Thursday, June 25, 2020

33. ‘A kind of ruffling course in the world’: Perceptions of ‘Captain Shrimp’

A purported portrait of Myles Standish, allegedly painted in 1625, first published in 1885.

From Plymouth to Gainsborough and from Southampton to Scrooby, towns all over England have been anticipating Mayflower 400, with plans to mark what has been seen as a historic moment four centuries ago when the Plymouth Pilgrims arrived in the New World and set up their Massachusetts colony. 

After so much hard work to prepare pageants and exhibitions the disruption and postponement of events caused by Covid 19 is being  keenly felt.

Myles Standish Way, Chorley
Image credit: Chorley Council

Most of the Pilgrims came from the East of England – none was from Devon. But Chorley in Lancashire was particularly proud of its link with the Mayflower through Captain Miles Standish, the Pilgrims’ military commander.

The Standish family were Lords of the Manor of Duxbury to the south of Chorley. Miles named his estate in New England Duxbury after what is thought to be his manorial birthplace. The town reciprocated by naming one of its roads after him.  

In some ways it seems incongruous that the Pilgrims, seeking spiritual freedom, should have felt the need for military aid in their New World venture. 

St Laurence Church, where the Standish family worshipped

Chorley people seem less concerned by this aspect than by Standish’s family connections to the area.  ‘He is an enigma, a man of mystery and almost a virtual being,’ observe the Friends of St Laurence Church in Chorley’s town centre, where they have been researching Standish’s early life.

Plimoth Plantation, a replica reconstruction of the original Pilgrim village in Plymouth, Massachusetts, including the palisade surrounding the settlement  Image credit: Nancy 

What they describe as ‘a chronic lack of evidence’ makes it well nigh impossible to answer the obvious and interesting questions about him, such as the date and place of his birth, his family origins and his career prior to joining the Mayflower Pilgrims in 1620.

An 1873 lithograph depicting the expedition against Nemasket led by Standish and guided by his Indian friend Hobbamock

A major issue with regard to Miles Standish, especially in the period leading up to the confrontation on Fishermen’s Field is the brutality he displayed in hostile encounters with Native Americans. 

Four years before, in August 1621, he led an abortive night raid on the village of Nemasket in an attempt to kill Corbitant, a chief from the Wampanoag Indian tribe suspected of plotting against the Plymouth Pilgrims. Standish failed to capture Corbitant, but the raid had the desired effect. The following month, nine sachems or chiefs, including Corbitant, came to Plymouth, to sign a treaty of loyalty to King James.

Better known is the so-called Wessagusset Massacre of March 1623. Standish had invited Chiefs Pecksuot and Wittawamut and several other warriors of the Massachusett tribe to what had been described as a ‘peaceful summit’. On an arranged signal, the door was shut and Standish attacked Pecksuot, stabbing him repeatedly with the man's own knife. Wituwamat and three other warriors were put to death along with several native villagers.

Wituwamat’s head was cut off and displayed on a pole as a warning. As a consequence, Plymouth’s trade with the Indians was devastated for years.  

The scene is the deck of the ship Speedwell before the departure of Protestant pilgrims for the New World from Delft Haven, Holland, on July 22, 1620. Pastor John Robinson leads Governor Carver, William Bradford, Miles Standish, and their families in prayer, as depicted by the American artist Robert W. Weir (1803-89) in his Embarkation of the Pilgrims (1857)    Image credit:  Architect of the Capitol   

News of the massacre and Standish’s role in it alarmed the Rev John Robinson, the Plymouth Pilgrims’ former pastor in Holland. This is what he wrote to the Pilgrims from Leyden on 19 December 1623:

