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Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Plimoth Plantation

Plimoth Plantation had been highly recommended to us, and we had high hopes especially as Plymouth itself was turning out to be so-so in our experience. Our high hopes were met, in fact exceeded by this superb museum / recreation of both the original colony and a typical native village of the time. From the introductory video to the workshop where craftsmen make the artefacts for the museum, we were fascinated and engaged for over five hours. How the guide books can possibly suggest you only need two and a half hours for this place is beyond me.

There are two main parts to the Plantation. At the Wampanoag Homesite, local native people from the Wampanoag nation, who were here well and truly first, step out of their twenty first century lives and into sixteenth century costume to share how life might have been back then. They do not role play, they remain as individuals of our time and can talk about their skills and customs as well as how their people have been transformed by the arrival of the Europeans. Long before the Mayflower deposited it's human cargo on their shore, they had been trading with European ships and succumbed to a range of diseases imported with the sailors. Many villages, including Pautaxet (now Plymouth) were empty by the time the Mayflower arrived, meaning that there was cleared land for the taking and insufficient native strength to defend it. How nice for us. Undoubtedly there is a depth and complexity to the story that will elude us however much we read and explore, but seeing how a whole group of people now only survive in the common memory because of a museum like Plimouth Plantation is humbling, worrying and speaks to the fragility of any culture and way of life. So many other tribes or nations around the globe are known now only to the few remaining descendants and a couple of anthropologists, with no museum to remember them because they weren't lucky enough to have been overwhelmed by the founders of the nation.

We walked around a selection of typical Wampanoag buildings, simple but elegant wood frames with bark or rush covering. Inside, the kids were curious - we talked about who lived in them, why there's a hole in the roof (to let the firesmoke out), what happens when it rains (the chimneys have a cover), what did children do (we saw the toy boats, dolls and paddles) and many other things. At this time, lots of the people were working to split and dry reed that will be made into the mats that cover some of the houses. It looked relaxing at first, although I expect by the seven thousandth reed it's getting a bit tedious.

As usual, such a life looks appealing in its simplicity and closeness to the natural world, an then you have to think of the long snowy winters, the cold rainy days when the damp seeps through every space, and the hungry times when the fish won't bite and the corn's gone mouldy. Or just the kids saying 'not corn again, mummy' at every meal.

Further on from the native village was the Plantation itself. Here, many wooden buildings have been built to recreate what the first settlement might have been seven years after they arrived. The seven years is important, it allows the colony time to get established, to recover from the terrors of the first winter when half of the settlers perished from sickness. By this time, the colony had begun to thrive and was just establishing regular and almost profitable links with England. It is probably just a coincidence, but seven years was the time they were indentured to work for the business men who had funded their voyage, so you can imagine that, once free of that, it would be good to become profitable.

Here, the staff are acting their 1627 roles, beliefs and attitudes. It's very interesting to talk and hear tell of homes in England and the voyage over on the ship. How hard it has been in the recent years and yet how pleased they are to be there. It was fun to be a 'fellow englishman' and talk of things 'at home' - 'is ye king james still on the throne?'.
Sadly, much of this was to advanced for our young kids and they got less out of it than we did, but one great moment was when a young lad of the colony got chatting to them and taught them a game - 'cob castle' made up of the simple idea of building a little pile of stones (the castle), balancing one on top (the cob) and then trying to knock it off by throwing other stones at the pile. Lots of fun but an unfortunate ending - a pair of slightly older girls, maybe seven or eight, arrived and, without assessing the situation, barged in, picking up stones and asking what we were doing. Sadly, they'd picked up the very stones that formed the target of the game, so it was a bit difficult to include them. Thankfully, Issie and Max reacted calmly, although it might be because they were so shocked and bemused that they didn't think to get angry. Ah well, we don't have little angels either but we hope they'd be a little more considerate.

In one house, we had a great conversation with a lady 'from Holland'. Her character had met and married and Englishman and come over on the Mayflower. Issie tells her that we live on a boat. 'Aye, so you're still living on your ship, we did that when we first got here too.' We discuss how we sailed the southern route to the Caribbean (but didn't ye worry about pirates?) and she asks where we will settle. Canada - you must be meaning Quebec (in 1627, Canada was merely the name of a river) but it's full of French. What, the western side? Yes, I here tell of another ocean but surely tis too wild. How would you ever get supplies from England? I cannot conceive of living in such a distant place.

Yet, less than four hundred years later, we are able to make voyages that would have astounded these pioneers, with technology beyond their wildest dreams, and settle in places that were merely patches of the map with 'here be dragons' scrawled on them. Once there, we can communicate with the distant shores of Old England at the speed of light, and we can travel there in less than a day on an aeroplane. Our supplies can be there overnight courtesy of FedEx and at a fraction of the price these people paid to receive goods from home. The world has changed so much but still we feel some of the thrill, excitement and apprehension of all who have left one home to start a new life on the other side of the world.

So Plimoth Plantation scored very highly in our books, and really gave us a lot of things to think and talk about with the children as we go through some of the immigrant experiences and explore the land those people began to develop so many and yet so few years ago. We, in turn, highly recommend a visit.
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