By Dr. Jeremy Dupertuis Bangs, PhD
"Desperate Crossing: The untold story of the Mayflower" Lisa Q. Wolfinger, Lone Wolf Productions for The History Channel Shown in U.S.A. starting November 19, 2006.
"Desperate Crossing's" three-hour presentation of the Pilgrims is likely to determine public perceptions of the history of New England's first English colony for many years. Combining beautiful photography with a simplified but familiar plot, the result is a lively story full of tension, romance, and a conflict of cultures. The film's narrative is predominantly composed of quotations from the works of Plymouth Colony's original historians William Bradford and Edward Winslow. To consider their well-known words an unknown story would be ludicrous, so what's the twist? Condensation and omission are inevitable within the limits of a film. What does the story become when distilled? What does the producer choose to include? What is added, what left out? What is the untold story?
Here's the story "Desperate Crossing" tells: The Pilgrims are English Protestants who separate from a state church (also Protestant) under the control of a monarch who petulantly persecutes them for their disobedience. With difficulty, they flee to Holland, where they soon find life so hard that they decide to seek more distant refuge in America, not before, however, giving young William Bradford time to court and wed the beautiful Dorothy May. Their future is one of unknown dangers. Dorothy's distressed response to emigration while leaving their infant son in the care of friends in Leiden forms a recurrent emotional theme contrasting with the pious posturing and tense business arguments that occupy the men. The film's coverage of the sea journey of the "Mayflower" is generally excellent, using Plimoth Plantation's replica ship "Mayflower II" and a smaller replica ship from Maryland (as the "Speedwell"). The waves look real and the ships are indeed sailing. Travel to New England on the "Mayflower" is grim, and conditions crowded. The colonists are riven with factionalism, expressed in continuous, angry shouting matches, that culminate in a mutual agreement to abide by laws they themselves choose, and to elect their own governor. But an expert reminds us that this is not democracy, merely a system to create their own laws and select by mutual consent one of themselves to be governor with authority to enforce those laws. (What's democracy, then?) On arrival, the Pilgrims ignorantly offend the Natives, stealing corn and robbing graves. A violent first encounter with Natives apparently hurts no one seriously. Native antagonism, however, can be explained. For years, up and down the coast, English sailors had been stealing Natives to sell as slaves, but the Natives were too noble to be intimidated, reacting instead with caution and a deep, abiding sense of grievance. Weak and unprepared, the colonists leave Cape Cod for Plymouth, where half the colonists die. Dorothy Bradford drowns, interrupting the narrative flow as commenters agree that, although there is no evidence that she committed suicide, there is also no evidence that she did not. People in such circumstances can become depressed. Some people who are depressed, whatever their religious convictions, kill themselves. Maybe Dorothy did, even though the first person to suggest this interpretation was a nineteenth-century novelist seeking to add interest to a romantic plot. Any suggestion that the total absence of evidence means there is no reason to believe she killed herself is decreed to be "hogwash." Surviving Pilgrims are saved by a formerly enslaved local who has returned from Europe to his homeland to discover that in his absence all his family and friends had died of a plague. He teaches the English how to plant corn. The Pilgrims are impressed by a Native show of force, so, from a position of weak dependency, they invite the tribal leader to a conference with the governor, hoping for friendly relations, for the gift of survival. The former slave helps the English arrange a treaty of mutual assistance. The English may be useful allies against Natives farther west who are exerting political pressure on these who have been weakened by diseases brought by Europeans. Clever diplomatic maneuvers by Natives from Nauset on Cape Cod remind the Pilgrims of their obligation to keep the promise to make restitution for the stolen corn. As untrustworthy European men, they might easily have forgotten this. Harvest time arrives; hunting is good; and its time for a party. Natives appear, weapons at the ready, but instead of attacking the colonists they teach them that the most important thing in life is to get along with your neighbors, because, as an eminent writer assures us, the abiding message of the Pilgrim story is that good neighbors make good friends.
