Thursday, January 21, 2016

Looking For a Mayflower That Isn't There

Guest post by Frederic Himebaugh.

Alternate histories come in two types which are analogous to the hard and soft types of science fiction. The “hard” form of alt-history seeks “minimal, believable points of divergence” (the phrase comes from Fred Bush) and the more minimal and believable, the better. The soft form is often found in satire or experimental fiction, such as found in the fiction of Howard Waldrop. (His story “Custer's Last Jump” posits airplanes in the U.S. Civil War.)

Have authors used the Mayflower as the point of divergence for either hard or soft alternate histories? A quick review says “not much” to the former and “not much more” to the latter.

The Mayflower was the first wave of a migration propelled by vast historical forces. Perhaps authors believe Europeans would have settled North America much as they did even if the leaky, creaky Mayflower had sunk mid-Atlantic. I offer no evidence to dispute that.

More likely, however, is that American culture would have evolved differently. The American Revolution may not even have been attempted. This is the argument found in What Ifs? of American History, a series of essays edited by Robert Cowley.

The first chapter, by historian Theodore K. Rabb, show how unlikely was the success of the Plymouth Colony and how deep was its cultural influence

What if the Pilgrims lacked the patronage from an MP Edwin Sandys, the friend of a friend of Elder William Bruster? As Rabb puts it, “The whole sequence of events has about it an air of improbability that lends credence to the notion of divine intervention.” What if the Mayflower had landed at the Hudson River as intended, and fallen under Dutch rule? What if the wretchedly unprepared group had not received unlikely help from the friendly, English-speaking native Squanto?

John Winthrop’s 700 settlers arrived in Massachusetts in 1630 to cement the region as a Puritan stronghold. Their choice of destination was due to the positive example of the Plymouth Colony. A national culture resulted from the combination of the Puritans, the Puritan’s own dissenters, and the harsh climate of New England, a culture founded upon two rather contradictory principles: a get-down-to-work legalism and a individualistic emphasis on the toleration. These two principles tend to be mutually correcting (although not always; see the Salem witch trials) and played no small part in the vigor of the growth of the new culture in North America.

So, the sinking of the Mayflower could be the premise for alt-history, although not an obvious one, not like an assassination of Hitler or a pair of monkeys not biting King Alexander of Greece. Still, a few people have taken up the premise, either in books or in on-line forums.

This discussion includes the simple answer that largely diverges with Rabb: Puritans in New York would result in the Dutch settling New England instead, and possibly faster English settlement of the region. This is a straightforward  “hard” alt-history answer. Much more fanciful is a scenario on an Orthodox Christian forum which imagines—surprise!—the Copts (Orthodox Christians from Egypt) are the religious minority who settle New England. The writer cites the experience of Russians in Alaska and Canada and imagines a resulting multi-lingual confederation including converted Native Americans.

More impressively detailed, but not more plausible, is Kim Stanley Robinson's The Years of Rice and Salt, reviewed by Fred Bush (mentioned above). Europe is depopulated by the Black Death, resulting in no Columbus, no Mayflower and no mass migration to the Americas. Chinese explorers arrive late and even later come conquerors from an Islamic Europe. The happy, if too good to be true, ending shows a victorious Iroquois nation exporting democracy to other countries. The scenario is implausible because it relies on Native Americans adopting widespread smallpox inoculation sooner than any society did in the real world.

Finally, at the extreme “soft” end of the alt-history spectrum belongs my own novel, The Devil’s Dictum. The point of divergence occurs in 1620, where the Pilgrims find Satan-worshiping pirates already ensconced in Massachusetts and so flee south to Haiti. The result is that the U.S., not Haiti, becomes the Western Hemisphere's basket case with a scary religion while the “Federal Repuplic of Haiti” thrives. The absurdity only increases as recognizable figures from the mid-1900s manage to be born into this world—Richard Nixon as the pilot of a giant armored robot, Calvin Coolidge as a private eye, and J. Edgar Hoover as the High Priest of a Satanic church. It's not the anit-Mayflower scenario fans of hard alt-history would expect, but reviewers find it hilarious.

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Frederick Gero Heimbach’s fiction has appeared at Every Day Fiction and Liberty Island. He was editor of the podcast Protecting Project Pulp throughout its run. He can be found on the internet as Fred√∂sphere and in the real world as a resident of Ann Arbor, Michigan, along with his family. The Devil’s Dictum is his first novel.

1 comment:

  1. I never thought of this idea, but it's a good one to explore. I'm curious as to why none of these scenario spinners evidently thought the Spanish would take more of North America in the case of no New England; I guess it's yet another incidence of counting Spain out of every possible future (the only country neglected worse is the USSR).

    I like the Copts idea if only because it's novel and unexplored territory in alternate history (if highly unlikely). The Dutch strike me as the more likely option for taking over colonization, though I think Puritans who landed in Dutch territory would soon strike out on their own (as the whole point of coming to America was to get away from heathen Holland, and New Amsterdam wasn't much better in the morality department). I'd be interested in seeing how an increased Dutch stronghold on the New World impacted the Anglo-Dutch Wars (my current POD obsession).

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