- The Washington Times - Friday, July 2, 2010

By Nick Bunker
Knopf, $30
489 pages, illustrated

Any reader looking for the straightforward Pilgrim story is probably forewarned by the opaque title of this long book, but anyone looking for adventure in English and American history will relish this fresh account by Nick Bunker, a former banker and journalist for the Financial Times.

Be advised, however, that Mr. Bunker is bent on telling you everything he’s dug up in his extensive research in obscure archives on both sides of the Atlantic, in no particular order. There is no tempting alley down which he does not travel - as he puts it, “backward, sideways, and around and beneath the accepted narratives of migration” - but most of the time he manages to take his reader with him.

Mr. Bunker starts his story in 1628, the year when Plymouth colonists, thanks to a steady supply of beaver pelts in Maine, “for the first time … could be certain that their colony was going to endure.” Not just access but “demand for the skins, the legal right to settle, the technology of transport, the command of language, a supply of trading goods, and the presence of people able and willing to hunt” also were essential for the Colony to be considered permanent, opening the way for the foundation of Boston by far larger numbers of colonists.

From 1628, the author goes back a generation or two to the emergence of a small Separatist minority among Puritan Calvinists in England who believed that the Church of England was beyond redemption because of its Roman Catholic past and created “pure” congregations entirely outside the established church. In 1593, Parliament and Queen Elizabeth I made Separatism a crime after writing appeared on a church wall implying, says the author, that Elizabeth was “the whore of Babylon, a tyrant, a false prophet, and a pimp, whose resistance to Puritan reform threatened her subjects with damnation.”

Things got worse under the paranoid King James I, “who thought of the Puritans as a disease.” Beginning in 1607, small groups of Separatists sought refuge in the Netherlands, which seemed to offer a haven where the Separatists could worship as they wished and could support themselves working in industrial Leiden.

After a dozen years of Leiden’s “poor conditions, endless work, and a harsh diet,” not to mention lack of education for their children, loss of English identity, and the appalling stench of the city, the future Plymouth Pilgrims sent emissaries to England to arrange passage for the New World. Hence, it is only in the fifth of the six parts of his book that Mr. Bunker takes his story to Plymouth, and even then he often backtracks to Europe to catch up with an economic crisis or outbreak of war that affects his colonists.

Throughout, he notes that for generations “writers have chronicled the events of the 1620s in New England with the help of a very small range of sources, far too few to make adequate sense of what occurred” - namely, William Bradford and Edward Winslow among the Pilgrims, and Roger Williams and Capt. John Smith, among others.

He has no quarrel with the accuracy of these sources, but points out many gaps in their chronicles. “Maritime economics, advances in navigation, competition for skins and the reasons why beaver fur became a fetish: essential though these elements were, you will find them neither explored nor explained within the familiar Pilgrim texts. Nor do Bradford and Winslow deal with the motives of King James, or his son, or with those of men and women as essential to the story as John Pocock of Bread Street Ward.”

If John Pocock and Bread Street Ward don’t ring a bell with you, you need to read the book. You won’t find any lists of the Mayflower passengers, and many familiar names and stories also are missing, but you will be rewarded with a broad English perspective on a very American story. For example, consider some excerpts from a seven-page discourse on the importance of the Mayflower Compact:

c “The Pilgrims took English models, and then radically transformed them to fit new conditions.”

c “The problem arose because the Mayflower had strayed north beyond the domain of the Virginia Company, entering territory where the patent for the colony had no legal force. Because of this, says Bradford, some of the ‘strangers’ on the ship - meaning men who had not come from Leiden, but joined the party in England - pointed out that they could not be compelled to obey orders.

“So, to maintain unity and discipline, they drafted and signed the compact.”

c “It has become commonplace for historians to play down the importance of the document. … Some argue that the Mayflower Compact was no more than a short-term, temporary measure, drawn up in a hurry, containing nothing new and nothing original. That being so, the argument runs, it could not possibly be the foundation stone of American democracy, but was simply one source among many.”

To the contrary, Mr. Bunker argues, “What did the document mean to William Bradford? … For him, the compact always remained fundamental, a permanent, necessary source of authority as long as the colony lasted. If it had simply been a short-term fix, the compact would have ceased to matter in 1630, when the Plymouth Colony obtained a definitive new patent. … Instead, Bradford and Winslow made it plain that the compact remained very much alive.”

Story Continues →