Plymouth is generally considered, and not without good reason, as the most capacious and secure rendez-vous in Great Britain.
—SAILING DIRECTIONS FOR SHIPS OF THE ROYAL NAVY, FIRST HALF OF THE NINETEENTH CENTURY1
On Wednesday, September 6, a brisk wind blew over the sea outside the entrance to the sound. It came from the direction of an island, the Mewstone, a green pyramid of rock that leaps up from the waves like a small wet Matterhorn, situated offshore to the east. A Mayflower passenger called the wind “a fine small gale,” and it carried the ship rapidly into the English Channel and toward the Atlantic. As Christopher Jones took her out of the haven, on her starboard side the Mayflower passed a headland, facing the Mewstone across four miles of water. Made of slate dotted with quartz, and topped with grass and yellow furze, Penlee Point dips and tumbles from a height of three hundred feet down into the sea.
When tankers or frigates enter or leave the approaches to Plymouth, they should keep the gray cliffs of Penlee half a mile away. At the foot of the promontory, crags spill out along the seabed to form a reef. At low tide the waves cover the Draystone, as it is known, to a depth of only one fathom. Fishermen will tell you that conger eels dwell within its crevices, waiting to bite the unwary who find them in their nets. Whether that is so or not, the reef has killed seamen in their thousands. The approaches to Plymouth contain many hazards, with ancient names—the Panther, the Tinker, and the wicked little Shagstone, tiny, square, rising out of the water opposite Penlee—and mariners must know them all.
For two-thirds of the year, southwesterly winds sweep up from across the ocean and into the wide, deep notch in the coast that forms the sound. Mostly the winds carry a sailing vessel into Plymouth in safety, but when they reach storm force, they will drive her straight onto the reef. Sometimes, too, the wind changes to come strongly from the east and south, while an ebbing tide pulls boats toward the west. Closer to shore another current pushes them out again as the water inside the sound piles back into the channel. When all this happens at the same time, wind one way and water another, the sea off the Draystone peaks upward to become a seething trap. A sailing ship, rudder gone or helpless in steep waves, loses her headway and slips back toward the rocks. Coastguards call the area Cannon Alley, because of the wrecks and armaments scattered offshore.
Chart of Plymouth Sound in 1782, when the only significant changes in the geography since the time of the Mayflower had been the building of the Royal Dockyard at Devonport, shown at the top, and the naval hospital nearby (MR1/948, National Archives, Kew)
So it is along much of the rest of the coast on the way out to the west, where spurs of uneroded rock jut into the sea to form dangerous headlands. A chain of them extends as far as the Lizard Peninsula, the last English landmark before America and the most dangerous promontory of them all. In Jones’s day mariners faced their greatest risks on the trip home, when they sometimes fatally mistook it for Ushant, one hundred miles to the south at the tip of France. So, the year before the Mayflower sailed, a Cornish squire built the first lighthouse on the Lizard.2
“The subtilnes of the tide imbayeth ships without prevention,” said Sir John Killigrew, as he described the perils of the shore, hoping to take fees from Dutch shipowners tired of losing vessels sailing back from the East Indies. The Mayflower may have been one of the first ships to see his winking candles, or perhaps not. It cost ten shillings a day to keep the lighthouse shining, but Killigrew ran out of money soon after it was finished. Even so, his project made him a pioneer. Four years earlier, another lighthouse had appeared at Dungeness, at the entrance to the Strait of Dover, and these were the first of their kind since Roman lights cast their beams over the channel many centuries before. Their Jacobean revival was a sign that times were changing. So too was the voyage of the Mayflower, a venture forming part of a great metamorphosis of English enterprise by sea.
It was about to alter permanently, swerving toward the west, but only after a long and doubtful embarkation. Until the 1620s, more than a century after the foundation of New Spain, English skippers still remained scarce in the waters off the mainland of North America. In 1619, only six English ships made fishing voyages to the Gulf of Maine. For cod, Newfoundland still reigned supreme. The customs records list only one ship leaving the Thames that year for Jamestown, the Bona Nova, with a hundred settlers and a jumbled cargo of shoes, boots, hoes, and assorted ironmongery.
Only eight English ships altogether sailed to Virginia in 1619. The colony there still had little to offer by way of business, since the tobacco leaf sent home each season came to little more than fifty tons, barely enough to fill a large fishing boat. And yet by the end of the next decade, the bias of sea traffic began to change profoundly, and the passage to America at last became routine. By the middle of the 1630s, forty ships each year were leaving the port of London for Chesapeake Bay or New England. Soon each of the leading harbors in Devon had four or five master mariners who made regular crossings.3
The voyages traveled by English merchant ships fell into a new pattern, tilted westward. New England owed its origins to this maritime change of direction. However zealous Puritans might be, they needed sea captains willing and able to take them westward, and money to pay for the journey. Once on the other side, they had to service their debts and pay for essential items from the old country: the goods carried by the Bona Nova, but also glass, paper, lead, copper, Sheffield knives and hatchets, gunpowder and firearms, and most of all livestock. Alongside the beaver, and Puritans, imported cattle were the mammals that made Massachusetts what it became. Ships were needed too, more ships and bigger ships with ample hulls for carrying heifers as well as Pilgrims. Until they were available, nobody could build in New England a city on a hill.