‘Concerning the killing of those poor Indians of which we heard at first by report, and since by more certain relation, oh! how happy a thing had it been if you had converted
some before you had killed any! Besides where blood is once begun to be shed, it is seldom stanched of a long time after. You will say they deserved it. I grant it : but upon
what provocations and invitements by those heathenish Christians! Besides, you being no magistrates over them, were to consider not what they deserved, but what you were by necessity constrained to inflict. Necessity of this, especially of killing so many (and many more it seems they would if they could) I see not. Methinks one or two principals should have been full enough, according to that approved rule ‘The punishment to the few, and the fear to the many.’ Upon this occasion let me be bold to exhort you seriously to consider the disposition of your Captain whom I love, and am persuaded the Lord in great mercy and for much good hath sent you him, if you use him aright. He is a man humble and meek among you and toward all, in ordinary course: but now, if this be merely from a human spirit there is cause to fear that, by occasion especially of provocation, there may be wanting that tenderness of the life of man, made after God's image, which is meet. It is also a thing more glorious in men’s eyes than pleasing in God's or convenient for Christians, to be a terror to poor barbarous people, and, indeed, I am afraid lest, by these occasions, others should be drawn to affect a kind of ruffling course in the world.’  

The title page of the Rev William Hubbard's General History of New England

Standish’s reputation for such violence was well established by 1625 when the encounter on Fishermen’s Field took place. The Captain was a dangerous man to cross, as is clear from the words of the Rev William Hubbard (1621-1704), to whom Roger Conant gave an account of the incident.
‘Capt. Standish had been bred a soldier in the Low Countries, and never entered the school of our Saviour Christ, or of John Baptist, his harbinger,’ wrote Hubbard in his General History of New England, ‘or, if he was ever there, had forgot his first lessons, to offer violence to no man, and to part with the cloak rather than needlessly contend for the coat, though taken away without order. A little chimney is soon fired; so was the Plymouth captain, a man of very little stature, yet of a very hot and angry temper. The fire of his passion soon kindled, and blown up into a flame by hot words, might easily have consumed all, had it not been seasonably quenched.’

Illustration from the story by the 19th century American author Nathaniel Hawthorne ‘The Maypole of Merrymount’.  Hawthorne’s striking observation – ‘Jollity and gloom were contending for an empire’ – leaves the reader in no doubt as to where his sympathies lay

Three years later, in June 1628, saw Standish in action at the Merrymount colony in modern-day Quincy MA. Its English founder Thomas Morton had infuriated the Plymouth Puritans with what were viewed as his heathenish beliefs. Merrymount’s 80ft maypole was a particular target of the Puritans’ anger and Miles Standish was sent to arrest Morton and destroy the maypole.

‘Captain Shrimp’ was Morton’s name for Standish when he recounted the episode in his three-volume New English Canaan (1637). Perhaps he was thinking of Standish when he later wrote that the local Indians were ‘more  full of humanity than the Christians’.


American historian Jeremy Belknap and the title page of his work American Biographies

Very different was the view of Miles Standish as an American hero expressed by later writers in a proudly free United States, following the victorious outcome of the War of Independence against Britain.

‘Sedentary persons are not always the best judges of a soldier’s merit or feelings,’ wrote the clergyman and historian Jeremy Belknap (1744-98), aiming no doubt at William Hubbard’s criticism of the Captain. While acknowledging that Standish had his faults, Belknap was laying the foundations for the pedestal on which the Puritans’ military commander would achieve his iconic status in the eyes of the American public.

‘If the arm of flesh to establish the rights and defend the lives and property of Colonists, in a new country, surrounded with enemies and false friends, certainly such a man as Standish, with all his imperfections, will hold a high rank among the worthies of New-England,’ he wrote in his two-volume American Biographies, published in 1794 and 1798.   

25,000 copies of Longfellow's poem were sold in the first two months of publication. The depiction of Standish on the cover of this edition is by the American artist N.C. Wyeth (1882-1945), known for his illustrations of The Last of the Mohicans (1826) and Treasure Island (1883) 

By the 19th century, the Captain had become a folk hero, partly because of Longfellow’s 1858 poem The Courtship of Miles Standish

American historian John Stevens Cabot Abbott and the title page of his book Miles Standish The Puritan Captain  

The historian John Stevens Cabot Abbott (1805-77), author of Miles Standish The Puritan Captain (1872) writes in epic style of the 1623 Wessagusset Massacre in which the Massachusett chief Pecksuot was murdered. Standish is described as ‘a conquering hero’ congratulated by his Puritan friends on his return to Plymouth for ‘his success in his chivalric adventure’:

