilgrims' mistakes and compromise. Thus I have split the difference to arrive at four, rather than killing everybody in the vicinity or selling them into slavery. But seriously, the first half of the book is where the story lies: the Pilgrims' motives for emigrating, their preparations, their voyage in the Mayflower and their establishing a colony thousands of miles from home. Now that is interesting. That's why I bought the book. Whereas the whole second half of the book deals with King Philip's War which took place some 50 years later. (Philip was an Indian chief or "sachem" whose enemies mockingly dubbed him "king".)

Sure, this war is interesting, but it's explored in too great a depth. Which is a shame because I really liked Philbrick's "In the Heart of the Sea". Also, I struggled with the Indian names. I'm always surprised that books like this don't give the reader a guide to the generally accepted pronunciations so at least I'd be saying the names of places and people correctly in my head. Perhaps also a list of characters to refer to? However, I like the cover artwork and the generous number of maps and illustrations. To end on a positive note, Philbrick is an excellent communicator and I could always understand what he was getting at. This is an excellent introduction to the period and a swashbuckling romp at that!
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on 10 August 2016
The stories we love to hear most are those we know best. Nathaniel Philbrick recounts again the tale of the Pilgrim Fathers. He does a good job.

We go back to 16th century England to pick up on a small group of puritans. We follow them to Holland and then across the Atlantic to Cape Cod. The first months are the worst, but enough survive – just – to welcome later migrants, fleeing religious wars in Europe or seeking fortune. He charts what proves to be a fateful relationship with those who came before them, Indians [the term he prefers throughout]. The latter chapters recount in detail the violence of Philip’s War of 1675. There we end.

The events are brought alive through the people who lived through them. This is tale of heroes and villains – often both the same man. In the text judgements are mollified by asking the reader to remember that these were different times. This is especially true of the brutality of conflict between the Puritans and the native Americans. A conflict which in the end removed the latter from the land, many very directly on slave ships.

In a short epilogue he discusses how history has seen these men and women. The principal problem is that all sources are those of the colonists. The natives left no written records – and of course, they lost. Interestingly, it was a long time before the Pilgrim Fathers were really celebrated. Thanksgiving was not commemorated until 1863 – and then in a way the original diners would have scarcely recognized. At the same time a growing sense of injustice and national feeling inflamed descendants of the native Americans.

Nathaniel Philbrick does not address directly the important questions [arguably but certainly the one that will be asked of students in college and school]. Did the Puritans make America or did America make the Puritans? How did a people at prayer become a community at war? Did the possession of land and the freedom from persecution sow deadly seeds? In a phrase he quotes often from Isaiah were the descendants of the Fathers the “degenerate plant of a strange vine”?

But he tells the story and tells it well.
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on 15 February 2011
I bought this book to acquire an overview of the subject for a project about the Mayflower; and to get a version of history which, hopefully, would go beyond the safe clichés associated with the pilgrims and would avoid (neo)-colonialist bias, in the face of what was to develop into a genocide.
The book was informative and opened up interesting perspectives about the circumstances and motivations of the struggles which led to the demise of the Indian populations.
It also highlighted the precarious conditions under which the first settlers lived till they found ways of developing the capacity to cultivate their own food (ironically, learning the art of survival from the Indians they eventually wiped out).
The book offers a good introduction to the subject to someone totally new to it, in the form of an eminently readable narrative.
The presentation of how leaders of the two sides and their kins acted towards each other and towards the situation as it appeared on the ground was enlightening.
I guess that readers will form their own opinion about the moral of the story according to their own allegiances and ideology.
It is a shame that the establishment of the white settlers was achieved at the cost of suppressing the Indian populations and wiping out their culture.
One cannot imagine what sustained inter-cultural collaboration based on mutual respect would have produced, had the European not felt superior in the beliefs, their rights and their greed.
The anecdote recounted at the end (on the last page) suggests that a thread of humanity could, in some situations, manifest itself, amidst a struggle for power and survival according to the Darwinian laws of the 'jungle' and according to the principle of the survival of the fittest.
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I've always enjoyed Nathaniel Philbrick's books; he has a way of turning complicated history into an engaging narrative, and this book on the Pilgrim Fathers is no exception. He sets out to implode a fair few of the myths that have grown up around the origins of America, exploring the somewhat darker side of the original Pilgrim settlers, from their early dogmatism to the steadily-increasing militarism, the friendly relations with the Indians degenerating into the later demonization and slave-trade. Whilst he's at it, he also shatters the myth of the famous Plymouth Rock.

His account of the Mayflower voyage and the early years of the Plymouth settlement is the real high point of this book. Whilst he does well to set out how the Pilgrims' rigid dogma and belief in their own divine providence set them on the path to war with the Indians, I did find the jump from the early years of the colony to the outbreak of King Philip's War more than fifty years later a bit of a gulf. A bit more material about the other settlements and colonies would have been useful; to go from a narrative almost exclusively focused on one small settlement to the events of a region-wide war is somewhat jarring with little context in-between.

Still, it's a good point, and Philbrick strikes a balanced authorial tone, managing to write with sympathy about both sides of the conflict. He avoids falling into the trap of depicting the Indians as either noble savages or simply savages, just as the Pilgrims themselves are more than just deluded Europeans or religious fanatics.
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