It had to be possible to cross the North Atlantic in both directions more swiftly and more safely than in the past: in both directions, because to investors and indebted settlers the return journey mattered as much as the voyage out. Feasibility required experiment, and speculation. In the first thirty years of the seventeenth century, innovations such as Killigrew’s lighthouse began to transform English navigation. Without this process, much of it by trial and error, Puritan America could not have come into being in the way in which it did.
Just as wind and tide converge around Penlee into a vortex of waters, but a swirl with a pattern beneath it, so a new turbine of connections began to drive events in the North Atlantic, spun in motion by new flows of trade and people across the ocean. Of all this, the Mayflower and Christopher Jones were physical symbols. At first sight, we seem to know little about Jones: merely the crude, random data of two weddings, nine baptisms of his children, his burial, and his lawsuits. Look a little deeper, and we find that he and his colleagues left a mass of evidence to mark their comings and goings.
In the two weeks before the Mayflower left for America, sixteen ships came into Plymouth, craft that the Pilgrims would have seen, bound in from Norway, Spain, Brittany, and the wine ports and salt pans of the Charente, in southwestern France. Out went another nine, heading for Dunkirk, the Basque Country, Ireland, and the Netherlands. An unknown number of small coastal boats scudded to and fro between the channel ports. These were old, familiar routes, paths deeply worn thanks to a long expansion of trade during the reign of King James. As Jones made the Mayflower ready for departure, around him he saw the pattern of English seamanship visible in its entirety.
A CAPACIOUS RENDEZVOUS
Somewhere moored close to the Mayflower was the Patience, skippered by Richard Barton. At the end of August, she sighted Penlee from the channel, on her way back from Alicante. Before him, as he came into Plymouth, Barton saw everything that the departing Pilgrims must also have seen: the same rocks and hills, and the same schools of dolphins, basking sharks, and canvas sails, arranged within the drowned river valleys that make the sound resemble a flooded auditorium, leading deep inland.
Like the Mayflower, the Patience was a London ship, at two hundred tons a little larger than Jones’s craft. Like the Mayflower, she would be heavily armed against the Arab pirates to protect her cargo. It would have contained the items that Spain sent to England in the summer before wine making began: aniseed, almonds, figs, prunes, licorice, marmalade, and Spanish soap, the soft white Castile variety. Hundreds of pieces of Spanish pots and olive jars have been unearthed beneath the streets of Plymouth, with among them a broken set of blue-glazed teacups and saucers, porcelain made in China during the same era.4
In the nineteenth century, engineers built the great breakwater that now defends the sound. But in Jones’s day the winds sped straight in from the sea without an obstacle, making it far too rough to ride at anchor in the middle. So, after the Patience rounded Penlee, most likely she swung to the west to enter the wide, sheltered haven of Cawsand Bay. This is a place so calm that even when a strong swell is running out at sea, the pennants of yachts berthed within it barely flutter. Long before, a Spanish raiding party had burned Cawsand village, but they left untouched the brick sheds by the beach, still standing today, where Tudor fishermen stored pilchards taken from the channel.
Cawsand made the best anchorage when the wind came from the southwest. If it changed to blow from the southeast, the Patience would have gone elsewhere. She would steer diagonally across the sound, making for a seamark, a stand of willow trees on a hillside. Known then and now as the Withy Hedge, the seamark still guides submarines along the deep channel that zigzags into the naval base at Devonport. At the Withy Hedge the Patience would turn to the north, toward the dark blue rim of Dartmoor, the granite plateau that hangs behind the sound like a curtain above a stage.
Beyond the Withy Hedge, the Patience would come to an island fortified with fourteen cannon. Once safely past it, four miles into the sound from the open sea, she would sail straight for a line of low gray cliffs, with above them the grass expanse of the Hoe, where Drake played his game of bowls before sailing out against the Spanish Armada. Close beneath it, at the last moment, Barton would have swung his bow sharply to starboard, under a row of more guns, pointing out over the waves from an artillery fort. Built at the corner of the Hoe, the fort had the low profile, sloping earthworks, and wide ditches recommended by the most advanced military architects.5
Behind the fort and the Hoe lay another haven for the Patience. Deep within the sound, a long placid pool curved away to the northeast, forming an anchorage, nearly one mile long. It was called the Cattewater. Either here or in Cawsand Bay, depending on the wind, Barton would have sighted the three masts of the Mayflower, and at her stern her square aft castle, towering thirty feet into the air. Neither ship would have entered the third available haven, Sutton Harbour, a basin flanked by piers and guarded by a defensive chain. Both vessels were too large, with about twelve feet of keel below the waterline. If either Barton or Jones had docked inside the basin at high tide, seven hours later he would have been trapped in the mud.
Carefully making his way around the Mayflower, Barton would have seen an aging ship. She was nearing the end of the usual working life of fifteen years. Most likely the Mayflower measured roughly one hundred feet long, from the beak of her prow to the hindmost tip of her superstructure. At her widest point she was roughly twenty-five feet across. Nobody can be more precise, since this was an age long before dimensions took a standard form. William Bradford says that the Mayflower had a volume of 180 tons, but he was not an expert.