‘Captain Standish was a slender man, of small stature. Pecksuot was almost a giant. The savage approached him, whetting his knife, and boasting of his power to lay the “little man” low. The other Indians were equally insulting and threatening, with both word and gesture. The Captain, perfectly preserving his calmness and self-possession, ordered the door to be shut and fastened, that no other Indians could come in. Then, giving the signal to the others of his men, he sprang, with the wonderful strength and agility for which he was celebrated, upon the burly savage, wrenched the knife, which was sharp as a needle at the point, from his hand, and after a desperate conflict, in which he inflicted many wounds, succeeded in plunging it to the hilt in the bosom of his foe. In like manner Wituwamat and the other Indian, after the fiercest struggle, during which not a word was uttered, were killed. Wituwamat’s brother, a boastful, blood-thirsty villain of eighteen, was taken and hanged, for conspiring for the massacre of the English.’

Abbott’s account is that of the triumphalist historian: ‘As we have mentioned, the unintelligent Indians often behaved like children,’ he explains. ‘This energetic action seemed to overwhelm all those tribes with terror, who were contemplating a coalition with the Massachusetts Indians against the English. They acted as if bereft of reason, forsaking their houses, fleeing to the swamps, and running to and fro in the most distracted manner. Many consequently perished of hunger, and of the diseases which exposure brought on. The planting season had just come. In their fright they neglected to plant; and thus, in the autumn, from want of their customary harvest of corn, many more perished.’

For Abbott, the massacre was justified because of the alleged conspiracy against the Plymouth colony in which Pecksuot and Wituwamat were involved: it was evident that
‘Captain Standish was the military commander of the colony, and in a sense responsible for its safety; that the measures he adopted were purely in self-defense, and that in no other way could he possibly have saved the colonies from massacre.’

Standish with the head of Wittawamut
Artist unknown           Source: 

To those critics of the manner in which the Indian chiefs had been killed, Abbott retorted that one cannot apply today’s moral standards to the past:

 ‘Captain Standish took back with him the head of Wituwamat, which was placed upon the fort as a warning to all hostile Indians. This measure has been severely censured. But it is replied that the savages, whose bloodthirsty desires were fully roused, could be influenced by deeds only, and not by words; that no people should be blamed for not being in advance of the age in which they lived, and that more than a century after this, in the year 1747, in refined and Christian England, the heads of the lords, who were implicated in the Scots rebellion, were exposed upon Temple Bar, the most frequented avenue between London and Westminster.’

Abbott’s book was inscribed to the many thousands of the descendants of Miles Standish. In the Preface he wrote: ‘It has been a constant pleasure to the author to endeavor to rear a worthy tribute to the heroic captain and the noble man, who was one of the most illustrious of those who laid the foundations of this great Republic.’

For centuries, Miles Standish has been seen by most Americans as the brave man who ensured the survival of the Plymouth Pilgrims by his bold actions. In the Massachusetts town of Weymouth, this tablet placed in 1923 to commemorate the 350th anniversary of the settlement commemorates the killing of the Indian chiefs Pecksuot and Wituwaumet as an act 'averting serious disaster to the colonies'. The tablet was rededicated by the Weymouth Historical Commission in 1998. 

American historian Nathaniel Philbrick and his 2006 book Mayflower A story of courage, community and war 

Modern writers have been more circumspect about Standish and his role in early America. For historian Nathaniel Philbrick, Standish’s raid, combined with the complexities of inter-tribal Indian politics ‘had irreparably damaged the human ecology of the region’, initiating ‘a new and terrifying era in New England’.

Questions still persist about the rights and wrongs of the Captain’s actions just as they remain about his birth origins. But in the year of Mayflower 400, Chorley still insists on Standish’s links to the Lancashire town.

Astley Hall   Image credit: M.D. Beckwith

At the splendid 16th century building Astley Hall, owned by Chorley Town Council and now known as Astley Hall Museum and Art Gallery, a special Miles Standish exhibition was set up.  Sadly the Covid-19 outbreak at the moment of writing has prevented its public opening. But the key slides proposed for the exhibition can be seen online, along with those serious questions to be answered.

‘Was his character too warlike - especially in his treatment of the native Americans?’  is one of the questions.

And the exhibition’s answer?

‘History is about interpretation and judgement. Readers will have to make their own mind up about Myles’ record.’

