Close ties and early connections
The history of the Pilgrim Fathers is closely connected with the city of Rotterdam. Indeed, the origin of the name Pilgrim Fathers lies in Delfshaven. It was there that on 22 July 1620, a group of English Puritan Calvinists led by Rev John Robinson set sail for the New World from the Middenkouskade, aboard the less than seaworthy ‘Speedwell’. They had a mission: building a new society, modelled on the Puritan Protestant principles. After a stop in Southampton, where they transferred to the ‘Mayflower’, the Pilgrim Fathers reached Cape Cod in Massachusetts in November. There, these devout and persistent individuals transformed into the ideological founding fathers of the United States.
At the beginning of the seventeenth century, a group of Calvinists from Nottinghamshire severed its ties with the Anglican Church. In order to avoid persecution, this community sought refuge in the relatively liberal Republic of the Seven United Netherlands in 1608. In those days, the Republic was a safe haven for all sorts of people who were persecuted in their own country because of their beliefs. Apart from free-thinkers, people with strict religious views, such as the English pilgrims, were also drawn to this tolerant climate.
At first, the pilgrims alighted on Amsterdam, where many English refugees had already settled, only to move on to the more tranquil town of Leiden. They were allowed to practise their faith in freedom under Rev Robinson, who had a small group of tiny houses built behind the Pieterskerk (St Peter's Church) and offered services at his home. Even so, the community did not feel at ease. The second generation quickly assimilated within their Dutch surroundings, much to the annoyance of their parents. The children spoke the language, socialized with their Dutch friends, ended up having Dutch partners or opted for sinful but better paid professions such as soldier or merchant. Moreover, the economic situation of many pilgrims was characterized by hardship. Therefore, after long deliberation, it was decided in 1617 to emigrate to North America in order to start a new life there in freedom. Three years later, the first group went to Delfshaven, where the ship ‘Speedwell’ they had bought from the English Merchant Adventurers Company was anchored.
On 21 July 1620, after one last joint meal and service in the house of Rev Robinson, the hour of departure from Leiden arrived. That day, 16 men, 11 women and 19 children who were allowed to make the crossing made their way to Delfshaven. On foot, on horseback and by carriage, carrying their possessions, accompanied by the many who stayed behind and the curious.
At the time, Rotterdam had already been a city for three hundred odd years. During the Dutch years of the Pilgrims, the city on the river Maas had seen a massive expansion. The population increased sharply, trade grew and for that reason a number of new docks were built. From 1613 on, the city council began laying the basis for the current Leuvehaven, Wijnhaven and Scheepmakershaven and most of the yards were assigned to shipbuilders. The name of the current Scheepmakershaven (literally, Shipbuilders docks) therefore did not exactly come out of the blue. The name Wijnhaven was not chosen randomly either: at the time the Pilgrims ventured to cross the Atlantic, the wine trade was an important source of income for Rotterdam. Two rows of lime trees were planted on the quay between the new docks and the Maas. This is how the quay in Rotterdam that is still the best known came about: the Boompjes (“Little Trees”).
Delfshaven was particularly renowned for herring fishing and later also for whaling, but it proved to be a suitable port for the pilgrims too. When they arrived at the designated place, they found the ship and everything ready, according to pilgrim William Bradford, whose diary about the adventures of the intrepid band of travellers was published in as early as 1632. Bradford did not leave the Netherlands for America together with his brothers and sisters, he followed them later and he would eventually become a governor there. In this diary, he called the emigrants in Delfshaven ‘Pilgrims’ for the first time: their eyes averted from the world, their hopes pinned on heaven. ‘Fathers’, a term also coined by Bradford, was added to that later.
Towards the New World
The Pilgrim Fathers spent the night in Delfshaven praying in front of the church. That night, little time was given to sleeping, but for the most part it was spent in friendly Christian conversation among many manifestations of true Christian love. The next morning the Pilgrim Fathers set off. Throngs had gathered at the quayside to send off the Fathers and wave goodbye, according to Bradford:
When the time had come that they had to depart, they were escorted by most of their brethren to a place a few miles thence, named Delfshaven, where the ship was ready to take them in. [..] Their friends accompanied them up to the ship. The sight of such a sad parting was truly deeply affecting. [..] The Dutch people, standing at the landing place as spectators, could not stop their tears either and remembered such a moving scene for a long time.’
The residents of Delfshaven witnessed an event that they would not forget quickly. Reverend Robinson knelt in front of the Old Church – which today is known as the Pilgrim Fathers Church – and led the prayers. After an emotional goodbye, the ‘Speedwell’ weighed anchor and set a course along the green banks until the ship passed the tower of Den Briel and the sandbanks in the mouth of the river, headed out for the open sea and the Dutch coast receded from view.
With dozens of pilgrims on board, the ‘Speedwell’ arrived in Southampton days later. From there, the pilgrims would cross the Atlantic Ocean together with the ‘Mayflower’. However, the ‘Speedwell’ was soon found to be taking on serious amounts of water. The passengers had to transfer to the ‘Mayflower’, which sailed on alone, and after a stormy journey of more than sixty days reached the bay of Cape Cod (Massachusetts). The journey that started in Delfshaven ended with the establishment of the famous Plymouth Colony. Although the colony of pilgrims only existed for just over seventy years, it played an important part in American history. The tradition of Thanksgiving has its origin in the Plymouth Colony and various American presidents – including Roosevelt, Bush Senior and Junior as well as Obama – are able to trace their ancestors to the Pilgrim Fathers. In the Capitol – one of the most important government buildings of the United States – the painting called the ‘Embarkation of the Pilgrims’ recalls the departure of the Pilgrim Fathers from Delfshaven.
The Old Church or the Pilgrim Fathers Church can be found at the Voorhaven in Delfshaven. A window with stained glass, depicting the difficult crossing, shows the historic moment at which the Pilgrim Fathers set off. In addition to the impressive window, there is a bronze plaque of the Boston Congregational Club from 1906, praising the hospitality extended by the church towards the pioneers.
Conversely, there are now numerous government buildings and church communities in the United States that can display relics from the Pilgrim Fathers Church. In 1866, the church authorities received a request for a commemorative plaque from Delfshaven, which could then be immured in the church in Chicago. This municipality’s population consisted of descendants from the Pilgrim Fathers and they thought it was a lovely idea to visualize the ties with Delfshaven. The Delfshaven authorities honoured the request by sending a small tombstone from 1595. As a token of appreciation, they received a stone of the type that had been in building the church in Chicago. Later, one of the descendants from Plymouth handed the Pilgrim Fathers Church a plaque commemorating the fact that the Pilgrim Fathers left Delfshaven 350 years ago. The plaque is on display in the 'Pilgrim Fathers Memorial’ and together with a number of other religious artefacts, it bears testimony to the special link between Delfshaven and the Pilgrim Fathers.
This article was written by Evy van Ast, associated with the “Historisch Onderzoeksbureau Stad en Bedrijf” (Historical Research Bureau City and Company), commissioned by Rotterdam Partners.