What we can say, on the basis of surviving records, is that she could certainly fit at least 180 casks of wine into her hold, great barrels each filled with hundreds of gallons of claret.6 Behind the gun ports in her sides and stern, if she wished to match a foreign ship of her class, the Mayflower also needed ten pieces of ordnance: seven cannon for use at long range, and three smaller guns charged with musket balls for close-quarter fighting. Later, at New Plymouth, Jones unloaded four of his pieces to fortify the colony. He would not have done so unless he had still more on board.
As he brought his own vessel to her berth nearby, Barton would see small boats plying back and forth from the Mayflower to the quayside, because Plymouth had a postmaster. Although details within Bradford’s narrative suggest that the Mayflower spent no more than two or three days in the sound, there would still be time to write a last batch of letters up to London. The capital was only forty-eight hours away on horseback if the mail went posthaste. And since the postmaster also did business as a ship’s chandler, he could supply Jones with any missing items needed for the journey. He had done just that only a few months earlier when he kitted out another English ship bound across the Atlantic that year, on an illegal voyage to Guyana in Spanish South America.
Did any of the Pilgrims go ashore? It seems that some did, but probably not many. Many weeks earlier they had already spent all their money on provisions, quarreling with one another about the cost, and about the outward customs duties they had to pay on their freight. But even from the deck they could see that the town above Sutton Harbour was new. Within a few decades, Plymouth had ceased to be just another small pilchard fishing village. Instead the town had become the sixth-busiest port in the kingdom.
Starting in about 1570, in the best havens around the coast of Devon, here and at Barnstaple and Dartmouth, suddenly the townspeople began to build new quays, wharves, harbor walls, and lanes of waterfront houses. One such, aptly called New Street, survived the Luftwaffe at Plymouth in 1941 and remains intact today. Up to a point, this new prosperity arose from the war with Spain, when Drake and his mentors the Hawkins family led the town as it became a base for warships and privateers. However, even after the king made peace with the Spanish, Plymouth continued to thrive in the Jacobean era, for reasons to be found in the voyages of ships such as the Patience.
We can talk about this ship, and the expanding trade of Plymouth, because of something called a port book. In 1564, to ensure that duties were paid, the Crown ordered the revenue men in each port to prepare annual reports listing every taxable cargo. The system produced immense volumes of paper, to be sent to the Exchequer in London, where they were filed and later forgotten. No historian looked at the port books until 1911, when an official inquiry revealed the lamentable conditions in which they were kept. A few scholars began to examine them, and swiftly made discoveries. This was how, at the time of World War I, historians traced in part the career of Jones and the Mayflower before her journey to America.
Since then, the port books have faded back into obscurity and become a neglected resource rarely touched by researchers. Often they are ragged, filthy, stained, or made illegible by heat, by damp, or by rodents. Many of the books have vanished entirely, including most of those from London. Breaks in the sequence make it hard to identify trends, and doubts exist about their accuracy, because of corruption among the customs men. All the same, and despite their flaws, the tattered books contain superb material when used with care and checked against other sources.*
The port books list the names of ships, their sizes, their masters, their destinations, the places from which they came, and the consignments shipped by each merchant. These details can be matched with other records—wills, depositions, official papers, and Puritan narratives—in such a way as to transform the familiar old story. And as it happens, a Plymouth port book has survived from 1620, ignored by historians because it fails to mention the Mayflower. There is nothing odd about this: the omission occurred because Jones never intended to pause in Plymouth at all.
His final port of exit was supposed to be Southampton, a hundred miles east along the channel coast. There the Mayflower met a smaller supply ship, the Speedwell, which had ferried the Pilgrims from Leiden across the North Sea. If everything had gone according to plan, the Mayflower and the Speedwell would have have left Southampton and headed straight out toward the Atlantic. Once across the other side, the Speedwell would have stayed on to fish and trade up and down the American coast. As it happened, soon after their departure from Southampton on August 5 the Speedwell sprang leaks. Both ships had to stop at Dartmouth, where the Speedwell underwent repairs, before they sailed out again.7
Three hundred miles beyond Land’s End, the skipper of the Speedwell complained that once again she was filling with water. Back both ships went once more, and the Speedwell was discharged and sent home to London. This was how Jones came to be in Plymouth. The customs men did not list his ship in their annual report, because their Southampton colleagues had checked her already and collected the duties which she owed.
But even without the name of the Mayflower, the port book displays the forces at work in the world from which she came. The mercantile marine of England fell into three tiers or classes, depending on the size of the ship or the goods she carried. In each division England faced high risks and keen rivals. In the next four years the country underwent an economic crisis, a slump that continued to take its toll on the Pilgrims long after they reached America. As it turned out, in the end these hardships and the vagaries of war and commerce gave birth to lasting colonies. Arduous, long, and uncertain of success, the process can be followed in the careers of the men and the ships in the sound.
