Reviewed by: Charles Miller
It was fitting that the 2023 Transatlantic Studies Association should choose Plymouth, that historical gateway to the Atlantic, for its conference venue. And it felt right that its opening panel on ‘Transatlantic Memorialisation and Heritage’ should be dominated by discussion of the 2020 commemoration of the 400th anniversary of the sailing of the Mayflower from the city. Two of the four panellists, Kathryn Gray from the University of Plymouth and Jo Loosemore, a BBC radio producer, were the academic leaders of this commemoration.
While transatlanticism by definition implies a multinational perspective, there is an appetite today to go the extra nautical mile to be inclusive. So these anniversary events involved not just Plymouth but also Leiden in the Netherlands, where some of the Mayflower’s passengers had been living to escape persecution in England and Cape Cod, to which the Mayflower sailed. And crucially, for the first time Jo emphasised, there were original contributions from representatives of the Wampanoag nation, whose ancestors met and helped the Mayflower settlers, saving them from starvation.
Kathryn said that in planning the celebration, they had worked to turn these separate elements into ‘a single story […] a narrative that everyone felt involved with’. It was an ambitious goal locally because, as Jo remembered with a wry smile, the only artefacts Plymouth council could offer them for their exhibition were those specially created for celebrations of the Mayflower’s previous anniversaries, including, unhelpfully, a collection of mugs, plates, beer mats, and tea towels from the 350th anniversary in 1970. The reason why there was not more ‘stuff’, as Jo described it, was because the city only first commemorated the Mayflower’s sailing in 1873, with the building of the Guildhall.
Jo and Kathryn’s years of intense working together made for an easy, flowing presentation between them, almost a double act, although not formally presented as such. But their contributions were only half of this panel’s wide-ranging exploration of how transatlantic events are remembered. The other two panellists each had different subjects which, whether through accident or design, complemented aspects of the Mayflower discussion in interesting ways.
Sam Edwards of Loughborough University talked about ‘Memory Diplomacy and Transatlantic Relations’. And no, there is not a missing comma in the title: memory diplomacy, he explained, is the use of commemorating historical events for diplomatic purposes, or at least, with diplomatic implications. Sam’s interest was in how unofficial actors, ‘veterans, vicars, and villains’ as he put it, contributed to memorialisation alongside official state events or, as with the Mayflower, events backed by local officials or politicians. Studying the commemoration of the two world wars, for instance, he noted how church and women’s groups decided to create their own events, quite independent of any official involvement. A recent paper of Sam’s investigates connections between the tricentennial of the Mayflower’s voyage and Anglo-American relations after the First World War by looking at the creation of a monument near Hull in 1925, on the site from which the Mayflower supposedly sailed for Holland. This enterprise, by the Anglo-American Society of Hull, had all the characteristics discussed in the panel, being an opportunity for locals, led by a wealthy fruit trader, to draw attention to their area, nationally and internationally, whilst negotiating the politics of the day, particularly in this case, around Anglo-American naval tensions.
The final member of the panel, Dan Maudlin of the University of Plymouth, teaches an MA course in Heritage. He began with a brave confession to make at the opening of a Transatlantic Studies Association conference: there was no mention of ‘transatlantic’ in his course. But that was not the end of the story. Dan studies the built environment and, ahead of the conference, had conducted a quick survey of listed buildings in Plymouth. He found that 60 out of 100 were involved in transatlantic business. In fact, he concluded, transatlanticism ‘completely suffused’ the city’s historic buildings. Making another connection with the Mayflower celebrations and its instigators’ interest in how the sailing had been commemorated on previous anniversaries, he emphasised that ‘heritage is not history’, later defining it simply as ‘applied history’. The study of how memorialisation changes over the years emerged as a common theme between all four panellists.
Questions from the audience led to further details about Jo and Kathryn’s work on the Mayflower anniversary. Jo explained that a focus of the council’s interest was its ambition to attract half a million visitors to Plymouth. The timing could hardly have been worse: the COVID-19 pandemic scuppered the council’s hopeful vision of a city teeming with American tourists. Jo remembered ruefully, ‘500,000 people did not come to Plymouth in 2020’. The two were admirably frank about more basic problems they were up against: Kathryn admitted that Plymouth actually ‘had very little to do with’ the Mayflower and Jo talked about the lack of information at the heart of their project, referring to the Mayflower ‘about which we know zilch’.
The highlight of their work was their dealings with representatives from Native American communities. The Arts Council commissioned scholars and artists from the Wampanoag nation to create a new wampum belt, made from beads carved from small shells and historically used as a memory aid or to mark diplomatic occasions. This new example of a traditional and intricate work of spiritual significance arrived in Britain in August 2020 and was exhibited in a touring exhibition as part of the Mayflower anniversary commemoration.
After the panel – and outside the attractive, modern Plymouth University venue where it was held – it was hard not to regret the absence of those tourist dollars to contribute to the prosperity of the city. It had an inescapably down-at-heel atmosphere, especially on a rainy day. The trees which the local council had cut down, to the consternation of locals and, thanks to national media coverage, much of the rest of the country, were still stuck in the middle of the main shopping street, piled up like casualties of a battle. ‘Mayflower Street’ led down to the ubiquitous, grungy multi-storey car park, contrasting sadly with the glossy picture on its wall of a sun-soaked Plymouth being promoted as ‘Britain’s Ocean City’.
The clear message of the panel had been that the memorialisation of historical events was changeable and transitory, telling us more about the time when the event is remembered than the event itself. How will the 450th or 500th anniversaries of the Mayflower be celebrated? Let’s hope Plymouth earns a little more from it next time. Whatever happens, it will no doubt make good material for another Transatlantic Studies Association discussion.
 S. Edwards, ‘Towards a local history of interwar Anglo-American relations: Commemorating the Pilgrim Fathers on the Humber, c.1918-1925’, Britain and the World, 15:2 (2022), pp.142-167.