How is the story presented? The film is visually attractive. Actors from The Royal Shakespeare Company wear historically accurate costumes that contribute greatly to the film's appeal. Interior locations in England convincingly suggest the early seventeenth century (although any antiques dealer might wonder how King James I managed to sit enthroned on a chair from the period of William and Mary). Excellent photography shows winter scenes of the Pilgrims' landing and early explorations on Cape Cod. Excerpts from Bradford's memoirs keep the story moving along. The documentary genre's expectable experts talk, ranging from professors whose knowledge of the general period begins to illuminate the historical context of the story of the Pilgrims (Diarmaid MacCulloch, Francis Bremer, Karen Kupperman, Len Travers), through several museum specialists on Pilgrim topics (James Baker, Paula Marcoux, Peter Arenstam, Carolyn Travers), and non-academic historians (Nathaniel Philbrick, Libby O'Connell), to several speakers whose expertise is purely an assumption based on heredity reinforced by ethnic costuming (Linda Coombs, Ramona Peters, Jonathan Perry). All have equal weight in a world where truth is a mere matter of earnestly felt opinion.
Much is excellent. Are there, nonetheless, errors? What kind? How many? The film begins with momentary glimpses of later scenes to establish the direction of the story — a church, a ship in a stormy sea, a colonist pierced by an Indian's arrow, close-up views of yelling faces, the "Mayflower" and the date 1620, a frantic woman calling out "already there's a mutiny!" We know where we're going and we're in a rush to get there. A caption shifts the story thirteen years backwards to start at Scrooby, and here we notice the first problem — Scrooby parish church is represented by the church of Fairford, Gloucestershire, for no apparent reason. The interior of Scrooby church next turns out really to be Holy Trinity, Stratford-upon-Avon, with Shakespeare's epitaph on the left. But then Fairford's famous stained-glass window of the Last Judgement appears as if it were in Scrooby. Is this sleight-of-hand significant? The question recedes as Hampton Court Palace is suggested well enough by Charlcote Park Manor House, where King James rules with silk-clad peevishness. Then we see William Bradford and Dorothy May courting in an Amsterdam garden defined by an American split-rail fence unlike anything in The Netherlands. Captions indicate that the story shifts to Leiden. That town is illustrated by an assortment of views of Bruges (cloth hall belfry, St. John's Hospital, St. Salvator tower, etc.), without any of Leiden. How important is this? The Dutch will laugh, but so what? By analogy, would there be any objection to showing Eastern Coastal Woodland Indians living in teepees or cliff-dwellings?
The settings in England and Holland are unreliable. Are events misrepresented? An intense emotional scene focuses on John Carver's burying a son in Leiden "last week." Problem is — that was someone else, a French refugee whose name was misread in 1905 (Jean Carcyer, not John Carver). The film-maker has not finished the necessary homework, but this is minor. Pilgrims in Leiden did suffer the loss of children, several of whom were buried in the Pieterskerk. (The Pieterskerk is not shown.) What level of inaccuracy is misleading? Pilgrim Pastor John Robinson surprises Elder William Brewster by announcing that hes decided not to go to America. Their fake conversation fails to mention the congregational deliberations about how many would go in the first attempt. Robinson's decision was not private and could not have surprised Brewster. Robinson let the congregation know he would remain with the larger group whichever went or stayed. As a feminine parallel, Dorothy Bradford asserts her individualistic decision to leave her son behind with the Robinsons. "What about my intentions?" asks her husband. "I care not. Or rather, I care enough to follow you across the ocean, but not enough to risk the life of my son!" Hooray for women's rights and maternal protectiveness! Must a documentary inevitably make up implausible conversations? Might the couple have discussed this together before deciding? This film sees all events as conflicts. There's nothing about the Puritan idea that children were better off being raised by close friends or relatives — to prevent too much love on the part of the parents spoiling the child.