A page from the first English textbook of trigonometry, published in 1614 with a dedication to Sir John Wolstenholme, who helped the Pilgrims obtain consent to settle in America. This section explains how to calculate the distance and compass bearing between the Lizard in southwestern England and the Davis Strait in the Canadian Arctic. (Lincoln Cathedral Library)
THE LION OF LONDON
Two famous mariners passed Penlee that year. History remembers Jones, but in his day the other man had far more prestige and sailed more dangerous waters. Three weeks after the Mayflower left for America, into Plymouth came the Lion of London, skippered by John Weddell. He later became the first English sea captain to take his ship to the Chinese port of Canton. In 1639, Weddell vanished at sea, most likely lost in a storm off the Cape of Good Hope, but in 1620 he stood on the quarterdeck of his first great command, within the topmost tier of English shipping.
A craft of four hundred tons, the Lion sailed under the flag of the East India Company. She and Weddell were bound back from Saldanha Bay in South Africa, after a year or two of trading and fighting the Portuguese in the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean. Jones would have known him, by sight and by reputation at least, since in London they lived on opposite sides of the river Thames, Weddell at Ratcliff, and Jones just across the water at Rotherhithe. Most likely the Mayflower crossed paths with the Lion on her voyage out. Before turning west to America along the fortieth parallel, Jones would have headed down toward the Azores, on a route converging with the track that Weddell must have followed home.
John Weddell belonged to England’s seafaring elite, men with the skills to complete the nine-month voyage to the Malay Archipelago. On their way back, after sighting the Lizard, East India ships such as his called at Plymouth for food and water. They unloaded a little cargo, silks, spices, and perhaps some Chinese crockery, before making for the capital with the bulk of what they had. Demand for luxuries such as these led to rich profits, but it also caused side effects that, in due course, spilled over to accelerate English enterprise in the Atlantic as well.8
Eager to see more capacity at sea, the Crown gave a bounty to men who built new ships, five shillings per ton for each oceangoing vessel of one hundred tons or more. Records of the bounty payments show a surge of construction driven by the voyages of Weddell and his colleagues in the East India service. In 1616, English dockyards launched no fewer than seventeen oceangoing hulls, with among them two vessels of more than one thousand tons each, armed merchantmen bound for the Orient. In 1617 the boom continued, with such intensity that the king scrapped the subsidy. He saw no need to bankroll speculators with scarce public funds.
By that time, the shipwrights had already engineered a lasting increase in the size of English merchant vessels. In the final decade of the bounty, the average ship built with it nearly doubled in size, from a little over two hundred tons to four hundred. When Jones first skippered the Mayflower, in about 1608, she ranked as one of the largest English merchantmen at sea. By the time of her voyage to America she was slipping down the scale, smaller than all but one of the last tranche of ships that received the royal subsidy, and when John Winthrop led his fleet to Massachusetts, he traveled in a flagship twice the Mayflower’s size.9 A matter of deliberate policy on the part of the Massachusetts Bay Company, the use of bigger ships was essential, as we shall see. It was only possible because of the preceding decades of experience.
As ships grew larger, expertise deepened too, with East India merchants like Wolstenholme as the chief sponsors of research. Lighthouses were only one instrument of change. Among the others were new coastal charts and tide tables, and buoys and beacons in hazardous spots, and the regular dredging of the Thames, making safer the return to England’s sea approaches. In 1608, the Dutch began selling telescopes like Bainbridge’s. Nine years later a London surgeon wrote the first handbook of nautical medicine. By the early 1620s, besides new manuals of advanced mathematics English seamen had the first books that tabulated the variation in the earth’s magnetic field from one place to another: an essential tool for correcting errors in reading a compass.
In the same decade, the log and line first came into widespread use to measure a ship’s speed and distance traveled. By way of a knotted rope paid out over the stern, they allowed the master to fix his whereabouts more precisely. In 1623 a friend of Henry Briggs first used the term “knot” to measure nautical velocity. Seven years later, the English invented the slide rule, quite literally placing logarithms in the hands of mariners. Finally, in 1631, another English mathematician published the first practical guide explaining how to follow a “great circle,” the shortest distance between two positions on the globe. As an example, of course he chose the passage back across the Atlantic, from Bermuda to the Lizard.10
For the sake of bigger ships, as well as better pay, the finest seamen chose the East India service, but knowledge flowed westward too. Richard Norwood, the man who wrote the guide for great-circle sailors, suffered too much from seasickness to captain a ship, and so he trained as a diver. He went to Bermuda in 1613 to fish for pearls, and settled there as a surveyor and schoolmaster. New tools such as his brought the American coast within the reach of many more seamen, adding another layer of support to the new colonies when at last they began to grow.
Why did so many advances coincide? Pure research accounted for some of the discoveries, and religion played its part too: people of science saw the finding of a theorem as the pathway to the mind of God. But most of all, the momentum came from politics and commerce. For the first two-thirds of the reign of King James, traders and seamen alike had known little but prosperity, in the East India traffic and much nearer home. But England’s expanding trade rested on a narrow and fragile base. Her maritime enterprise had settled into routines that left it vulnerable to competition from the Dutch and to commercial collapse in time of war. Each marine innovation came about in response to the fear of being left behind.
