“Making Haste from Babylon (The Mayflower Pilgrims and Their World, A New History)” by Nick Bunker, Alfred A. Knopf, New York. 489 pages. $30; available at Bunch of Grapes and Edgartown Books.
Who is this guy, anyway? And where does he get these notions that toss our historic view of the Pilgrim experience into a 17th century cocked hat?
He is Nick Bunker, an Englishman with the perfect skill-set to set straight our romantic but wrong-headed ideas about those funny little people in black suits, buckle shoes, and tall hats that fascinated Boston school kids like me every Thanksgiving.
This is a guy who’s never written a book before, but “Making Haste From Babylon” has the power to make him an instant literary lion. Mr. Bunker is a former investigative reporter, turned investment banker, turned Financial Times reporter.
There is little difference between the risky business of investigative reporting and investment banking. Each requires the truth of the matter or woe betide them. If either gets it wrong, he or she gets sued, or sacked, or both. And the investment banker loses other people’s money as well as his own.
Evidently, Mr. Bunker was good at investment banking. He had the time and resources to spend 18 months culling the facts from ancient records in English villages and towns, recently made public, that offer a much different perspective on one of the first American Experiences. He is good at investigative reporting as well.
For example, we sort of believe that the Pilgrims, also known as Separatists, were righteous souls seeking religious freedom, sailing zealously to a wilderness to practice their brand of salvation-seeking.
In “Making Haste,” we learn the truth is that they were outlaws, literally and legally. Religious fervor was part of their makeup but they also did not play well with others. King James took such a dim view of their behavior that he took to lopping off the odd Separatist head, setting it on a pike as an object lesson.
The value of this book is the research — rich, complete detail from the ancient correspondence and archives — and its English perspective. We tend to miss the links between Elizabethan England and our early national days.
Mr. Bunker devotes a substantial portion of “Making Haste’s” pages to the economic, political, and religious events in Europe that had major effect on the unfolding of events in the colonies. A good read; and he backs it all up with notes, an index, and a suggested reading list.
The fascination of this book for me arrived during this treatment of the impact of English economic life on events in the New World. Whenever I’ve looked at really old maps of New England, I’ve wondered why Pilgrims went to Maine so early in the settling days. Why Maine? They could barely keep body and soul together there.
Mr. Bunker provides the answer: They had to go there. The bankers were screaming, and the Plymouth enterprise was failing at a time when the English economy was going sideways, its merchants using all kinds of hedge funds and derivatives to stay afloat. Sound familiar?
The Pilgrims were entrepreneurs and risk-takers at least as much as they were religious zealots and they needed to come up with answers. Fast. Chapter XI was not an option in those days. Beavers were the answer. Beaver hats were the rage on the continent and Maine was chock-a-block with beaver. That’s how come they went to Maine.
The author understands both sides of the ocean in this case. His substantial roots in our part of the New World include a forebear for whom Bunker Hill was named, and his precedents chased whales from Nantucket. In fact, Mr. Bunker will stop here this Friday, May 21, at Bunch of Grapes on his way to visit Nantucket. You could go and ask your questions yourself.
He quotes Sir Philip Sidney, a late 16th and early 17th century man of letters and royal hanger-on: “America was a poet’s dream.” Frankly the reality is much more engaging. You ought to read it.
The truth of the matter is that the real Pilgrims described by Mr. Bunker are a lot more engaging than the self-righteous, grumpy souls we learned about in school.
Author’s Talk with Nick Bunker, 7:30 pm, Friday, May 21, Bunch of Grapes, Vineyard Haven. 508-693-2291.