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Making Haste from Babylon: The Mayflower Pilgrims and Their World: A New History Hardcover – April 13, 2010

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A Q&A with Author Nick Bunker

Question: What made you, as an Englishman, want to tell the story of the Mayflower Pilgrims?

Nick Bunker: Before they were American, they were English, and a revolutionary war had to be fought before the two nations separated for good. Long after the Mayflower, the history of England and America remained deeply intertwined. You can’t understand one without delving into the other as well.

In my case there’s also a family reason for my fascination with the American past. I’m called Bunker. For centuries the Bunkers lived lives of total obscurity, as farmhands and farriers and the like in the countryside northwest of London. Except for one Bunker, a yeoman farmer called George, born in about 1600. It seems that George Bunker became a Puritan and in 1632, he sailed to Massachusetts, most likely on the Lyon, a ship which also supplied the Plymouth Colony. He settled at Charlestown, where he gave his name to Bunker Hill, but George was a free-thinking man who upset the authorities by supporting the religious radical Anne Hutchinson. So they took away his gun, and banned him from holding public office. Even so, he did well. George Bunker became one of the earliest benefactors of Harvard College. His descendants were still living at Charlestown in 1775, when Bunker Hill became a battlefield.

You won’t find George Bunker in Making Haste from Babylon, but his story wasn’t so very different from those of the Pilgrims on the Mayflower. It raises the same kind of questions. Exactly why did they embark on this bold, hazardous project called New England? What did they find when they arrived? How and why did they succeed, so that families like the Bunkers, who’d been unknowns in England, came to be entrepreneurs in America, the kind of people you read about in Moby Dick?

I find these questions fascinating, but very few Britons have shown any interest in answering them. That’s why I decided to write the book. I felt that it was time the story was told from an English perspective, and I guessed that historians had overlooked a mass of relevant material here in the United Kingdom.

Question: You unearthed an extraordinary number of documents relating to the Pilgrims and the early settlement of New England, most of them virtually untouched. How did you find these records? And what do they reveal?

Nick Bunker: It’s a matter of timing. In the 19th century, when people started to look to the Pilgrim Fathers and the Mayflower as the inventors of America, scholars from New England began to make visits to London in search of archive material that might shed more light upon them. By the time of the tercentenary in 1920, it looked as though every relevant document had been discovered. Since then, many books have appeared about the Plymouth Colony, both academic and popular. But with only one or two exceptions the authors have relied entirely upon sources which were already in print a century ago.

Since 1945, record offices in England have made available huge quantities of new material from the Tudor and Stuart period, documents which were previously either hidden away in private hands, unlisted, or too badly damaged for use by scholars. Archivists have sorted out and numbered thousands of loose papers, created new catalogues, undertaken conservation projects, and become far more open and accessible. Of course, only a tiny fraction of their holdings relate to people involved in the settlement of New England. Even so they contain a wealth of relevant detail which simply wasn’t available to researchers until quite recently.

Let’s be clear: by itself, no single document will change our view of the Mayflower or New England. What I’ve done is to assemble a mosaic of fragments, as carefully as I can, to form a new picture of what happened. I hope it’s much clearer than anything exhibited before. I wanted to show exactly how things were: how faith, politics, business and the necessities of physical survival interacted with each other, to produce what we now call Puritan America.

Question: One of the key features of your book is that it places the Mayflower in a new global context, connecting the Pilgrims not only to religion, but to political and economic forces as well. How does this change our understanding of the settlement of North America?

Nick Bunker: It makes the story richer and deeper, more adult and more inclusive, and it removes the myths and clichés.

The year 1620 was the equivalent, in the seventeenth century, of 1931 in the twentieth. Western Europe was sliding into an economic depression, and the continent was already at war: a war that would last for thirty years and leave millions dead. It was the conflict described by Brecht in his play Mother Courage, set in this same period, when New England was being created. Meryl Streep played the title role in Central Park a few years ago, as the woman who drags her cart from one grim German battlefield to another, while civilization collapses. Her performance was very accurate. In the early seventeenth century, life was very, very hard and getting harder. From the Baltic to the Mediterranean, millions of people were forced to go on the road, moving back and forth in search of something better: not just Puritans but also gypsies, Jews and Irish exiles, and a vast multitude of anonymous peasants, driven off their soil by war, taxes, and bankruptcy.

So the voyage of the Mayflower was simply the most famous of many migrations, in a world of trauma. If we see it like that, suddenly it ceases to be a quaint children’s tale. Instead, the Mayflower becomes a symbol of the experience of migrants of all kinds. Because we can find out much more about the Pilgrims than we can about most of the other exiles and refugees whom I mentioned, their story can be told with rare fidelity and accuracy. But I hope that many other kinds of people can see it as something relevant to their own lineage, even if they’re not white Anglo-Saxon Protestants like me and like Bradford.

