Last Updated on November 25, 2020 by Fiona Maclean
Delfshaven and the Mayflower Pilgrims departure for the New World:
In 1608 a group of religious Separatists who ultimately became known as the Mayflower Pilgrims escaped from England and made their way briefly to Amsterdam before the Mayflower Pilgrims settled for 11 years in Leiden. Here they enjoyed enough freedom to pursue their religious life as they chose, free from persecution of the English monarch. However, unhappy with the threat to their identity as a religious group as their children began to integrate into Dutch society, and afraid of the political ramifications of the ending of the Twelve Year Truce with Spain, as well as a number of socio-economic challenges, they decided to leave for the New World.
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The Mayflower Pilgrims leave Delfshaven:
A decision was taken to join the colony of Virginia and the Mayflower Pilgrims sought permission from King James 1. Once they obtained his consent, given on condition that they recognised the Crown ’s powers and the rule of the Church of England in the American colonies, they had to secure financial sponsorship for the voyage. They received financial investment from a London trading company, the London Merchant Adventurers. These investors would co-own with them half of all timber, land, livestock and trading commodities for a period of 7 years. The Merchant Adventurers was a trading company that had existed for centuries and traded mainly in English wool. They already had well-established courts – or staples – in other parts of Holland but were looking to move some of these to the Northern cities for political and economic reasons. Delft was their city of choice and they eventually succeeded in gaining permission in April 1621. In advance of this, they had sent some of their ships, including the small, 60-tonnes ship, the Speedwell, to Delfshaven, the port of Delft, which was already a major port for the East India Company. This is how the small town of Delfshaven came to be the starting point of the pilgrim voyage to the New World and took up its place in history.
Not all the pilgrims were able to travel to the New World together. The first group of pilgrims who had been chosen to make the voyage (16 men, 11 women and 19 children) were under the leadership of William Brewster. Their pastor, John Robinson, was due to travel on later with those who had stayed behind. However, he died in Leiden in 1625. The group travelled with their fellow pilgrims from Leiden to Delfshaven on a canal boat. There they spent a night praying and fasting outside the church now known as the Pilgrim Fathers’ Church. They listened to one last sermon by Reverend John Robinson who had been their pastor throughout their sojourn in Holland.
The following day, July 31 1620, they prayed with John Robinson who knelt in prayer asking for God’s blessing. This scene is captured in a painting, The Embarkation of the Pilgrims, that visitors to Washington will find in the rotunda in the U.S. Capitol. Then, witnessed by a crowd of onlookers, many moved to tears, they boarded a ship called the Speedwell and set sail for England where they were to meet up with others travelling on the Mayflower. William Bradford became the governor of the Plymouth Colony for over 30 years and chronicled the history of the settlement in his book entitled Of Plymouth Colony which records the first 30 years of the Plymouth Colony. He described the moving scenes when the Speedwell set sail from Delfshaven as follows:
‘Truly dolfull was the sight of that sade and mournfull parting: to see what sighs and sobs and praiers did sound amongst them, what tears did gush from every eye, and pithy speeches peirst each harte; that sundry of the Dutch strangers that stood on the key as spectators, could not refrain from tears.’
The Speedwell, with Captain Reynolds at the helm, docked a few days later in Southampton where the Mayflower waited with religious migrants and other immigrants on board. The two ships were to cross the Atlantic together but the Speedwell sprung leaks, docked in Plymouth for repairs and eventually remained behind while its pilgrim group crowded onto the Mayflower to complete the journey. The Speedwell was originally built in England in 1577 as a warship under the name Swiftsure. She was used in the battle against the Spanish Armada. In 1596 she was used on an exploration to the Azores. In 1605 she was decommissioned and her name was changed to Speedwell. While in Delfshaven she had a new mast fitted. By the time the pilgrims boarded the Speedwell, the ship was 43 years old. It is not clear why she became unseaworthy. Some commentators have suggested that the mast that was fitted was too big, causing holes in the hull, whereas others, like William Bradford, suggested that some of the crew might have been involved in creating leaks. Either way, she was eventually sold and continued to carry out sea voyages thereafter.
