The history of the Mayflower voyage

16th September, 2020 by Sutton Harbour Group

Mayflower Steps
Mayflower Steps

In 1620, the Mayflower set sail from historic Sutton Harbour in Plymouth, Britain’s Ocean City, on a legendary voyage to America with 102 passengers and approximately 30 crew members on board. The men, women and children who left the UK and Holland for a new life across the pond became known as the Pilgrims and would establish the second successful English settlement in the US.

The Mayflower voyage is a significant part of American history as more than 30 million people can trace their ancestry back to the passengers and crew aboard the ship. Although the Pilgrims did not discover or were the first the land in America, the Mayflower is renowned for its central themes of freedom and humanity – their first harvest feast with the Native American Wampanoag tribe moulded the American holiday of Thanksgiving.

To commemorate the 400th anniversary of this legendary voyage, we are looking into the history of the Mayflower and its connection to Plymouth and Sutton Harbour. 

The Mayflower journey and Sutton Harbour 

Sutton Harbour is one of the oldest parts of Plymouth, extending back to the Bronze Age. Our cobbled streets are lined with historic buildings offering a glimpse into the city’s long history and maritime heritage. Located at the entrance of the harbour stands the Mayflower Steps Memorial which commemorates the sight where the Pilgrims set sail for America 400 years ago – although the original steps are thought to be located under the Admiral McBride pub. Originally, the Mayflower was due to set sail much earlier than it did and wasn’t meant to port in Plymouth at all.

The Mayflower left London in July 1620 with 65 passengers on board, heading to Southampton to rendezvous with the Speedwell, a second ship making the journey to American from Holland. Both ships set sail on 15th August 1620 making their way to the New World, however they didn’t get very far as both vessels had to dock in Dartmouth after the Speedwell sprung a leak. Once the repairs were finished, the Mayflower and Speedwell made their way down the south coast of England but had only just passed Land’s End before disaster stuck and the Speedwell had sprung yet another leak. Both vessels were once again forced to stop to undertake further repairs on the Speedwell, this time in Plymouth.

It became clear that the Speedwell would not make the journey to the New World so all of its passengers had to disembark and board the Mayflower, making the living conditions even more cramped than before. The Mayflower set sail from Sutton Harbour in Plymouth on 16th September for a long 66 day journey. Two passengers died during the crossing and more than half lost their lives not long after they arrived due to the harsh winter conditions. The Pilgrims finally landed and disembarked in Plymouth, Massachusetts on 21st December 1620.

Mayflower 400 commemorations 

Marking the 400th year anniversary of this momentous sailing, 2020 was set to be a year full of commemoration events however most had to be cancelled or postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic. 

To mark the anniversary there will be an hour-long TV programme presented by BBC history expert, Dan Snow, on Wednesday 16th September at 6pm. The documentary will reflect the story of the Pilgrim’s journey and the wider context of colonialism. It will be available on the History Hits channel and via the Mayflower 400 website

The exciting calendar of events that were due to take place this year has been postponed and will take place in 2021. Further updates will be announced as soon as the Mayflower 400 team has clarity on the programme changes. 

Make sure you follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram to keep up to date with the goings on along the harbour, including Mayflower 400 updates. 

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