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The Mayflower Generation: The Winslow Family and the Fight for the New World by Rebecca Fraser, reviewed by Daniel Howe

Chatto & Windus £25.00

Oldie price £19.36 inc p&p

The Puritans get a bad press nowadays. Everybody, it seems, identifies them with prudery, cruelty, intolerance, racism, religious bigotry and a gloomy outlook on life inimical to any kind of fun.

Rebecca Fraser’s account of English Puritans and their creation of a New England on the coast of North America goes a long way to enrich and complicate this sterile stereotype, illuminating the Puritans’ youthful hope, democratic inclinations, enthusiasm for reading, courage in the face of hardship, acceptance of sexuality, and mutual disagreements about policy.

Not that Fraser is an apologist for Puritanism, far from it. In general, she prefers early Puritanism to later, a preference clearest in her sympathy for Plymouth Colony (established in 1620) as compared with Massachusetts Bay (established in 1630). Plymouth experimented with communal property; Massachusetts Bay, a larger and better-funded enterprise, practised capitalism from the start. Fraser, by shifting her lens between family close-ups on the Winslows, narratives of particular expeditions and colonies, and observations about the social and political state of seventeenth-century England as a whole, is able to keep the reader’s attention focused on what it was like to be a Puritan who sailed on the Mayflower across the Atlantic.

Although her title gives no hint of this, Fraser’s story is almost as much about the native Americans who greeted, welcomed and helped the initial English settlements as it is about the Puritan settlers themselves. She refuses to generalise about the Indians, but brings to light the different economies, situations, and diplomacies of the several tribes, shaping their various and changing relationships with the intruders. Individual Indians, with distinctive, well-defined personalities, play important roles as leaders of their peoples, and engage the reader’s sympathy and interest. Human variation is just as apparent among the Native Americans as it is among English Puritans. Tellingly, the first and last pages of this book both address Indian perspectives.

Fraser is an experienced, sensitive biographer. Her main protagonist is Edward Winslow, who sailed as a young man on the Mayflower from Southampton to what would become Plymouth. Over the course of his lifetime, he underwent a transformation from a courageous innovator eager to learn from the Indians and appreciate their culture, to a defender of Puritan orthodoxy, suspicious of the Indians. In middle age he returned to England, where he remained, representing the interests of Massachusetts Bay before the English authorities, defending the colony’s independence and right to self-government against both Royal and Commonwealth regimes. Fraser uses the evolution of Edward Winslow himself as a subtle means to explore the ambiguities in Puritanism as a mindset.

Fraser does not shrink from portraying the horrors of life in seventeenth-century New England – the diseases, the lack of modern medicine, the isolation, the prevalence of capital punishment in Massachusetts Bay (but not, significantly, in Plymouth Colony). She revives the terrors of war between Indians and English, and points out the atrocities committed by both sides. 

However, she defends the Puritans against modern charges of racism. Although the settlers were ruthlessly cruel when making war against the Native Americans, it does not follow that they considered their enemies an inferior race. After all, in the contemporaneous Thirty Years’ War in Europe, both sides committed horrendous atrocities against fellow members of the European race.

Rebecca Fraser has clearly set her sights on addressing an audience of intelligent, curious, lay people. She has written with an awareness of the powerful cultural heritage the colonial Puritans created in New England and occasionally alludes to nineteenth-century commentators on them. It is a measure of her success that, after a lifetime of teaching and writing about American history, I found her story illuminating points I had never before fully appreciated. 

This story was from December 2017 issue. Subscribe Now