2020: a four nation commemoration

2020 marks the 400th anniversary of the sailing of the Mayflower, a ship that transported a group of English separatists known as the ‘Pilgrims’. Before the Pilgrims set sail to America and founded Plymouth Colony in 1620, they spent twelve years living, working and praying in Leiden, free from religious persecution by the English crown.

Leiden 1609-1620

Their arrival in Leiden in 1609 was no coincidence, as the city advocated itself as an open society and was relatively tolerant for its time. Leiden welcomed religious refugees and invited academics from abroad to the newly founded university. In these years, Clusius grew the first tulips in Leiden’s Hortus botanical garden and a young Rembrandt attended the Latin school. Some of the Pilgrims were active in public life: John Robinson took part in the famous Arminian debates and William Brewster taught English to Dutch Leiden University students. However, life in Leiden was hard for the Pilgrims, socially as well as economically. When freedom of press and public debate got more restrained in the Dutch Republic, the Separatists began making plans to leave for America.

They arrived at Cape Cod in November 1620, where they first encountered the indigenous people of North America who had been living there for thousands of years.

Arrival at Cape Cod

They arrived at Cape Cod in November 1620, where they first encountered the indigenous people of North America who had been living there for thousands of years. After signing the Mayflower Compact on board of the ship and exploring the coast, they continued on to Patuxet (Plymouth) to establish Plymouth Colony. Thanks to the help of the indigenous people, they ultimately managed to build a thriving colony. Because of the ‘success’ of this land annexation, hundreds of European colonists would follow in the subsequent decades. The impact colonialization had on Native American people was enormous. Either through disease, war, or cultural and religious assimilation, Native American people suffered as they attempted to work through the new realities of living on a colonised land. Today, Native communities across America, including the Wampanoag, continue to claim their heritage and practice their traditions.

US culture

The story of the Mayflower has a famous place in American history as a symbol of Early European colonisation of the future United States. It is estimated that today, some 25 million Americans are descendants of the Pilgrims and nine US presidents had ancestors who travelled across on the Mayflower, including Barack Obama. Some aspects of US culture can be traced back to the Pilgrims’ time in Leiden. Civil marriage for example, a Dutch legal ‘innovation’, lies at the very basis of the separation between church and state. And it is said that the 3rd of October (Relief of Leiden) celebrations were an inspiration for the Thanksgiving celebration.

It is said that the 3rd of October (Relief of Leiden) celebrations were an inspiration for the Thanksgiving celebration.

Day of mourning

Since 1970 the Native Americans of New England organise The National Day of Mourning on the fourth Thursday of November, the same day as Thanksgiving in the United States. The organizers consider the national holiday of Thanksgiving Day as a reminder of the oppression and continued suffering of the Native American people. Participants in the National Day of Mourning honour Native ancestors and the struggles of Native people to survive today.