Making Haste from Babylon
Simon Middleton on a history of the Pilgrims in their wider context
Reviewed by: Simon Middleton
Author: Nick Bunker
Publisher: Bodley Head
Price (RRP): £25
Making Haste from Bablyon is essential reading for those who think they know the story of the Pilgrims. It will be pure pleasure for those who are new to the subject.
The godly (mostly) and determined men and women who settled New England in the early 17th century have been elusive subjects. American scholars have tended to study the Pilgrims after they arrived, fitting them with sentimental and mythological roles as founders of the United States.
English historians have considered the Pilgrims, and the larger Puritan migration and colonial expansion they presaged, as a distraction from the Tudor and Stuart dynastic dramas, Civil Wars, regicide, and Restoration – the main business of 16th- and 17th-century English history.
Addressing American and English audiences, Nick Bunker’s moving and evocative narrative traces the Pilgrims from their Jacobean origins to their New World terminus. The book is in six parts, the final two addressing the Pilgrims’ voyage and early experiences with Native Americans in what became New England.
In the early sections readers are treated to a tour of the sights, sounds, and controversies of Shakespeare’s England. We are also introduced to some of the epic cast of characters recovered by Bunker, who inspired, facilitated, and peopled the migration.
There is ‘troublechurch Brown’ whose 50-year career of religious dissent finally ended in 1633 in a Northampton jail; Thomas Weston, a smuggler and sometime gun runner, who got into the colony business following a decline in the woollen trade; and, of course, the separatists including John Robinson, William Brewster, and William Bradford.
These latter figures sit at the centre of the story – devout Protestants who came to believe that their salvation lay in separation from, rather than reform within, the English church. This was not a decision taken lightly, but arrived at after long and anxious reflection on the course of the reformation at home and abroad, and the condition of England and its morals in the half century since Henry VIII’s break with Rome.
All this and more Bunker relates with enviable concision and verve. He guides the reader through early modern landscapes, from the wetlands of the Trent, where separatism took hold, to Stallingborough Flats where in 1609 an ebb tide carried the dissenters to Leiden in search of religious freedom.
His skill at encapsulating arcane and complex events and processes (the beginnings of puritanism, the diplomacy of the Dutch revolt, disputes within Calvinism, and the development of colonial commerce and idealism) makes for a compelling story.
Thus the struggles between hardline and liberal (Arminian) Calvinists transformed Leiden into a Dutch Belfast, divided physically as well as by creed and class. Or addressing the lure of the North American fur trade, we explore Europe’s insatiable appetite for beaver hats – so versatile and sensuous, chic and visibly expensive that they were the Jacobean equivalent of Coco Chanel’s tweed suit.
It is difficult to do justice to the book in a short review. Suffice to say, specialists will marvel at the research, revealing long-forgotten family papers to the most recent academic articles. And nonspecialists will enjoy a well-told tale of one of the great early modern adventure stories.
Dr Simon Middleton is senior lecturer in history, University of Sheffield