The marriage of Edward Winslow to Elizabeth Barker is shown as if it took place in church. But Robinson and the Pilgrims explicitly denied that marriage was an event to be celebrated in church. The Pilgrims' civil marriage ceremonies were solemnized by magistrates in Leiden's city hall. The Pilgrims introduced civil marriage registration to America following Dutch precedent. This was a significant innovation in the English legal world. Preparations for moving to New England are symbolized not by the gathering of supplies for the journey but by training in swordplay, with a few people removing ramrods from gun barrels to indicate training in shooting. The Pilgrims are said to prepare for combat "in case the American Natives proved to be hostile." Only partly true, that's misleading. Defense against the Spanish and French in the New World is not mentioned. And these farmers and textile workers also needed to be able to hunt for food.
What else is left untold? Despite a clear introduction to English Reformation history, differentiating between Puritans and Separatists, the Pilgrims' church covenant, the foundation of their community, is not mentioned. Covenant theology formed the basis of the Pilgrims' congregational unity and democratic decision-making. Religion is captured when actors gaze heavenward and assent, "Amen." Scrooby church and Babworth church are not shown. The Pilgrims' first pastor, Babworth's Richard Clyfton, is not mentioned. John Robinson is inaccurately identified as the Separatists' pastor in Scrooby. When confronted with diversity in Leiden, Robinson came to support cautious toleration of religious disagreement. We don't hear this. Gainsborough Old Hall, where Robinson's colleague John Smyth preached, is omitted. The film ignores other Separatists gathering in Sandwich, London, and East Anglia. Some of them joined the Pilgrims in Leiden. The Pilgrims' experience of theocratic oppression in England led them to emphasize the separation of church and state in their colony. The Pilgrims' religious beliefs inspired them to see the Indians as equal creatures of God who were to be treated fairly in their courts, which intended to administer English law impartially. The colony's leaders established rules and treaties to prevent theft from the Indians and theft by the Indians. It's a film, not a history book. Not everything can be included. Yet what's omitted is the untold story.
The scenery is beautiful. Are we just quibbling? Does any of this rise to the level of serious misrepresentation? Three deliberate falsifications do. The interpretation of what Bradford (writing more than a decade later) termed the "discontented and mutinous speeches" that led to the "Mayflower Compact," is incredibly tendentious. No historical basis supports the choice to inflate Bradford's words into shouting matches erupting into mutiny with knives drawn, nor the pretense that anyone claimed that the election of a leader among the Pilgrims "is not based on law and will not stand on land." The film-maker made that up. Speeches do not equate with an armed uprising. In this film, however, nothing momentous happens without shouting. Winslow's version, written within the colony's first year and admittedly intended as favorable publicity for the colony, is calmer: "observing some not well affected to unity and concord, but gave some appearance of faction, it was thought good there should be an association and agreement that we should combine together in one body, and to submit to such government and governors as we should by common consent agree to make and choose, and set our hands to this that follows" (the text now known as the "Mayflower Compact"). The film's assertion that the "Mayflower Compact" was "really only supposed to be a temporary expedient to hold their company together until they got proper legal support," is contradicted by the court records of Plymouth Colony. Whenever the colony court reviewed and re-issued its laws, the governor and assistants consistently began by naming the "Mayflower Compact" as the foundation of their laws, and all subsequent charters as augmentations of the Compact.
Secondly, the film generalizes inappropriately from the two times (George Weymouth in 1605; Thomas Hunt about ten years later) when English explorers kidnapped Indians to take them back to Europe and falsely claims that this was a common occurrence "up and down the coast." In fact, those two captains were vehemently condemned by other Englishmen, including Bradford and Winslow, who did not want to offend potential trading partners among the Indians.