In the East Indies, the signs of harder times ahead were very clear. On board the Lion, Weddell brought home news of more trouble with the Dutch, and soon afterward it took bloody form. In October 1620, at Bantam off the coast of Java, the Dutch sank two company ships. Because of violent rivalry such as this, and because so many ships from many countries were sailing to the Spice Islands, the next decade was a disaster for the English East India traders. The market price of pepper, indigo, and silk reached a peak in London in 1622 and then sank steadily for the next seven years. Dividends paid by the company fell away. This became another reason for English eyes to swivel toward America.
For Jones, the long haul to the East Indies had never been an option, since the Mayflower belonged like the Patience to the smaller, second division of the English merchant navy. Ships of their class, based in London but using Plymouth as a port of call, stuck to a less ambitious business. And yet even for men such as Barton and Jones, the sky was growing darker. Two decades of growth were coming to an end, in a fading climate that explains why, after a comfortable career, Jones suddenly took on the unfamiliar task of carrying the Pilgrims.
THE LIFE AND TIMES OF CHRISTOPHER JONES
Christopher Jones was born in about 1570 in the port of Harwich, on the eastern coast of England. Queen Elizabeth called Harwich “a pretty town,” and to her it was intensely loyal, sending three ships to join Drake against the Armada.11 Local seamen caught lobsters, fished for cod as far away as Iceland, or carried coal from Newcastle to London. Like Plymouth, Harwich had grown wealthier still by pillaging Spanish ships, though the business it did best was to export English woolen cloth to be dyed and finished in Holland. A boy raised there would also hear stories told by explorers. When Jones was eight or so, Harwich men sailed to Baffin Island.
Pretty or not, Harwich possessed characteristics that made it ideal for the training of a seafarer. It also had a social environment that helps explain why the early colonies in America took the shape they did. Thanks to the winds and currents of the North Sea, and thanks to the silt that drifted down the coast, the entrance to Harwich contained dangerous sandbanks, with names such as the Pies, the Pole Head, and the Platters. To the north was the long pebble spit of Orford Ness, where on a single night in 1627 a storm wrecked more than thirty ships. In these testing waters Jones served his apprenticeship. His father and his stepfather were both Harwich skippers, and at eighteen Jones inherited his first part share of a ship.
He belonged to a clique of mariners and shipwrights who governed the town with harsh discipline. They sentenced five women to hang as witches in 1605, while harlots were dragged through the streets on a cart, and dice games were banned. Harwich resembled other seaports around the English coast, from Hull in the north to Barnstaple in the west, where sea captains and merchants ran local government, levying municipal taxes to pay for street cleaning, jails, and parish constables. They formed part of an international circuit of little marine republics, from the Baltic to the Pyrenees, Calvinist by inclination, from Gdansk in modern Poland to La Rochelle in southwestern France. In America, when New Plymouth and New Boston reached maturity, they formed the western extension of the same network, tossed across the ocean like the end of a coil of rope.
In his mid-thirties Jones became an oligarch himself, named as a burgess of Harwich in a new charter granted by King James. A rising man, with the help of the five-shilling bounty he built a ship of his own, the Josian, named after his second wife. At 240 tons, the craft was larger than average. She must have cost around a thousand pounds, a sizable sum when a ship’s master hired by a merchant earned no more than fifty pounds a year, and Jones used her for trading voyages as far south as Bordeaux. Then, in 1611, he became one of a group of Harwich men who outgrew the town and moved south to the Thames. Jones made his new home at Rotherhithe, a mile downstream from the Tower of London.
By that time, he had swapped the Josian for a quarter share in the smaller Mayflower, and narrowly escaped disaster in the North Sea. In 1609, he guided her safely back from Norway through “an extraordinary great storm,” with a cargo of timber, tar, and fish. As a crew member later recalled, in an effort to save the ship Jones dumped over the side a hundred planks of wood. Many weeks late they struggled back home, only to find that the man who owned the tar, wood, and rotting herring was bankrupt, unable to pay for them. When he moved to the capital, Jones found a safer, more regular trade. He also followed the tide of history.12
Before the 1590s, Rotherhithe and Ratcliff were country retreats, places where Londoners hunted deer and rabbits. Suddenly, as the wealth and the population of London grew, they began to fill with new houses for mariners, with alongside them abattoirs, inns, and England’s first sugar refinery. In the late 1620s, a census counted nearly 120 master mariners in these two parishes alone. Excavations in the year 2000 found traces left behind by these new Jacobean citizens, immense quantities of imported pottery, Venetian glass, and some of the earliest clay tobacco pipes uncovered in England.13 The same archaeology also unearthed some of England’s first glass wine bottles, designed to be packed into crates.
Wine flowed like the Thames through the commercial veins of London. It made the fortune of the mariners of Rotherhithe. Jones’s most affluent neighbor was another ship’s master, named Anthony Wood, skipper of the Rainbow, who ranked above Jones at the very top of the parish list of taxpayers, owner of shares in three ships and a portfolio of houses on both sides of the river. Wood was another visitor to Plymouth in the autumn of 1620, sailing out of the Sound in October for Alicante, and he owed his wealth to the excellent vintages that the Spanish port supplied.14Alicante was the favorite drink of King James himself. A pint of it cost sixpence, close to a laborer’s daily wage, and the trade was very lucrative indeed.
