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Pilgrims came to Leiden for ‘brain training’

The Pilgrims to America exhibition at Museum De Lakenhal inspires reflection. How far do you go in the quest for freedom? It focuses on the Pilgrims’ relationship with the University and which knowledge they took with them from Leiden.

The exhibition follows the historic journey of a group of English religious refugees who lived in Leiden from 1609 to 1620 before some of their members set sail for America on the Mayflower. There they founded a colony in the area that would be called New England. They wanted more freedom for their own community, but this was at the expense of the Native Americans, whose numbers were decimated within a few decades through murder and imported diseases. In the exhibition rooms, interactive reflection areas ask visitors which decisions they would make: how far will you go for your freedom if this curtails the freedom of others?

Protestant university

This paradox is a theme that runs through the history of the Pilgrims. These Protestant separatists fled to the Netherlands because of a conflict with the Church of England. They wanted more freedom to practise their own faith, but then one reason why they left Leiden was that they thought the city’s population was too free. Why, after a sojourn in Amsterdam, had they come calling on Leiden city council in 1609? There was work, religious freedom and a Protestant university here, says curator of the exhibition Jori Zijlmans. ‘The academic climate must have appealed to their pastor John Robinson. He was looking for brain training in Leiden.’ What is more, this academic city with its free press was the perfect place to print pamphlets criticising the Church of England.

One part of the exhibition is about the Pilgrims and Leiden University.

University law

In the exhibition, 17th-century prints and publications, largely from the University Library collection, underscore the relationship with the University. Zijlmans points out a special pamphlet: Perth Assembly, printed in Leiden in 1619. In this now rare pamphlet, the Pilgrims denounced the episcopacy in England. The critical manuscripts caused problems for Thomas Brewer, who operated the Pilgrim Press. But as he was enrolled as a student, he fell under university law and could not easily be prosecuted by England. 

The Perth Assembly was printed in Leiden in 1619. Leiden University Library Collection.

Anatomical theatre

Other Pilgrims also attended the University, such as surgeon Samuel Fuller. Zijlmans: ‘He came to Leiden as a weaver but left 11 years later as a doctor. He must have acquired some of his knowledge in the anatomical theatre and the herb garden of the Hortus botanicus.’ The exhibition shows the four famous academic prints – of the library, the hortus, the fencing school and the anatomical theatre – which at the time served as an impressive calling card for the University.

Herb book

A household inventory shows that the Pilgrims William Brewster and Myles Standish took a herb book by Leiden botanist and professor Rembert Dodoens on board the Mayflower with them. The book also provides valuable information about plants in America such as maize. Two of Dodoens’ large herbal books are on show at the exhibition.

Grave consequences

It is known that Brewster taught English to students in Leiden. In addition, Standish, the Pilgrims’ military leader, probably took classes in agriculture, stronghold construction and bombardment techniques. The last part of the exhibition makes the effects of the crossing to America painfully clear. Within 50 years of the Mayflower’s arrival, countless Native Americans had been murdered or displaced by colonists. This casts an unpleasant light on knowledge acquired in Leiden such as bombardment techniques.

Wampanoag visit to Leiden cancelled

The exhibition is thus about the far-reaching consequences of personal choices. The first group of Pilgrims lived in relative peace with the Native Americans, the Wampanoag, if only out of necessity because of their limited numbers. But that soon changed when the colony attracted many new English settlers. Zijlmans: ‘We want to show the diverse perspectives, particularly that of the Native Americans because this has received too little attention for too long.’ For instance, Thanksgiving – the romanticised communal celebration of the first harvest in 1621 – is no celebration for the Wampanoag but a national day of mourning. A number of Wampanoag representatives were supposed to be coming to the opening of Pilgrim Year in Leiden and the exhibition. Unfortunately, the corona crisis has put paid to that.

Banner photo: Detail from Departure of the Pilgrims from Delftshaven by A. Willaerts. Rose-Marie and Eijk de Mol van Otterloo Collection
Text: Linda van Putten

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