May 7, 2007

Moving to Nantucket Island in 1986, Philbrick wrote a series of books about his new home. In his most recent book, Mayflower, Philbrick has mostly turned from the sea to the land.

Nathaniel Philbrick's father was a professor of English, and Philbrick might have become one, too, but, after observing his dad's career, he decided against it. So, after finishing an MA in English at Duke, Nathaniel Philbrick became a magazine journalist specializing in sailing. Moving to Nantucket Island in 1986, Philbrick wrote a series of books about his new home. These culminated in 2000 with In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex, which won the National Book Award.

The whaling ship Essex, under the command of George Pollard, Jr., is the ship used as the model for the Pequod in Melville's Moby Dick and, more recently, by Sena Jeter Naslund in Ahab's Wife. Why? Because the Essex is one of the only ships ever attacked by a whale, in this case a bull whale, who may have thought the ship was another bull whale and therefore a courting rival. Also, the men in the lifeboats of the Essex, starving to death, turned to cannibalism for survival. Apparently it was not all that rare. In fact, the Quaker leaders on Nantucket quietly acknowledged that in survival circumstances, cannibalism was permissible. It remains, however, as Philbrick quotes one scholar on the subject, "a cultural embarrassment."

Cannibalism among Nantucketers, interrelated families on a small island, offered special problems. Captain Pollard's first cousin Owen Coffin was one of those consumed in the whaleboat, making Captain Pollard guilty of something we might call "culinary incest."

Believe it or not, Captain Pollard went back to sea and, unlucky fellow that he was, lost his second command on a coral reef. He then became the town's nightwatchman. He was a good man, and just as Marie Antoinette did not say "Let them eat cake," Pollard almost certainly did not say, when asked by an innocent stranger if he had known Owen Coffin: "Know him??Why, I et him!"

What Sebastian Junger did for drowning in The Perfect Storm Philbrick has done for dying of thirst and hunger. If you get a choice, drown. Dying of thirst and hunger is long, really painful, and ugly.

In Mayflower, a beautifully written narrative history, Philbrick has mostly turned from the sea to the land. Not entirely, since the first forty-seven pages get the Pilgrims from England to Massachusetts, landing in December 1620. The voyage was horrible, but almost all aboard made the trip alive.

This would change. In the next four months, 52 of the 102 Pilgrims at Plymouth would be dead.

We think we know a lot about the Plymouth Colony, but, as is often the case, we are deceived. There was a Thanksgiving, but the Pilgrims thought of it as a traditional English village harvest festival. The Pilgrims were credited with inviting the Indians, but the Indians brought five deer with them. Good thing, too, as there were more than 100 Indians. At that moment in New England, food was seasonally plentiful. There were waterfowl, turkeys, loads of fish, and lobsters, but no pumpkin pie or cranberry sauce.

We also learn that the Pilgrims arrived in Cape Cod Bay on a Saturday, rested on the Sabbath, and then went ashore to do the washing on Monday. Monday has been washday in New England ever since.

The most startling revelation of this book for me was that when the Pilgrims arrived at Plymouth they found cleared fields but no people. On the ground were the whitened bones of the dead natives. Almost 90% of the Native Americans had died within the previous three years of disease surely brought by European fishermen in Maine. The Pilgrims thought, wrongly, that North America was empty, belonged to no one, and was theirs for the taking. Metaphysical illusions like "Manifest Destiny" would elaborate on this error.

But then, the Pilgrims thought everything was God's will. If they found stored Indian corn, they stole it. If they came upon an Indian grave, they looted it. It was meant to be.

Nevertheless, a relative peace endured between Pilgrim and Native for about fifty years, exploding then into King Philip's War?Philip being the son of Massasoit, the Wampanoag leader who had greeted the Pilgrims in 1621. This war was, alas, like most, probably avoidable. The Pilgrims were buying and taking over land, true, and tensions were rising, but as the situation grew worse, poor Pilgrim leadership refused to acknowledge that some New England Indians were neutral and some were even allies. They would not negotiate.

The Pilgrims, Philbrick writes, mistakenly "assum[ed] the conflict was a racial rather than a political struggle," and a severe ethnic cleansing took place. The percentage of Native Americans in the general population went from thirty percent before the war to less than fifteen. One thousand Indians were captured and sold into slavery. By percentage of population killed, the fourteen-month King Philip's War was twice as lethal as the Civil War and seven times bloodier than the American Revolution.

On the other hand, the fifty Pilgrims who survived the first winter were remarkably "fruitful." There are in American now 35 million descendants of the Mayflower passengers, more than ten percent of the American population.