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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