Sanitizing history and telling a colonial narrative version of the Mayflower Story


As a consequence of Christopher Columbus’ journey to the Caribbean in 1492, a series of world changing European colonisation ventures happened that affected initially the societies on the continents of Africa, the Americas and Europe, and subsequently Asia and Australasia too.

“The Greatest Imperial expansion in the human race.” Dan Snow (TV History presenter)

The Mayflower colonising journey was part of these events, and though it is traditionally related as the centre of a story of discovery, democratic progress and the creation of a ‘New World’, this sanitised version has been for a long time strongly contested and challenged.

The controversy over the history of Telling the Mayflower Story has not stopped the 400-year commemoration organisers, Mayflower 400, from choosing to tell the traditional sanitised version under the heading of Learning.

Telling the Mayflower Story

In 2015, a Mayflower teaching and learning project started in Plymouth, UK, about this 1620 journey and the colonial settlements that were subsequently created. In the UK, Mayflower 400 is the principal commissioning, organising and administrative body of the commemorations, including its education work. Though the organisation of this project has been formally outside the established educational channels, Mayflower 400 has used these channels to establish its influence, distribute its materials and select recruits for a network of consultants.

What MAYFLOWER 400 says

‘Charting Mayflower History’    

“The educational reach of the Mayflower programme is across all ages, abilities and activities, ensuring Mayflower is an inclusive opportunity, allowing all to understand the people and the voyage. By creating specially designed resources, our young people will be able to participate and learn about this international event, both in the classroom, across the destinations, and with our partner compacts. Mayflower 400 is a commemoration, remembering the lives of the Mayflower Pilgrims, the Native American people they encountered and their legacy. It is an opportunity to delve into this significant historical event, from the beginnings of the Separatist movement in England to the first Thanksgiving in America, to appreciate the difficulties that were faced and understand its impact and relevance to society today. The education pages on this website are here to help you explore the narrative, the people behind the journey and the wider context of the Mayflower voyage.”

There are two kinds of education being conducted by and through Mayflower 400, and its associated groups and related bodies, as part of the Mayflower 400-year commemorations. Firstly, there are documents, displays and events that would fit under a heading of Mayflower teaching and learning project. Most of these are found in the About section,  learning sub-section of the Mayflower 400 website, or on related websites and the Mayflower MuseumSecondly, is a wider informal learning, or less easily defined group of planned events and communication networks, that could be categorized under a variety of headings as diverse as creative arts and tourist promotion, that relate to telling at least a part of the Mayflower Story.

Mayflower teaching and learning project

At the end of 2018 Mayflower 400 published a ‘National Programme Announcement’, a Mayflower ‘Media Fact Sheet’, and a ‘M400 Programme’, that includes education project plans. This publicly signalled that formal education plans were, by and large, completed.

The public planning phase of the learning part of the commemorations started with the Mayflower Museum, opened in 2015. The Museum’s displays announced the version of the Mayflower story that was to be subsequently developed. They also made clear that the story was to be that of the ‘Pilgrims’. The pictures and text also gave notice of the limits in time, place and people that the Mayflower 400th anniversary Commemorations’ version of the story would adhere to. It also made clear that Pilgrims themselves, together with their actions, were to be praised. This served as the sanitised framework for the Mayflower 400 website started soon after the opening of the Museum. (note: The Pilgrims are sanitised too)

Current details can be found on the Mayflower 400 website in the About section, learning sub-section, which is set out under the headings :

1 Teachers’ Toolkit;

2 Education Themes;

3 Activities and Events;

These sub-sections are in turn broken down into further sub-headings. In the case of the Teachers’ Toolkit, the sub-sections include teaching guidance modules and resources relating to curriculum stages and topics.

Teachers’ Toolkit

Teachers’ Toolkit consists of five parts: ‘Reading Lists’, ‘Additional Resources’ and three schemes of work for Key Stages (KS) 1, 2 and 3.

Key Stage 3 Scheme

The KS 3 scheme was the first one published (Summer 2017), protested about and edited (early 2018), and it is the document where the sanitized character of the Mayflower 400 education project is clearest. Since 2018 it has been made up of 64 pages arranged in 18 modules designed to cover all the National Curriculum subjects. The 2018 version has an ‘Overall Objectives’ introduction, which is a substantially toned down version of the 2017 one.