The largest client of Christopher Jones was one William Speight. He lived in Vintry Ward, the wine merchants’ district, opposite the Globe Theatre. After buying his wine wholesale in France, shipping it home, and paying all his costs, Speight could clear six pounds of profit per ton. In May 1620, Jones and the Mayflower sailed back into the Thames on their last trip before carrying Pilgrims. He carried fifty tons of wine for Speight, enough to make Speight as much money as ten English clergymen earned in a year. Holding the rank of warden of the Company of Merchant Taylors, Speight owned country estates in Suffolk and tenements, shops, cellars, and warehouses in the City. At his death in 1621 he left a string of bequests to schools and the inmates of prisons, the charities supported most often by London’s mercantile elite.
Men like Speight, Wood, and Jones prospered because of a surge in the intake of alcohol as the income of the landowning classes grew. At the peak of the wine trade, in 1615, London imported nearly three times as much wine as it had in a typical year twenty years previously. English customers were not only drinking more but also paying more for what they drank: during the same two decades, at La Rochelle the price of white wine doubled. Taste became more subtle too, as the English widened their horizons from claret to Sauternes, Spanish sweet wines, and brandy. The first hard liquor from Cognac arrived in London in about 1560, most likely rough stuff, like an Italian grappa, but during the reign of King James the Dutch refined it and made it an item of choice. A typical Jones voyage in 1615 saw the Mayflower bring back from France eighty tons of the new spirit. She carried to New England at least one keg of French or Dutch eau-de-vie.15
When wine ships sailed back and forth, they did more than simply fill the wallet of a William Speight. Their voyages made the Protestant maritime network deeper and tighter, binding it together with exchanges of men, women, and ideas. By the 1620s, each leading French haven along the Atlantic coast had a solid community of English and Scottish traders and brokers, with Dutchmen in still larger numbers. At the center of the web lay the city of La Rochelle, the Huguenot bastion that tied together the long loops of commerce from north to south, and from the Levant to Newfoundland.
Down from the Baltic came grain, hemp, and tar, to be sold to the French or shipped on to Spain. Back up from the Mediterranean and Gascony came currants from Greece and Turkey, iron from Galicia, and Spanish colonial goods, tobacco, or raw sugar. Along the coast to the south of La Rochelle lay immense salt marshes and the fortified port of Brouage. English ships bound back from the Grand Banks could sell their cod to fish-eating Catholics and then fill their empty holds with French salt for packing their next consignment. Or they, and the Dutch, would simply carry it back home: overcast northern nations had no salt pans to rival those of the sunnier Charente. In an age of sail, the French made the best canvas, and this too could be purchased at La Rochelle. There the English also found allies. The Huguenots had their own armée navale, fifteen warships ready to fight the French king.
Jones and the Mayflower found a place within this pattern of trade, but like the commerce with the East Indies it carried no guarantee of success. Everything, including the fortune made by William Speight, depended on finding ready takers for the only currency that London’s merchants possessed. England had no gold or silver mines, and it was strictly illegal to export coin or precious metals without a license from the Privy Council. The country’s meager stocks of bullion were mostly earmarked to pay for the silk and spices returning from Asia. So when the Mayflower left London for France, her hold was crammed with English woolens, the nation’s only substantial export. Instead of cash, Speight and his rivals used thousands of yards of raw cloth to pay for French or Spanish wine.16
Woolen textiles were England’s strength, but also a source of vulnerability. If anything happened to deter the buyers in Europe and cloth failed to sell, the way of life of mariners such as Jones would swiftly disintegrate. A family man, Jones had to fill his ship and keep her busy. In 1620 that was rapidly becoming far more difficult than in the past.
Everything was about to go very wrong. In June, as Jones was hired to cross the Atlantic, expert observers in London could already see the warning signs of a dangerous decline in the economy. In Devon too, life was becoming more complicated, at sea and on land alike, for merchants, for fishermen, and for the soldiers in the fort at Plymouth. New problems had to be solved. As yet, very few men and women believed that North America provided the answers.
DIVERSE FRIENDS THERE DWELLING
On September 6, as the ridge of Dartmoor vanished below the horizon, the Mayflower must have passed a fishing boat called the Covenant. In September, listed in the port book, the fishing fleet from Newfoundland came hurrying home to Plymouth, sixty-five vessels in all, traveling in convoy eight at a time. In 1620 the Covenant made it back first to Cawsand Bay or the Cattewater, on the very day on which the Mayflower left.
At thirty tons, the Covenant was small, from the lowest, third tier of English merchant ships. In this, she was typical of the craft that sailed to Newfoundland: the tiniest that year was a twenty-five-tonner, the Trinitie, a brave little vessel that took two months more to straggle back into Plymouth. Only seven of the town’s Newfoundland vessels had a volume of a hundred tons or above, and none came anywhere near the Mayflower’s size. For this reason, cod fishing alone could never form the basis of permanent English colonies on the American mainland. The ships employed simply did not have the capacity required. Few of the Newfoundland boats could carry more livestock than a few goats or pigs.
