It’s 400 years since the Mayflower left Devon

The Mayflower Steps commemorate the departure of the Mayflower from Plymouth. Photo: Mayflower 400

The Mayflower Steps commemorate the departure of the Mayflower from Plymouth. Photo: Mayflower 400 - Credit: Photo: Mayflower 400

Plans to commemorate the pilgrims’ historic journey have been hit by the coronavirus pandemic

Charles Hackett says Mayflower 400 has attracted worldwide interest. Photo: Mayflower 400

Charles Hackett says Mayflower 400 has attracted worldwide interest. Photo: Mayflower 400 - Credit: Archant

In November 2019, the Illuminate festival in Plymouth shone a light on Mayflower 400 and launched an ambitious programme of events in the Netherlands, the UK and America to commemorate the sailing of the Pilgrims across the Atlantic for a new life, many of them escaping religious persecution.

Places – including Dartmouth and Plymouth - and people with a connection to the Pilgrims’ story have come together to mark the anniversary by remembering the perilous journey but also by examining the legacy and developing deeper relationships across the sea.

Today more than 30 million people can trace their ancestry back to the 102 Pilgrims and 30 crew who had set off from Plymouth on 16 September 1620. The 400th anniversary presented many opportunities to look at how this moment in time has impacted on society today, particularly for nations changed forever by colonisation. The cultural programme was a chance to offer a bold interpretation of challenging, difficult truths.

But Covid-19 put paid to the wide-ranging plans to bring people together in large groups. Gone were the Mayflower History Festival, art and music festivals, the theatre production This Land, the nine-day Mayflower Muster and a contemporary art project in a Plymouth park with members of the Wampanoag tribe called Settlement.

Artist Danielle Hill with the new wampum belt. Photo: Mayflower 400

Artist Danielle Hill with the new wampum belt. Photo: Mayflower 400 - Credit: Archant

The resonance between the struggles of the Pilgrims and the impact of a modern pandemic aren’t lost on Charles Hackett, chief executive of Mayflower 400 and Destination Plymouth.

“Certainly there were some dark moments and times when I was feeling quite sorry for myself rather than thinking about what was happening in the pandemic. But coming out of the pandemic situation, the city began to connect with itself again and we got our mojo back,” he says.

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With the majority of events due to take place this summer, the lockdown announcement in March proved to be good timing for the Mayflower 400 project.

“We had to reassess what’s necessary. We managed to protect most of the content by spreading resources, working with our partners in Leiden and Massachusetts and the Wampanoag people and seeing what would fit in with their plans. Everyone aligned quite readily and most of the events were simply moved to next year. So it’s a good job we called it Mayflower 400 not Mayflower 2020!

“The cultural stuff is still happening. We have a broad cultural programme which has become more important, particularly in the light of Black Lives Matter and the issues surrounding that.

“When we look back in ten years’ time and realise what actually changed during the pandemic, that connection will be really important. It becomes more, rather than less relevant. It’s a story that people are really hungry for – about colonisation, persecution and migration. The Pilgrims’ story was forged out of hardship.

“Our programme was always going to be very diverse. It produces a moment for the Wampanoag to say they were there. And to say they still are.

“We are gradually rebooting community events and will run them through the winter and have the performance-based gatherings through the spring and summer, reaching a peak next September. It has allowed us to think differently. There’s additional community programme content but it doesn’t represent a fundamental change.”

The postponed opening of Plymouth’s magnificent museum The Box takes place this month and Charles says this and Mayflower 400 have attracted worldwide interest.

“We’ve been very pleased with the media coverage last year and this year. There were pieces in the New York Times, The Telegraph and The Guardian. They looked at aspects of the story people wouldn’t necessarily notice, like the connection between four nations and the Wampanoag story and their involvement. Mayflower 400 is not just about the anniversary of when the ship left, and not just about Plymouth; it’s about the legacy.”

For up-to-date information and lots of digital content, go to the Mayflower 400 website .

One of the highlights of the revised Mayflower 400 programme is a national touring exhibition - Wampum: Stories from the Shells of Native America – which will be at The Box in Plymouth next spring. The exhibition will put the Wampanoag at the centre of the story and features the first artistic commission from the UK to acknowledge its cultural connection to the Wampanoag Native American nation - a newly crafted wampum belt.

Wampum belts are a tapestry of art and tribal history. Made from the purple and white shells of the whelk and quahog, wampum beads embody the Wampanoag connection to the sea and to life itself. Each shell bead is imbued with memory and meaning by the maker.

They are of cultural, sacred and symbolic significance to the Wampanoag nation. The new belt has been created by more than 100 artisans from the Wampanoag nation and consists of 5,000 handcrafted beads. It will be alongside historic wampum belts from the British Museum collection. On completion of the tour, the new wampum belt will be returned to the Wampanoag Nation.

Paula Peters, of the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribal Nation says the Mayflower story cannot honestly be told without including the Wampanoag and the devastating impact of colonisation on indigenous people. “The people who are participating in the making of the new wampum belt are sharing the story in the age-old oral tradition of the Wampanoag. The White Pine in the centre of the belt tells our creation story - that we came from her roots more than 12,000 years ago to become the people of the dawn. This belt will preserve our stories for many generations of Wampanoag to come.”

Wampum: Stories from the Shells of Native America is at The Box, Plymouth from 15 May-19 July 2021.

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