Russell Shorto

“Making Haste From Babylon” (Book Review)

In 2006, Nathaniel Philbrick wrote “Mayflower,” a history of the Pilgrims that attempted to wipe centuries of mythic buildup from the dour features of America’s European primogenitors. Now Nick Bunker has written another history of the Pilgrims, which tries to do more or less the same thing. Yet the two books — both admirable — are utterly different, and so to a large extent is their subject matter.

Philbrick, a New Englander, concentrated on the settlement of the colony of New Plymouth, and read its meaning through the prism of King Philip’s War of 1675-76, which would set the tone for later relations between settlers and natives. Bunker, an Englishman, had what is perhaps a more alluring idea: to devote himself largely to the prehistory of the men and women who founded the colony. His book roams through archives and repositories in the British Isles. From county record offices and church account books, he teases out traces of William Brewster, William Bradford and the other principals who would later found the colony. His objective is to answer the very good question, Who were these people?

In their day the men and women we refer to as Pilgrims were called Separatists or Brownists, but what was the nature of their separation from the Puritan Protestantism that had rooted itself in England, and who was the Robert Browne who gave rise to the movement? How well known were these religious radicals? What was their role in English society? Exactly how were they persecuted? Where did they flourish? And how, one might add, could this new information alter the Pilgrims’ legacy?

Maybe the most important point that Bunker highlights concerns the interplay between the Pilgrims’ faith and their education, political standing and financial position. The legendary picture of them looks largely at religion; they are cast in the role of seekers of religious freedom and, along with the Puritans who would settle other parts of New England, they are put to use in American history as crafters of the theological core of the American creation myth. The Mayflower Compact, which the settlers signed and which is considered a foundational text of American democracy, contains a line that Christian conservatives like to point to in making the case that America is a Christian nation: the Pilgrims’ undertaking, the document proclaims, was “for the glory of God and advancement of the Christian faith.”

It is certainly true that religious belief — the desire not merely to purify the Church of England, as the Puritans wanted, but to break away altogether — was central to the Pilgrims. Separatism, however, was rooted not simply in the Bible. It was, Bunker shows, a form of Christianity blended “with ideas about gentility and good government, and seasoned with Greek and Roman ideals of republican virtue.”

And the Pilgrims were also businessmen. Unlike many other populist religious movements, Separatism, Bunker tells us, “was never the creed of the penniless.” Its founders were of the gentry. But what did that mean? The leaders of the American Pilgrims hailed from in and around Nottinghamshire in the East Midlands. It was a troubled land — not a place of mythic sentimentality, Bunker says, but “the old, feral England.” Unyielding forests, soggy fields, poor harvests and epidemics created a situation in which landowning gentlemen, desperate to maintain honor, could slip into debt, despair, sin, ruin. In such a vortex, Bunker argues, some people got religion and began pointing moralistic fingers at their neighbors.

The decision to flee thus had both religious and financial motivations. The Pilgrims’ voyage to America was a business venture whose backers — few of them especially religious — expected a return on their investment. And like millions after them, the Pilgrims themselves had a real-world American dream in mind, which was centered on the North American beaver. In the 1620s, a single beaver pelt fetched the same amount of money required to rent nine acres of English farmland for a year. For a time, the Pilgrims capitalized on that raw material: in the 1630s, they shipped 2,000 beaver pelts to England.

Bunker, a former investment banker, also shows the Pilgrims as pawns in a larger geopolitical game. James I despised both them and the Puritans (“very pestes in the Churche & common-weale,” he called them). The king might well have forbidden the Mayflower from sailing, but his secretary of state, Sir Robert Naunton, spoke to him on behalf of the religious radicals and their colonizing mission. “Without bases in America, England could not challenge Spanish control of the western ocean,” Bunker writes. “And without the supplies New England might provide, the Royal Navy could not put to sea. For Naunton, most likely it was all a matter of politics and naval doctrine, with Calvinism adding the impetus of zeal.” Bunker’s research reveals that the Pilgrim leaders were quite connected to events in England, and also that Separatism had a broader geographic scope than has long been thought.

It is difficult, however, to follow some of this book’s flow of facts and arguments. Bunker is better at digging in archives than in steering a narrative. He has many directions he wants to go in, and a great deal of information at his disposal, but he does not help the reader much. As an example, early in his book he describes the Mayflower leaving Plymouth Harbor on Sept. 6, 1620, for its voyage to America, only to abandon it at this momentous point to spend several pages discussing other ships that came into and out of the harbor around that time. Then he returns to the Mayflower, but promptly leaves it again to mention a fishing boat called the Covenant that was in the harbor as the Mayflower departed. This ship was returning from Newfoundland, which leads Bunker into discussions about the types of ships that fished for cod; the business of cod fishing; the uses of cod, walrus and whale oil; and Capt. John Smith and his efforts to promote New England. Having twice set up the historic voyage and twice distracted us from it, Bunker then takes yet another detour, yanking the Pilgrims off the deck of their ship and putting them back on dry ground in Plymouth to engage in conversations about where they should settle, so leaving the reader truly at sea.

Unlike so many others, Bunker is not interested in weighing the historical facts he amasses against the Pilgrims’ symbolic legacy. Regarding that legacy, he does little more than note that “the Pilgrims invented the model and set the tone” for later English colonization. He manages almost to avoid delving into theThanksgiving story; he gives it a quick nod before, curiously, turning his attention to a prayer of thanks that the Pilgrims said on their first arrival in the New World. This prayer, which Bunker argues had its origins in a Jewish ritual called birkat ha-Gomel, he considers to be the real Thanksgiving; it took place a year before the event that served as the basis for the American holiday.

Having set himself the task of discovering who the real Pilgrims were, Bunker leaves it to others to square his findings against the Pilgrims of legend. So how do they measure up? Bunker shows them to be heartfelt Christians, but at the same time sectarians, as small-minded as any others, intent on getting their way within the petty struggles that split wattle-and-daub villages dotting the English countryside a long, long time ago. Pinned to the canvas of history by the points of so many archival records, they come across as relevant, certainly. But mythic? Not so much.

MAKING HASTE FROM BABYLON: The Mayflower Pilgrims and Their World: A New History

By Nick Bunker

Illustrated. 489 pp. Alfred A. Knopf. $30

Russell Shorto is the author of “The Island at the Center of the World” and, most recently, “Descartes’ Bones.”

About the Author

  I was born in Johnstown, Pennsylvania. I have three children (Anna, Eva and Anthony) and three step-children (Reinier, Hector and Benjamin).  I write books of narrative history; I believe history is most meaningful to us when it manifests itself through individuals in conflict. My books have been published in fourteen languages and have won numerous awards.  I am senior scholar at the New Netherland Institute and a contributing writer at the New York Times Magazine. My interests include the past, the present and the future, not necessarily in that order.  

photo by Keke Keukelaar