Cod fishing yielded a good return even if the ships were small, and that was the problem. Dried and salted, the fish conveyed in the Covenant would fetch three hundred pounds on a Spanish quayside. And train oil, squeezed from cod, walruses, or whales, added another stream of profit. Used to make soap for washing newly woven cloth, it sold for only two pence a pint, but it came back in batches of more than a thousand gallons per boat. Plymouth men had begun to sail to Newfoundland as long ago as the 1540s, but the cod voyages were closed circuits that did not lead elsewhere. As long as the Newfoundland trade continued to thrive, and while woolens could be bartered for wine, merchants had no need to think about mainland America. Five years before, Captain John Smith had returned to Devon from Monhegan Island, nine miles off the coast of Maine, bouncing with enthusiasm for the country he named New England. He did not find an eager reception.
Written up in a book published in 1616, his chart and his tales of Cape Cod, fish, fur, and timber failed to arouse excitement. Dashing and eloquent, John Smith did his best, touring the western ports to promote the opportunities that he had seen. Few wished to follow him, and no colonists willingly did. Later, Smith listed twenty-two voyages to New England between 1614 and 1618, from London or from Devon. They included landings on the Cape, but no one tried to found a settlement.
Three days’ sail from Boston, Monhegan remained the favored destination, as a fishing or a trading post, but it could not host a colony: the rocky island measured little more than a mile long. Smith had also visited a place to the south called Accomack. He named it New Plymouth on his chart, speaking of its “excellent good harbor” and “good land,” but nobody took much notice. After reading his narrative, the Mayflower Pilgrims aimed elsewhere, for New York Harbor, recently visited by an old shipmate of Smith’s. He had sailed around Long Island and sent a report home, suggesting like Henry Briggs that the Hudson offered a route to the Pacific.
Nevertheless, although few people had grasped the point, times were changing and gradually making New England more compelling. Sometimes, cod became scarce off the Grand Banks, or disappeared entirely for a season. This happened in 1621, encouraging some adventurous traders to think again about Maine and Massachusetts. The cod voyages also became more dangerous, thanks to the pirates from North Africa.
They ambushed the fishing boats on the way home, because they were too small and lightly armed to put up a fight. In the next quarter century, the pirates took at least seven thousand English sailors captive, about half of them from Devon, and, as we shall see, in due course this helped to feed Puritan discontent with the Crown. And, once again, we find the Dutch closing in to undermine England’s business. Dominating the herring grounds of the North Sea, the Dutch had mostly left Newfoundland alone. Until, that is, the year of the comet, when they began to sail to “Terra Nova,” as they called it, challenging the English in their old domain.
Jones and the Pilgrims would have heard talk about matters such as these at Plymouth. Later, when the Pilgrims came to narrate their adventures, they included a typically cryptic allusion to the place. At Plymouth, they said, they were kindly entertained “by divers friends there dwelling.” Who were the friends in question? The Pilgrims do not say, but two likely candidates present themselves. In their different ways, both men were looking for alternatives across the ocean. Their careers add another layer of explanation for the leap across the Atlantic that would soon occur.
The first man was the postmaster, Abraham Jennings. He was in his early forties, and he owned a quay in the center of the waterfront. As a young man, Jennings had supplied iron pots, locks, and other bits and pieces to the first Englishmen who tried to settle in New England, the failed Popham Colony of 1607, at Fort St. George in Maine. Then he apparently forgot about the New World, until the new circumstances of the 1620s aroused his interest once more.
Until then, Jennings stuck to the familiar. Dealing in cod, figs, and raisins, he bought wine from the Canaries, or shipped merchandise back from Alicante on the Patience. Then suddenly, in 1622, he begins to reappear in records relating to North America. A little later, Jennings bought control of Monhegan. He started to bring back beaver pelts, nine hundred in 1626, a type of cargo new to Plymouth. For some reason, he soon tired of the venture and sold the island, but his involvement was a landmark. For the first time since the Popham debacle, a substantial Devon merchant, rooted in the older European trades, had invested capital in the territory north of the Potomac. He did so in alliance with a second man, who had other reasons to look westward.17
To find him, the Pilgrims would have to climb up to Plymouth Fort and ask for the governor. Nobody in the realm, besides John Smith, thought more about New England than Sir Ferdinando Gorges. The fort’s commander, he came from an old French family from Normandy. His fascination with America seems to have arisen entirely from patriotism, and curiosity. He seems never to have made a penny from his efforts.
At fifty-four, Gorges had been fascinated by America for more than a decade. His obsession dated back to 1605, when he met three Abenaki people, shipped back to Plymouth by an early English voyager to Mawooshen. Gorges questioned them closely about their home, and most of all about its rivers leading far inland.18 Excited by what he heard, Gorges helped lead the creation in 1607 of the Plymouth Company, designed to operate north of the Delaware, as a twin of the London company that founded Jamestown to the south. It planted the Popham Colony, and then it backed John Smith’s voyage of 1615. Beyond that, it achieved nothing, but Gorges refused to give up.