The central objective is that every young person in Plymouth will know and understand the Mayflower story.’

This is taken to mean through-out the scheme the story of the British Separatist Calvinist Puritans, sometimes referred to as Pilgrims. The scheme’s authors constantly place the Separatists at the centre of the narrative either in the three Religious Studies modules and the one on ‘History and Separatism’, or by returning to this group in the other modules, either explicitly or by implication.

Even, as in the ‘History and Colonisation’ module, where ‘Native Americans’ are referred to, peoples of Indigenous Nations are mostly to be studied for comparison purposes, or as objects of events and changes that were brought about by the British colonial power, the colonists and their settlements.

However, given the Pilgrim centred tradition the Mayflower commemoration planners have chosen to continue to operate in, it is not surprising that the colonial character of the Mayflower expedition is rarely foregrounded or explicitly mentioned in their broader education project. The ‘History and Colonisation’ and ‘History and the Native American Wars’ modules are the ones in which the colonial settlements are looked at. In the ‘History and the Native American Wars’ module, the subsequent expropriations and oppressive conduct of the settlers is briefly addressed.

The Pilgrims are sanitised too

Even in relating the story of the most celebrated and famous Mayflower Separatists some aspects of their lives are neglected.

For example, much is traditionally made of Edward Winslow’s connections with Worcester, where he was educated. It was also the site of the last battle in the English Civil War in 1651. But Winslow’s connection to this battle (quote from Fraser, R., 2017, p.205 98) is rarely mentioned.

‘The republican victory at Worcester was of the greatest providential magnitude for Edward. He personally superintended a hundred narratives of the battle to be sent to New England with ‘Acts for a day of thanksgiving’

However, more important and revealing is the relating of the circumstances of the death of Edward Winslow. Edward Winslow is traditionally famous for his leadership roles in New England, his early relations with the leaders of the Indigenous peoples in Southern New England, as well as his writings about the Plymouth Colony, in particular his relating of the ‘First Thanksgiving’ in the Autumn of 1621. What is frequently omitted in the telling of his individual story is the circumstances of his death. Wikipedia limits itself to

‘Winslow is reported to have been buried at sea in the Caribbean somewhere between Hispaniola and Jamaica, sometime after May 7, 1655.’

But what was the famous Mayflower Pilgrim, Edward Winslow, doing on a ship in the Caribbean in 1655?

The answer relates to the ruler of Britain and the British Colonies at that time: the Puritan Lord Protector, Oliver Cromwell. Cromwell had sent an expedition to take more Caribbean Slave Islands for Britain, a policy, known as ‘Western Design’. The invasion force was headed by five Commissioners, one of whom was Edward Winslow.

Edward Winslow became associated with Cromwell following his return to Britain in 1647. Prior to the 1655 Caribbean invasion, Winslow had had several tasks assigned to him by the new Parliamentary and Cromwellian Governments, including becoming one of twelve commissioners tasked with selling off  the Crown Jewels and art treasures of King Charles I executed January 1649.

The British invasion of Jamaica

The British invasion force, having failed to take the Spanish Controlled Island of Hispaniola, went on to take Jamaica from the Spanish, and it was during this phase of the invasion that Winslow died. Accounts of the expedition sometimes focus on the two military commissioners, who, on the orders of Cromwell were put in the tower of London on their return to Old England for their failure and loss of troops.

The 1655 British invasion of the Caribbean was an important episode in the history of British colonialism. Britain’s acquisition of the immensely profitable plantation slavery Island of Jamaica proved, subsequently, to be decisive economically to the creation of the British Empire and the start of the industrial revolution. The historian, Nick Bunker, commented in his book on the Mayflower, Edward Winslow ‘was a Pilgrim and an imperialist’. However, Mayflower 400’s education project offers a santised version of Winslow’s imperialist role. More importantly, they remain silent about the New England/ Caribbean connections that are crucial to providing the context of the economic success of the New England colonies which in turn create the context for the creation of the Mayflower story. 98

Mayflower 400’s report of Winslow’s imperial involvement

“He won favour with Oliver Cromwell, who had overthrown the very monarchy and ideals that the Pilgrims had first fled and was appointed to parliamentary committees, including one overseeing the confiscation of property from royalty. His skills as a politician meant he was in demand and it also meant he was able to help secure the future of the colony from his position back home.

