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Pilgrim conference: high time for an indigenous and more diverse perspective

Historians and experts in American studies from Leiden University are holding an online international conference about the arrival of the Pilgrims in America and the consequences for the indigenous societies. We asked four questions to two of its organisers, American Studies expert Joke Kardux and historian Ariadne Schmidt.

Why is the conference being held?

‘In 2020 it is 400 years since of a group of English colonists set sail for America on the Mayflower. On board were 50 radical Protestant religious refugees from England, who had settled in Leiden in 1609 and lived there for over 11 years. In England they were derisively called ‘Puritans’. We know them as ‘Pilgrims’. Together with 50 other colonists, who travelled directly from England, the group made the crossing to New England, in northeast America, where, in 1620, they founded Plymouth Plantation, the second English colony in America. Over the course of the years, about 150 other Pilgrims from Leiden joined them. A few hundred Pilgrims stayed behind in Leiden where they gradually assimilated to the local population.’ 

The perspective of the indigenous society was ignored for a long time. Picture: Native American Massasoit and Governor John Carver smoke a peace pipe together. Source: Sutro Library, San Francisco/Wikimedia

Which stories deserve more attention?

‘In the past, the years commemorating the voyage of the Mayflower tended to be an Anglo-American occasion. However, this conference offers a trans-Atlantic and more inclusive perspective. Historically, four ‘nations’ were involved in the colonisation of New England: besides England and the US, these are the Netherlands and in particular the diverse Native American nations. The Dutch part of the history of the Pilgrims is often forgotten, both in the Netherlands and in the US and England. The bottom line is that rather than an innocent celebration, this remembrance year is about the consequences of colonisation for the indigenous societies. In their presentations, many of the speakers, including descendants of the original Mashpee Wampanoag and other Native Americans, will focus on this dark side of the history. They will talk about the native perspective, the “fourth nation”. In the American Constitution, the Native American tribes have the status of sovereign nations.’ 

The history of the Pilgrims is surrounded by myths. Can you give any examples of myths that need to be dispelled?

‘In these times of Black Lives Matter it is inevitable that we call into question the year 1620 as being the mythical starting point of American national history. Speaker Margaret Newell will explain how the first captive Africans had already landed near Jamestown in 1619, a year before the arrival of the Pilgrims. The Netherlands was also involved in this history that was, until recently, forgotten: these 20 and 30 Africans arrived on a ship sailing under the Dutch flag. Another speaker, Paula Peters, who is a member of the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe, will tell the story from an indigenous perspective and will explain how there had been interactions between the indigenous population and European explorers and traders long before 1620. These invaders from the Old World gained a reputation for leading brutal attacks and spreading disease. We therefore want to tell more inclusive stories, histories, and we want to take an interdisciplinary approach. There is also a lot of emphasis on the construction of collective memories: from children’s books about the Pilgrims and the elevation of Thanksgiving – with its roots in 1621 – to a national holiday, to stereotypical statues of indigenous leaders.’

What’s it been like to organise this conference during the corona pandemic? 
‘It is quite challenging to do everything online. During the past few months, we have learned a great deal about teaching online, but organising an online conference is another matter. Obviously, you have to consider the various time zones. There are participants not only from Germany, England and Ireland, but also from the US and even Hawaii. To make sure that it won’t feel like a night shift for anyone, we are starting the conference at three in the afternoon. The technical side is also a challenge: what platform should you choose? Will all the participants manage to get good access? That is why we want to thank a couple of colleagues in particular. We are getting excellent support from Mansja Sengers from the ISSC and Tanja de Bie of the Centre for Innovation. And conference assistant Monica Lensink has managed to move digital mountains this summer.’ 

Four Nations Commemoration, 1620-2020: 
The Pilgrims and the Politics of Memory

Banner photo: Detail from Departure of the Pilgrim Fathers from Delfshaven, A. Willaerts. Rose-Marie and Eijk de Mol van Otterloo Collection

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