You can view the online Miles Standish exhibition at

The Miles Standish monument in Duxbury, Massachusetts. A dedication and cornerstone-laying ceremony attended by 10,000 persons took place on October 7, 1872. The monument was not completed until 1898. The monument was built on Captain's Hill, the highest point, 200 feet above sea level, on what was once Standish's farm    
Image credit: Pete Forsyth

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Tuesday, June 16, 2020

32. History in art: Arms and the Men

Continued from

Budleigh resident Nick Speare as The Sailor in the 2018 ‘The Boyhood of Raleigh’ re-enactment by Fairlynch Museum volunteers. Photo credit: Rob Coombe   

Still remembering that swelteringly hot day in May 2018 when we re-enacted ‘The Boyhood of Raleigh’ on Budleigh beach, I’m continuing to relate John Washington’s sketch to Millais’ masterpiece.

Young Walter as portrayed in Millais’ The Boyhood of Raleigh

As Millais and every artist knows, hand and arm gestures play a key role in their work, guiding the viewer to a certain conclusion. Young Walter’s gaze is internalised, fixed on the world of his imagination, thousands of miles distant from what we actually see in the painting. He seems to be looking through the sailor rather than at him.

The Boyhood of Raleigh, on show for the third time at Budleigh Salterton’s Fairlynch Museum, on loan from Tate Britain

The sailor’s words and above all that outstretched arm were the stimulus for that imagination. Now, in turn, it takes ‘The Boyhood’s’ Victorian audience beyond the horizon to inspire them – and particularly young boys – with thoughts of creating an even greater British Empire. 

‘The sailor’s arm points into the distance, taking the eye out of the main frame and implying a world of romantic adventure beyond its confines,’ comments Professor Linda Dryden in her book about the novelist Joseph Conrad.

In John Washington’s sketch, above, depicting a celebrated incident on Fishermen’s Field at Cape Ann, near Gloucester MA, Roger Conant is the central figure. 

To his right is Captain John Hewes, who had been sent with sailors and fishermen by West Country investors in an attempt to claim abandoned assets of the bankrupt Dorchester Company, especially the barrels of salt, an expensive commodity. 

To Conant’s left is the diminutive Captain Miles Standish - rudely named 'Captain Shrimp' by his enemies - and a troop of armed marines who had been sent by Governor Bradford from the Plymouth Colony to protect what it saw as its assets. 

Conant’s arm, the palm of his hand open in sign of friendship, keeps the viewer firmly within the frame and focused on the smiling central figure. I notice that it’s his left hand that he extends to Standish. Was he left-handed? Who knows. 

His right hand firmly clasps a book. Perhaps it’s a folder of legal documents which he has consulted. As Gloucester historian Mary Ellen Lepionka explains, ‘According to accounts of the 1625 confrontation, Hewes and his men barricaded themselves behind barrels of salt in the flake yard and Standish threatened to open fire on them, when Roger Conant and company “rushed from their huts” (modified wigwams with chimneys instead of smoke hole) to explain that by English law everything in Fishermen’s Field was still Dorchester Company property pending the outcome of bankruptcy proceedings’.

The statue of Roger Conant outside the Witch Museum, Salem, Massachusetts
Photo credit: Kate Fox

Smiling in contrast with the rather grim-faced statue of Roger Conant that is one of Salem’s landmarks.

The sketch marks a crucial point in time and hints at a few seconds of suspense. Conant’s gesture is open and friendly, but Standish has not responded. He looks nonplussed. His background is military and he is a man of action. Will he give the order to the heavily armed soldiers behind him to open fire on the fishermen and sailors? The latter’s gestures – clenched fists and pointing fingers – are openly defiant and hostile.

An artist’s image of Captain Miles Standish from The Courtship of Miles Standish, an 1858 narrative poem by American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.  The American artist N.C. Wyeth was known for his illustrations of The Last of the Mohicans (1826) and Treasure Island (1883).

How will the situation be resolved? This moment could easily have been the start of an early civil war between white settlers in America? By 1625, when the incident took place, Captain Miles Standish, one of the most prominent in the group of Plymouth Puritan separatists who had sailed on the Mayflower, had proved that he was capable of extreme violence.

