It’s time for the second half of our discussion of the Reading New England readalong book, Mayflower by Nathaniel Philbrick. Thanks again to Katie of Doing Dewey for co-hosting this discussion with me — she came up with the following questions for Parts III and IV of the book, and you can read her answers over on her blog.
Whether you read along with us or not, I hope you enjoyed our discussion! Once more, the questions are listed below by themselves, and then repeated with my own answers. A linkup follows for your own posts, or please feel free to join the conversation in the comments.
- Having finished the author’s more nuanced portrayal of the pilgrims’ story, do you think either the founding myths (“the time-honored tradition of how the Pilgrims came to symbolize all that is good about America and the now equally familiar modern tale of how the evil Europeans annihilated the innocent Native Americans”) is accurate?
- Do you think the conflict between the European settlers and the Native Americans was inevitable?
- In the conflict, do you think one side clearly had the moral high ground?
- Was there anything that particularly surprised you in the second half of the book?
- Overall, what did you think of the book?
Having finished the author’s more nuanced portrayal of the pilgrims’ story, do you think either the founding myths (“the time-honored tradition of how the Pilgrims came to symbolize all that is good about America and the now equally familiar modern tale of how the evil Europeans annihilated the innocent Native Americans”) is accurate?
As with most myths we create for ourselves, there’s some truth in both of them, but it limits our understanding to put things in such black and white terms. This book helped me to see how the Pilgrims were a flawed and fallible set of human beings, and how their relationship with the Native Americans involved phases of cooperation, communication, and mutual support, as well as theft and exploitation.
Do you think the conflict between the European settlers and the Native Americans was inevitable?
I think some kind of conflict was probably inevitable as the European population grew and they wanted to occupy more land, although it could have been delayed for quite a while by a more diplomatic handling of the situation. It’s hard to imagine another alternative — at the time intermarriage and mixing of the races would have been utterly unthinkable, so the only way the Natives could survive would either be to convert to Christianity and act as servants of the settlers, or leave for another territory. Which, as we know, would eventually be taken over by Europeans as well.
In the conflict, do you think one side clearly had the moral high ground?
I could sympathize with Philip’s desperation as his people’s way of life was threatened, but his actions and those of his troops were often not very noble or well-judged — from impulsive decisions, botched alliances, and tactical errors, to running away when things got sticky. Lashing out against the Europeans must have seemed emotionally satisfying, but as it turned out it wasn’t in their best interests.
On the other hand, though the settlers didn’t consciously instigate the conflict, they should have been more aware of the way their actions were pushing Philip to retaliate. And once they got into the fighting they were pretty ruthless. The scene of a fort full of women and children being destroyed was particularly gruesome. It was also interesting to note that the Indians didn’t rape female captives, as was standard practice with European warfare. Although there seemed to be a few Pilgrims who saw the Indians as human beings and potential allies, most treated them in a peremptory and insensitive way.
Was there anything that particularly surprised you in the second half of the book?
I was surprised at how devastating the conflict was for the Native population of the region. As well as killing off a huge number, it also spurred the English to sell the survivors into slavery on the Caribbean sugar plantations (which was tantamount to death). It really backfired on them — and on the English as well, who now lacked the friendly Indian allies to protect them from hostile tribes. It was an event that had a major impact on our early history, yet we don’t seem to hear much about it.
Overall, what did you think of the book?
I found it very educational but sometimes a bit hard to slog through, particularly in the “War” section — reading about wars and battles is generally difficult for me as I tend to lose interest in the details of tactics and troop movements. Sometimes I had a hard time keeping track of who was who with the large cast of characters and many different Indian tribes.
However, I do recommend the book for anyone who wants to learn more about this period of American history, and especially how the Plymouth colony evolved after that first iconic year. It was also interesting for me to imagine early colonial life in the region close to where I now live, with many mentions of places I visit or drive through. I will look at them with new eyes now!
Have you read Mayflower? What did you think? Link up your posts at Doing Dewey, or join the discussion in the comments!