Of Plymouth Plantation | Study Guide

William Bradford

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Of Plymouth Plantation | Book 1, Chapters 3–4 | Summary

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Summary

Book 1, Chapter 3

Upon first arriving in the Netherlands in 1609, the Separatists saw many "fortified cities" and heard a strange language. They settled in Amsterdam under the leadership of John Robinson and William Brewster and remained there for about a year. Starting from abject poverty, they provided for themselves as best as they could. To avoid quarrels with other English Protestants in Amsterdam, however, they left the city after about a year and moved to Leyden, where they eventually established a "competent and comfortable" standard of living for their congregation. Bradford praises the community for their spirit of solidarity and fellowship, which he says was also admired by the Separatists' Dutch neighbors. He denies what in his view are the slanderous rumors that the Separatists were kicked out of the Netherlands when they set sail for North America. Instead, he says, the Dutch regarded them as model citizens.

Book 1, Chapter 4

After the Separatists spent 11 or 12 years in Leyden, Bradford claims four main reasons persuaded them to leave Europe altogether and found a colony in the New World.

  • The ongoing hardship they faced in the Netherlands deterred others from joining the congregation.
  • The great strain of this harsh way of life caused older members of the group to die prematurely.
  • The congregation's younger members also suffered and were worn out and "decrepit" before their prime—or left the congregation to seek their own fortunes.
  • Some Separatists at Leyden wanted to spread the Gospel to "the remote parts of the world," which from their point of view included America.

There were, of course, some arguments against going. For one thing, some congregants thought the journey would be too dangerous, and the change of climate would weaken or kill off those who survived it. Others cited the dangers posed by North American "savages," about whom they had heard many tales of violence and cruelty. Money for the trip was another consideration, as was the uncertainty of how the travelers would provide for themselves in an unfamiliar and "uncivilized" land. Despite these objections, most of the congregation decided to take the risk and began making plans for a transatlantic voyage.

Analysis

Bradford describes the desire for religious freedom as a major reason for the congregation's move to the Netherlands. The specific part of the Netherlands to which they relocated was known as the United Provinces, in contrast to the Spanish Netherlands to the southwest. By the standards of early 17th-century Europe, the United Provinces were indeed relatively tolerant of religious diversity. The Dutch Reformed Church, theologically and devotionally close to the religion of the English Separatists, enjoyed a privileged status throughout the Provinces. It was not, however, a state religion in the same sense as Anglicanism was in England. The only religion openly persecuted in such cities as Amsterdam and Leyden was Roman Catholicism, whose practitioners faced fines and other official sanctions. This intolerance was hardly a deal-breaker for the English Separatists, who regarded the pope as the Antichrist.

In other ways, however, the Separatists struggled in the Netherlands. One reason was the language barrier, which the English refugees made a strong effort to overcome. Another reason was the mismatch between the skills and experiences of the Separatists and the economic needs of the cities in which they settled. The Separatists were mainly farmers from central and northern England. However, Amsterdam and Leyden thrived on trade and manufacturing. In fact, the United Provinces were, throughout their existence, among the most heavily urbanized nation in early modern Europe. Knowledge of the Dutch language proved beneficial much later, when the Separatists—now the New Plymouth colonists—brokered trade relations with their neighbors from the United Provinces.

The Pilgrims' ideas about the Native Americans may seem shockingly crude and stereotypical. Their worries of "savages" who delight in torturing their captives do little justice to the huge range of cultures found on the North American continent prior to European colonization. Readers should remember, though, that the Pilgrims had little information—and no firsthand experience—on which to base their opinions. Among their sources were the reports coming out of Jamestown, the first English settlement in the New World. There, relations with Native Americans had deteriorated to the brink of open war, as the English encroached on the lands of the Powhatan Confederacy. Such reports predictably emphasized the raids by Powhatan warriors, but not the English seizure of food, land, and trade goods. The 1610 account entitled A True Declaration of the State of the Colony of Virginia is typical in this respect: it describes Powhatan as a "greedy vulture" who "cruelly murdered and massacred" the English during the so-called "Starving Time" of 1609–10.
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