Delfshaven today – The Mayflower Pilgrims Heritage:
Delfshaven today is a suburb of Rotterdam, one of the most multi-cultural neighbourhoods in the Netherlands. Emerging from the metro station it is hard to imagine the Pilgrims arriving here to board the Speedwell which was to take them to the New World. A short walk, however, brings visitors to the historic streets and canals of Old Delfshaven and there one is immersed in the Pilgrim story. This area is nowadays protected and here one can well imagine the pilgrims walking along the cobbled streets.
The History of Delfshaven:
When the pilgrims arrived in Delfshaven in 1620 it was the port of the city of Delft. Delft was 12km away and being inland, did not have access to the river. Delft was a major exporter of beer and had to pay customs in Rotterdam to transport their goods. The merchants of Delft wanted their own canal so that they could have access to the river Maas or Meuse. In 1389 they applied to the Count of Holland, Count Albrecht, for permission to dig the canal from the river Schie to the Meuse. The point at which the canal joined the river became Delfshaven which was essentially a settlement of Delft. Delfshaven was only allowed two canals, two small docks because Delft feared it growing too important. Those in power in Delft were afraid Delfshaven would become too prosperous and that entrepreneurs in Delft might move their businesses to Delfshaven. As a result, a raft of regulations was imposed on the businesses of Delfshaven, causing many entrepreneurs to move to nearby Rotterdam which consequently grew in importance.
As the medieval town of Delfshaven began to develop in size and prosperity, it needed a church. In those days the country was Roman Catholic and in 1417 St Anthony’s chapel was erected in 9 months. As was customary the church was built in the shape of a cross and the building was oriented, meaning that the altar faced East. The country and the church remained Catholic until 1573 when the Reformation was taking place in Europe. When the Spaniards left Holland in 1573, they departed from Delfshaven after heavy fighting with the Dutch rebels. The Spaniards burnt the entire town of Delfshaven except for the church. The first official Reformed service was held in the church on 9 September 1574 and continues until today. By the time the pilgrims arrived here in 1620, the congregation was well established.
The Pilgrim Fathers’ Church:
The church, called the Old or Pilgrim Fathers’ Church, has been renovated several times over the centuries and in its current form dates back to the late 1750s when it was decided to raise the roof by 3.6m. This became essential for health and safety reasons. The original building was rather low and in winter was bitterly cold. Wealthier parishioners would bring small stoves with them to services. These were small wooden boxes fitted with earthenware pans. Burning coals were placed inside and the owners could keep their feet warm. However, the circulation of oxygen in the church was insufficient and people used to faint. The only solution was raising the roof.
It is thrilling to visit the Pilgrim Fathers’ Church, the Pelgrimvaderskerk in Dutch, which has stood on the Aelbrechtskolk for centuries. To get the best view of the church one must cross a small bridge over the canal to see the building with its clock tower. On the top of the steeple is a herring with a crown. The herring industry was so central to Delfshaven that they placed a herring on top of the church. The Delfshaven coat of arms includes a herring and three corn acres as the other industry that was central to Delfshaven was the distilling of Genever (the spirit which evolved into Gin). One of the main distillers was the Henkes family some of whose members were on the Church Council in the 1790s.
On a tour of the church, Rudi Ruigendijk – the Church visitor co-ordinator – presented a fascinating history of the Pilgrim Fathers’ Church. He posed an intriguing question. While it is accepted that the pilgrims spent the night on the steps of the church, is it not possible that they went inside the church itself? While acknowledging that there is no circumstantial evidence supporting their having entered the church, there are certain facts which suggest that it is very likely that they did. Firstly, not only the pilgrims were gathered outside the church that night. There were some 200 people gathered to bid them farewell. Delfshaven did not have accommodation to provide shelter for this number of people. The church could have provided a safe haven for the group and a place to rest the horses that had pulled the canal boat from Leiden to Delfshaven and were to return the following day. Another compelling fact is that Reverend John Robinson had friends in Delfshaven who had studied with him.