(Photo © Nick Bunker)


From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. This superb book secures for the Pilgrims their iconic perch among the earliest founders of colonial America. Bunker, a British investment banker turned journalist, has succeeded in writing a major history, unprecedented in its sweep, of the Plymouth Colony, a history centered on the 1620s but not exclusive to that decade. If short on interpretation and on the drama inherent in the settlers' enterprise, it is long on facts. Bunker takes his history in two directions, downward into some never before used archives (which allows him to add detail and texture), and outward into the entire world context of the Pilgrim settlements. Never before has such a comprehensive and thoroughly researched study of the subject appeared. If sometimes fatiguing by the volume of detail (e.g., in a disquisition on one settlement, directions to the site include turn left at the Dunkin' Donuts), it scoops up every relevant character and links all to the basic tale of indomitable courage, religious faith, commercial ambition, international rivalry, and domestic politics. The results are stunning. Certain to be the dominating work on the Pilgrims for decades. 20 illus., 4 maps. (Apr.)
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 512 pages
  • Publisher: Knopf; 1 edition (April 13, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0307266826
  • ISBN-13: 978-0307266828
  • Product Dimensions: 6.6 x 1.8 x 9.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 2 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (57 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #163,424 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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36 of 40 people found the following review helpful By Bruce Trinque VINE VOICE on May 2, 2010
Format: Hardcover
An excellent book. Nick Bunker's "Making Haste from Babylon: The Mayflower Pilgrims and Their World: A New History" offers a truly different look at one of American history's best-known and least-understood groups - the Pilgrims of Plymouth Plantation. Usually, upon hearing "Pilgrims" the first thought is of a bunch of tediously pious guys in funny hats eating turkeys and pumpkin pies with Indians. And even when rescued from such mythology, the Pilgrims are usually presented in books as somehow being quite apart from everything and everyone else, religious refugees with a hazy background, suddenly cast ashore in an isolated, distant wilderness. What Bunker does, based upon deep and meticulous research in primary sources seldom utilized before, is to thoroughly connect the Pilgrims with a vastly complex net of Jacobean religion, politics, commerce, and social customs. He explores who the Pilgrims were and how they arose and how they fit into the larger picture of the Puritan movement in England.

For those who want a narrow, tightly focused, comprehensive study of the voyage of the Mayflower and the first years of the Pilgrims in the New World, this is not the book. But those who want to see the Pilgrims in a new light and appreciate the complexity of their experience, "Making Haste from Babylon" is perfect. I have seen one review that criticized Bunker for being too digressive, but I would say that the reviewer missed the point - this study is about the world that produced the Pilgrims and the English politicians and businessmen who supported their venture in the New World, the same people who in succeeding years supported the larger Puritan emigration that transformed New England into a solid, dynamic extension of British presence.
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14 of 14 people found the following review helpful By Rich Marsh on June 25, 2010
Format: Hardcover
This should not be the first book one reads about the Plimouth Plantation. It should be the second book you read. That's because this book does not tell you very much that tells the story of the colonists. In fact, it is almost as if the author went out of his way to avoid writing very much that tells the story. He assumes that you know it well.

However, in this book you will find a great deal of background that answers the critical question of WHY things happened. This is rarely seen material on this side of the Atlantic. For example, there was mob violence in Leiden close to where Bradford and other Separatists lived in 1617 - and that would help contribute to their desire to leave Europe altogether. Some have criticized this book because of its many threads - I rejoice in the threads because they provide the background I need to understand why things happened the way they did.
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29 of 33 people found the following review helpful By Tresillian on May 3, 2010
Format: Hardcover
History, we know, is not an isolated story. It's affected by an amalgam of social, economic, political, and religious events even the smallest of which can change the world. Take the Stewart kings of England and their love of fashionable beaver hats. Who would think a couple foppish rakes could change the history of the world? But indeed they did with the help of a couple of wars that eliminated trading sources and a small group of religious idealists seeking freedom. Making Haste From Babylon by Nick Bunker is so very much more than a history of those Pilgrims. It transports you to the 16th century England that created them.

The accession of James I and his intolerance for the Puritan Separatists drove them to escape to Holland. Curiously, the punishment for Separatism was banishment, but it was illegal to leave the country. Robert Cecil, Secretary of State, sensed trouble looming regarding the jurisdiction of the Church over civil matters so it was easier to just let them go. Henrys II & VIII had quite enough of that, thank you very much.

The Separatists settled in Leiden and found themselves tied to an urban economy which gave them no social freedom, no education for their children and fears of civil unrest. They worked endlessly in poor conditions with little to eat and exposure to industrial disease. The return of Holland's war with Papist Spain threatened even the religious freedom they sought. While they worshiped freely in Holland, they had to go into exile beyond the Atlantic to establish their ideal community of economic liberty, social equality, self governance and just a little bit of England.

Nick Bunker's use of primary resources and his expanded scrutiny of secondary sources make this a truly scholarly work.
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30 of 37 people found the following review helpful By Charles J. Edwards on May 9, 2010
Format: Hardcover
In lieu of the straight narrative history that so many reviewers erect as a straw man, Bunker provides thousands of often-very-interesting threads that he attempts to weave together into an evocative tapestry. Simon Schama did this successfully with "Citizens," his history of the French Revolution.

Unfortunately, Bunker falls short. All of the things he writes about undoubtedly really happened at the times he says they happened, but at some point, the linkages with the other facts he adduces fail. I really had trouble with this linkage, for example: at one point, some Pilgrims visited Plymouth, where Bunker's source says they had help from "divers" people (period, end of source). In my mind, this does not justify an extended disquisition on two residents of Plymouth who may -- or may not -- have helped them. No other connection established.

I was leery when he started the book with lengthy conceit about an eagle flying over the land the Pilgrims would inhabit, in order to provide a topographic introduction. But he could not resist providing lots of details on the eagle's hunting preferences, a mass of facts that otherwise seemed to play no role in the book except to appeal to the eagle demographic. At a certain point, I wanted to say, "Enough with the damn eagle, already."

I give this book three stars for the depth of his research and the intrinsic interest of many of the facts he unearths. He loses two stars for his inability to tie his notecards together into a book.

(For a much better book on the origins of the early English settlers of northeast America, see "Albion's Seeds" by David Hackett Fischer.")
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