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Friday, June 12, 2020

31. Painting from history: two artists at work


Cllr Tom Wright, Mayor of Budleigh Salterton, admires Millais'  'The Boyhood of Raleigh' on the opening day of  Fairlynch Museum's Raleigh 400 exhibition, 28 May 2018 

John Washington’s sketch of Roger Conant the peacemaker has been well received both locally in Devon and in the USA. We’re looking forward to seeing how his depiction of a dramatic event 400 years ago in far-off Massachusetts will develop from what is just the artist’s working drawing.   

With Roger Conant's Devon boyhood in mind, I can’t help thinking of another painting which started life in a Budleigh studio.

Budleigh Salterton beach, looking east to Otter Head 

One hundred and fifty years ago the PreRaphaelite artist Sir John Everett Millais decided that our pebble beach – known by some as the place where the late Princess Diana took secret walks with her lover – would be the perfect setting for his depiction of a moment in the life of a very different character from Devon’s history.

Portrait of Sir Walter Raleigh in All Saints' Church, East Budleigh. This is a copy of one of the best known portraits of Sir Walter formerly attributed to Zuccaro but now to the monogrammist 'H' (? Hubbard) and dated 1588. It shows Raleigh in court dress at the height of his favour with Queen Elizabeth I. Raleigh had been appointed Captain of the Guard in 1587 

What greater contrast could there be between the flamboyant, arrogant but brilliant Elizabethan  courtier Sir Walter Raleigh and the ‘tolerant, mild and conciliatory, quiet and unobtrusive, ingenuous and unambitious’ founder of Salem as he’s been described by one 19th century historian.

Above: Hayes Barton, Raleigh's birthplace a few miles outside East Budleigh, with an illustration of the village's Mill House, where Roger Conant grew up. Sadly, the building was demolished

Yet both were born in the same century in the same tiny Devon village of East Budleigh. And both are associated with the history of two of the USA’s best known regions.

The Octagon, on Budleigh's Fore Street

So Millais came to Budleigh Salterton in the late 1860s, settled in a studio on our fair town’s Fore Street within a few yards of the famous beach, supposedly engaged a brawny and tanned local ferryman as a model and set to work painting an imagined scene from the life of a great English hero. 

The result, in which he also used his own son as a model, was the very successful ‘The Boyhood of Raleigh’. The painting, first exhibited in 1870, is now one of the masterpieces in the collection of Tate Britain.  

'The Boyhood of Raleigh', watched by 'Sir Walter', being carefully unloaded at Fairlynch Museum after its journey from Tate Britain

In 2018 to mark the 400th anniversary of Raleigh’s death, Budleigh’s Fairlynch Museum staged one of its most successful exhibitions. One of the highlights was Millais’ painting, on loan from London to Budleigh for only the third time in its 150-year life.  

In the steps of a master: John Washington in costume as
Sir John Everett Millais 

Part of the Museum’s celebrations was a re-enactment of Millais’ work close to where the Victorian artist would have worked. Who better to play the part of Millais himself and paint the scene than our John Washington!

Local children were volunteered to act as models. Our ‘brawny sailor’ was nobly played by the Museum’s former treasurer Nick Speare who managed to keep his arm outstretched for hours on end, with a few breaks of course.

Riding Donut from Budleigh Salterton Riding School is Rob Batson, in costume as Raleigh, meeting his double

To amuse the crowds of spectators, curious to see the latest performance by Budleigh eccentrics, we even had two adult Raleighs on the scene, one on horseback.  

Group photo of the actors in our 'Boyhood' re-enactment 

It was a scorcher of a day and my false beard kept falling off, much to my discomfiture as I played the part of one of England’s heroes. But it was good fun and we have some fabulous photos of the event thanks to the very talented and professional Rob Coombe from Dorset-based Matt Austin Images.

The Extent of the British Empire in 1886, made by J. C. R. Colomb, Supplement to the Graphic magazine 24 July 1886, with British territories coloured red Artist: Walter Crane (1845-1915)

So it won’t be the first time that an artist working from a Budleigh studio has tackled the subject of a celebrated moment in history. Millais’ painting, of course, was full of historical inaccuracies and really just amounted to a pleasing piece of Victorian propaganda about what were seen as the glorious beginnings of the British Empire.

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