Founding fathers

<strong>Mayflower: a voyage to war</strong>

Nathaniel Philbrick <em>HarperCollins, 480pp, £20</em>

In its barest form, the myth of the Pilgrim Fathers goes like this: 102 pilgrims left Europe in 1620 and landed at Plymouth Rock. They wrote the Mayflower Compact, made lasting peace with the natives, and rounded it all off with turkey at the first Thanksgiving celebrations.

As the title of Nathaniel Philbrick's book suggests, the myth has tacked wildly off course. The rot set in 50 years after the pilgrims landed, with "one of the deadliest wars in American history": King Philip's war, provoked by "years of reckless greed, opportunism, and ineptitude" from the settlers.

Philbrick eloquently tackles the contradictions of the settlers' behaviour - why, when their survival had depended on their relationship with the indigenous Americans, did the Seaflower leave New England in 1676 with 180 native slaves in its hold? And why were the pilgrims' values so swiftly corroded by racism, fear and superiority? Mayflower is an excellently researched attempt to answer these questions. By debunking national myths (there is no evidence of a Plymouth Rock) and drawing on the settlers' contemporary accounts, Philbrick offers a sober corrective to the glorified version of an inglorious history.

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