This didn’t necessarily sit well with the leaders of the colony. William Bradford was reportedly unhappy with Winslow’s jet-set behaviour but in 1655 Cromwell placed him on a military expedition to the West Indies with the aim of establishing new English settlements there. This would have been a high honour and a new colony for him to be part of and Cromwell wanted him to be the Governor of Jamaica.

He would never see it though, having died on board during the voyage. He died a god-fearing Pilgrim at heart and with him went a very special set of skills that built friendships, won negotiations and established a new way of life in a new land.”

Explore the story of Edward Winslow, his roots in Worcestershire and how his diplomatic ability brought a specialist skills to the Mayflower story > 

Slavery Omitted

The economic success of the New England colonies in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries was necessary for there to be a Mayflower Story. By overlooking this, whole crucial and central aspects of British North American Colonialism are omitted by Mayflower 400. This includes the trade between the New England colonies and the British Caribbean slave colonies, New England’s role in the Atlantic slave trade, with its devastating consequences for numerous African and Indigenous American countries, and the place of slavery in the New England colonies themselves.

In addition, the European colonising context and the European Settlers’ ideology, on the few occasions when they are included for study on the Mayflower 400 website, are, by and large, outlined from the vantage point of the colonial powers and colonists. The Settlers’ ideology covered land as real estate, farming, race, gender, social relations of class and production, religion, trade, etc. These European ideas back in the seventeenth century often both contrasted and clashed with those of other Nations, in particular Indigenous and African. But these European ideas and social relations informed the subsequent behaviour of the settlers and were important in determining resistance by Indigenous and African peoples in the Americas and Africa. They are crucial to understanding both the societies that were created in the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and those that were attacked in the process.

Non-European societies

Taken together, the modules in this scheme do not outline a programme of study of the differing ideas and differing social relations of the Indigenous or African peoples. Both peoples are central to the Mayflower Story, and both continue to live with and challenge the oppressive legacies of the invasions the Mayflower journey was a part.

Comparative study of the religious beliefs of the Wampanoag Nation as part of the religious studies modules, ‘Search for Religious Freedom’ and ‘Moving Religions’, or Wampanoag dietary and farming practices, as outlined in the ‘Cooking and Nutrition’ module, risks presenting and promoting a historically static and passive view of Indigenous North Americans. This is particularly important given that the Mayflower 400 Commemorations’ education project has been set in an advertising and tourist promotion context linked to a colonial narrative since 2015. Through on-line and other materials, would be students are constantly focuses on the importance of the ‘Pilgrim Fathers’, and the creation of ‘settlements’ in the ‘New World’. This form of education, rather than report the attempted destruction and forced marginalisation of Indigenous American societies that colonial invasion involved, either explains them away or ignores the consequences of colonisation.


Settlers’ Ideology

18 Modules

KS3 2018 contents (2017 in brackets):

Overall objectives 1 (1)

1 English 3 (4)

‘Of Plimoth Plantation’ Extracts 6 (7)

2 Art and Design 9 (9)

How to make a Wampum belt 12 (12)

3 Design and Technology 13 (13)

4 Music 16 (16)

5 Science behind Ships 19 (19)

6 Science behind Survival 22 (22)

7 History and Separatism 25 (25)

Cities called Plymouth all over the World 28 (28)

8 History and Colonisation 29 (29)

9 History and the Native American Wars 32

10 Geography 36 (32)

11 Physical Education 39 (35)

12 Maths 42 (38)

13 Modern Foreign Languages 45 (40)

Possible vocabulary48 (43)

14 Citizenship 50 (45)

15 Religious Studies – Separatism and the Roots 53 (48)

16 Religious Studies – Search for Religious Freedom 56 (51)

17 Religious Studies – Moving Religion 5 (53)

18 Cooking and Nutrition 61


The Mayflower 400 Scheme of Work