Much as one might assume that the pilgrims took refuge in the church or held a farewell service there, there is no recorded evidence. Whether or not the pilgrims did, in fact, enter the church and not only prayed outside on the steps, it is thrilling to visit the Pilgrim Fathers’ Church and explore the interior.
The church has a splendid set of stained glass windows in the choir which relate the story of the first six days of Creation. They were installed in 1916 and were made by Paulus Blom. Each day is represented within a medallion shape. A further two medallions by Paulus Blom are located in the transepts. In the window of the northern transept, there is a representation of the Speedwell while in the window of the southern transept there is a depiction of the seal of the Reformed congregation.
The church has a number of items sent from congregations in the US which illustrate the importance that the Pilgrim Fathers’ Church has for communities in America. One of these is a memory plate from Plymouth, USA, unveiled in 1970 in commemoration of the pilgrims having left Delfshaven 350 years before. A stone from Chicago tells a further story about the link between the Pilgrim Fathers Church and America. In 1866 the church authorities were asked to send a stone from the Pilgrim Fathers’ Church to a church that was being built in Chicago. A small gravestone dating from 1593 was sent and was set into the front of the Chicago church which opened in 1867. In exchange, the Chicago church sent a commemoration stone to Delfshaven from the same material that had been used to build the new church. The Pilgrim Fathers Church receives large numbers of American visitors, many like President Bush who visited the church, retracing the steps of their ancestors.
In a glass case, we found a model of the Mayflower. There is also a model of the Speedwell. It is clearly not a large ship. Our guide, Rudi Ruigendijk, commented that he would not cross the river in it never mind the Atlantic ocean. He said ‘anybody who has spent two days in a naval college will tell you that to go on the 9th September out of England on a sailing vessel to cross the Atlantic Ocean, facing the north-westerly Passat, is not a good idea’. Why did they not postpone the voyage? They were afraid that King James l would rescind on his promise to allow them to leave England.
Politics and the Mayflower Pilgrim Exhibition, Delfshaven:
Of great interest to those following the Mayflower trail, is a small pilgrim exhibition housed in the Eben-Haëzer building alongside the church. The exhibition was opened in 2009 by the US Ambassador to the Netherlands. Visitors can watch the ‘Pilgrim Presentation’, a 10 minute video presentation (in Dutch or English) on the history of the Mayflower pilgrims and take time to study a number of display cases which contain reproductions of prints and paintings, pictures and documents as well as some objects illustrating the story of the Mayflower pilgrims.
In the Netherlands today, as in many countries, there is debate and discussion about colonial history and identity politics. The story of the Mayflower pilgrims setting off to seek religious freedom in another country can be considered as part of a greater migration that was part of the colonial expansion of the time. Delfshaven itself is a strongly multicultural area and there are likely to be a range of ways of considering and analysing the historical period in which the Mayflower pilgrims lived and migrated. While Delfshaven may be for some a symbol of the pilgrims who sought freedom a better life abroad, the neighbourhood is now also home to a large number of people who have left their countries to find a better life in Holland. As such Delfshaven continues to be associated with migration from 1620 into the 21st century.
In Delfshaven I was fortunate to benefit from two very knowledgeable guides who gave me a detailed background of Delfshaven in general and the Pilgrim Fathers’ Church in particular. The church has limited opening hours but it is well worth trying to visit when it is open on alternate Friday afternoons and every Saturday between 12.00 – 16.00. Private or group tours can be arranged. The Church sells two booklets at 6 euros apiece which provide a wealth of information about the history of the church and of the history of the Pilgrims in Holland. I relied on some of the information contained in these booklets for historical details included in this post.
Planning your own Mayflower trail? why not pin this post for later
More information is available on the Pilgrim Fathers Church website: http://www.oudeofpelgrimvaderskerk.nl/
Tours of Delfshaven can be arranged through UrbanGuides
I travelled to Rotterdam from London by Eurostar.