On September 16, 1620, the Mayflower and her consort ship the Speedwell sailed forth from Plymouth Harbor toward the New World. Of course that destination was a new world only to Europeans; there were people living there for whom it was simply their world. And that world was already changing in profound and catastrophic ways.
This reality is reflected in an art installation in Plymouth Harbor on the southwest coast of England that lights up on today’s 400th anniversary of that historic moment.
Created by local artist collective Still/Moving, the work was funded by Arts Council England and Plymouth Culture as part of the Mayflower 400 celebrations.
It is 63m long and 6m high, and the artists hope it provokes debate about climate change, the legacy of the journeys made by the Mayflower and its companion ship the Speedwell, and our relationship with history.
Artist Laura Hopes said: “The phrase ‘No New Worlds’ really speaks to two major themes. The idea that the settlers on board the Mayflower were sailing to what they thought was a ‘new world’ but it wasn’t a new world for those indigenous people already there. But also that idea that we only have one world and we need to take care of it.”
It is too much to hope that the strange, complex story of the Plymouth Colony can be both honored and explored with depth and honesty in a climate that hijacks history to deploy it as a weapon in 2020’s cultural and political civil war. Note the way in which The New York Times’ 1619 Project, which centers every aspect American history around the institution and experience of slavery, has become a flashpoint in the culture wars.
This commemoration, too, will no doubt become a battleground between those who see in the American story — in Western Civilization as a whole — only brutal, corrupt, patriarchal colonialism and those who cannot tolerate having their image of the shining city on the hill sullied by dirty realities. Ironically, this febrile ideological state is actually kind of appropriate…
It’s very 17th Century.