As the Mayflower prepared to sail, Sir Ferdinando was about to relaunch the company, with a new name and a new royal charter. The Council for New England came into being on November 3, a few days before the Pilgrims sighted Cape Cod. Packed with marquesses, earls, and a clergyman or two, in the name of His Majesty it held dominion over all the land and sea between the fortieth parallel and the forty-eighth, from the St. Lawrence to the site of Philadelphia, and as far west as the Pacific.
Because it later became extinct, abolished by King Charles, and because its papers mostly vanished, the council has never commanded much respect. Historians in America often portray the council and its creator as absurd feudal relics, intent on turning New England into an aristocratic fiefdom. Up to a point this is fair. Gorges antagonized many people, especially the fishermen of Devon, by charging fees for licenses to look for American bass and cod. But Gorges was no fool, and far from being narrow-minded, he was another visionary of a kind.
Much later, he fell out with the Puritans of Massachusetts, but to begin with he happily welcomed the Pilgrims as settlers, speaking highly of their good relations with the native people whom they met. He recruited merchants as partners, inviting Jennings to join the council. Far earlier than other men, Sir Ferdinando saw the need to build much bigger ships to service the new colonies, to be paid for, he hoped, with a loan from the East India Company.19 If he charged fees for fishing, it was because he needed to defend the Gulf of Maine against the Spanish, the French, or the Dutch.
In 1621, Gorges made his own disappointing tour of England’s west country, looking for colonists to follow the Pilgrims. He aroused as little interest as John Smith. Gorges spoke in the military language of empire, and perhaps this deterred investors. Security had to come first, he said, as he listed his American priorities: “erecting forts, placeing of Garrisons, maynteyninge shipps of warr upon the Coasts, and officers for the more safe and absolute Government of those parts.” Gorges had militarized Plymouth Sound, with cannon protecting each strongpoint. Now he wished to make the North Atlantic a fortified English lake, with Virginia and New England as the armed bulwarks of a new empire.20
Like most of his fellow countrymen, Sir Ferdinando believed that another war with Spain was unavoidable. At Plymouth he stood in the front line. We can imagine him, pacing up and down his parapet, watching the Mayflower come and go, fuming at the politicians who withheld the funds he needed to man the fort and fight the pirates, and cursing the merchants who failed to share his vision of western adventure. For the time being, however, failure seemed the most likely outcome in a commercial project of any kind.
DAMP AND DEADNESS
Over the early years of the Plymouth Colony hung the shadow of depression. The voyage of the Mayflower took place at the moment when unease about the economy crystallized into acute alarm. Capital was scarce, and demand collapsed. Tens of thousands of weavers found themselves with no work to do. A few days before the Mayflower reached America, King James reluctantly called his first Parliament in six years, prodded into action by those who wanted England to join the Thirty Years’ War. Raising money for rearmament should have been its principal concern. By the time the House of Commons met in early 1621, the crisis in the economy had instead become the chief topic for debate.
As unemployment rose, members of Parliament frightened one another with talk of a peasant uprising. “Looms are laid down,” one wrote in his journal. “Every loom maintains forty persons … the farmer is not able to pay his rent, not for want of cattle or corn or money. The fairs and markets stand still.”21 Most alarming was a sudden scarcity of money. For its bullion, the Royal Mint relied entirely on private citizens bringing in plate or old coins to be recast, but the inflow of silver ceased entirely. Not a single silver coin was struck at the mint between April 1619 and March 1620, and very little in the twelve months after that. At Cambridge, departing students sold their old desks and chairs to incoming men who took their rooms. One such was the student who had described the comet in his diary. As the Mayflower left Plymouth, he tried to auction his furniture, but found no takers: nobody had any cash.22
As British governments do, King James appointed a committee to investigate. It reported that things were very bad, and offered many explanations. It said something must be done, and then the king did nothing. By the middle of 1621, western Europe had slipped into the deepest depression in six decades. As the European war made things still worse, a contemporary spoke of “that great and generall dampe and deadnesse … which we unhappily feele at this day.”23 In 1622, a year after returning from America, Jones died at the very bottom of the slump. He left a widow, sons and daughters, and an empty ship. Her ultimate fate is unknown, but most likely the Mayflower was scrapped in 1624.
Behind the slump lay many causes, but for the Pilgrims it was the consequences that mattered. In their early years in the New World, they could expect only fitful support from their backers and friends at home. In due course, seamen and merchants looked for ways to avoid another economic crisis of the same kind by widening their sphere of enterprise; and in doing so, maritime England turned its attention decisively across the Atlantic. But that did not occur until much later in the decade. In the meantime, Bradford and his comrades mostly had to fend for themselves, or try to find allies on the western side of the ocean. And if they wanted help from heaven, they had to pray to a god of thunder, the terrifying deity of Calvin.
* One London port book has survived in excellent condition, covering outward voyages in 1617. Lionel Cranfield, the first Earl of Middlesex and England’s lord treasurer, apparently took the book home, and it became part of the Sackville Papers, at Maidstone in Kent. Every item is legible, including four references to the Mayflower. Overlooked by historians, it provides a complete picture of London’s overseas traders, including some of those who financed the Plymouth Colony.