Finally, fake conversations are added to Winslow's reports to twist his denial that the Pilgrims robbed graves into an assertion that they did. This claim is reiterated. The film lies outright, in asserting that the Pilgrims robbed Indian graves as a matter of course. On the contrary, when they realized what mounds were Indian graves, they ceased digging in them and did not disturb bodies. Still discovering that such mounds could be burials, Pilgrims did retain a few trinkets from the grave of a European sailor they had opened, but they reburied him with due respect. They chose to avoid entering and desecrating an Indian cemetery. Winslow wrote, "Within it was full of graves, ... yet we digged none of them up , but only viewed them and went our way." Winslow reported that, exploring a mound for the first time, the Pilgrims dug and found a bow and some broken arrows, "but because we deemed them graves, we put in the bow again and made it up as it was, and left the rest untouched, because we thought it would be odious unto them to ransack their sepulchres." As Richard J. Evans writes in "Postmodernism and History," falsifying documents can involve "not just leaving words out from quotes but even putting extra words in to change the meaning." In the film, curious Pilgrims dig a mound. One remarks, "Looks for all the world as a grave." Winslow responds, "Dost thou not think the savages will find it odious of us to ransack their sepulchres?" Another retorts, "The savages are not here!" Glancing around to check, Winslow says, "I hope not." The film cuts to advertisements, leaving us with an image of crude, insensitive grave-robbing marrauders. After the long interruption, the narrator recapitulates, telling us that "The Pilgrims have found an unusual earthen mound in an empty Indian village. Despite concerns that it is a grave, they dig." The actors discover a buried supply of corn. An expert says, "Some of them find corn, and in other mounds they find graves. And instead of just covering them up and walking away very quickly, some of them actually take to looting the graves." This deliberate contradiction of the documentary evidence discredits the only historical record there is about the Pilgrims' attitude of respect towards Native burial customs.
"Desperate Crossing" is tendentious entertainment. So what is its untold story? With this film, the History Channel reveals to us that the fractious, bumbling, ignorant, rude but picturesquely pious Pilgrims were taught how to get along wisely with the world around them, by their noble Native neighbors who represent a superior and more humane society that the newcomers would inevitably destroy. As a Native representative laments, "The life that we have even today is not the life that we would have made for ourselves. And that life is our God-given right, but we have not been able to get back to it yet." Although the Pilgrims had lived and worked peacefully with the Dutch for a dozen years, and tried to appease King James by promising all obedience their consciences allowed, a final authoritative voice instructs us that "it was the Indians who made [the Pilgrims] realize that the great work of living is living with others. That is the true importance of the Pilgrim story."
Getting back to the film — the pictures are simply so pretty, the actors so convincing, the story so nearly familiar. Does it seem churlish to wish that the story had been more complex, more accurate — less a fraudulent piece of propaganda about cultural sensitivity?
An essential anachronism is ignored. The writings of the seventeenth-century are there to be analyzed. The Pilgrims' words constitute a view of reality from the time of the events, whatever their polemical intent. Native views, on the other hand, are what people have invented in the last thirty-five years or so, in an attempt to imagine what their ancestors should have thought or would have done. People have been making it up. No traditional memory goes back unaltered to the seventeenth century. Instead, twentieth-century recollections refer to what has been passed down recently — perhaps stories told by grandparents or their contemporaries. The people who provided such oral history in the twentieth century were themselves representatives of a tribe that has a longer tradition of literacy than any other in North America, a tribe whose complex interactions with non-Native society are as far away from isolation as can be. The "memories" were inspired by their own or their elder relatives reading and reacting not only to the very colonists' writings they oppose but also to twentieth-century polemics. Representatives of ethnic identity tell about the encounter with colonists the way they'd like it to have been described if there had been any alternative record. A major source of such speculative invention is the Wampanoag Indigenous Program of Plimoth Plantation. The film presents that institution's view of historical events based on imaginary long-standing aggrieved memory as an equally valid corrective to the self-serving narratives of the Pilgrims. Instead of discussion and analysis of evidence, we see its mangling to conform with modern sentiment.