Had you been strolling through the bustling coastal town of Dartmouth, South Devon, on 23 August 1620, you may well have spotted a pair of merchant ships approaching. Leslie Wilcox's beautiful painting, 'The Mayflower and Speedwell in Dartmouth Harbour' (1971), imagines the scene shortly before the vessels dropped anchor.
On the face of it, there was nothing particularly remarkable about the arrival of the 100-foot-long, 180-ton Mayflower and her lighter, rather less reliable companion. Its deep waters ensured that Dartmouth was often visited by large ships. However, if you'd spoken to the passengers or crew about the Mayflower and Speedwell's journey, you'd have discovered they were on an extraordinary mission and you were witnessing history in the making.
On board the ships were dozens of aspiring colonists with their sights set on the New World. Most notably, the passengers included around 40 religious refugees who would eventually be celebrated as America's Pilgrim Fathers. They were Separatists whose unshakeable belief in the importance of worshipping in plain, unadorned surroundings meant they'd become estranged from the Church of England.
In recent years, the Pilgrims had tried to establish a community in the Netherlands, a country known for its religious tolerance. But financial hardship and the suspicion that their children's heads were being turned by worldly distractions ultimately led them to look further afield for their next home. The New World was ideal: a blank canvas offering the Pilgrims the freedom to live and worship as they saw fit.
Unfortunately, the Speedwell was in trouble. Instead of living up to her name, the ship wasn't speeding along well at all. In fact, she was taking on water at an alarming rate. Robert Cushman, one of the organisers of the voyage, wrote from Dartmouth to a friend about the Speedwell's poor performance. He was convinced that ‘if we had stayed at sea but 3 or 4 hours more, she would have sunk right down'.
If you're wondering why the Speedwell hasn't achieved the same iconic status as the Mayflower, the reason is that strange goings-on ultimately forced her to remain on English shores. The ship that had been so carefully repaired at Dartmouth mysteriously began to take on water again once this safe harbour was out of reach.
Was the Speedwell damaged deliberately? Were nervous crew members desperately trying to avoid the risky journey across the Atlantic? It's impossible to determine exactly what happened, but one thing is certain: ‘no blame attaches to Dartmouth shipwrights', as By the Dart magazine emphasises.
Some of the Speedwell's passengers joined the Mayflower, which sailed on alone, eventually reaching America on 9 November. The Pilgrims went on to found Plymouth Colony, the first permanent settlement by Europeans in New England.
With the 400th anniversary of the Mayflower's momentous voyage approaching, Dartmouth is increasingly in the international spotlight. The Dartmouth Mayflower 400 project will bring numerous unforgettable events to the stunning town, including the Grand Dart River Pageant in August 2020, which will feature a marvellous replica of the famous ship.
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