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THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

Plymouth colony almost didn’t exist

By Steve Coronella
Globe Correspondent / November 17, 2011

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DUBLIN - As I’ve discovered in my 20 years in Ireland, Thanksgiving is perhaps the most intriguing American holiday. The story behind our annual feast day is enough to grab even the most jaded European’s attention.

But how many people know how remarkable a holiday it is?

I certainly didn’t, and I grew up around Boston. But after reading Nathaniel Philbrick’s excellent “Mayflower,’’ I’m much the wiser. The Nantucket-based author shows how the original Plymouth Colony, established in December 1620, almost didn’t exist at all.

Philbrick reveals that when they first attempted to flee England for Holland - where their Puritan beliefs would meet with more tolerance - the Pilgrims were betrayed by a crooked ship’s captain who surrendered them to the authorities.

Some months later, when their imprisoned ministers were freed, the Pilgrims - or Separatists, as they were known - managed to reach Holland. Once there, they threw in their lot with a smooth-talking merchant from London, Thomas Weston, who agreed to help finance their religious settlement in America. At first, the plan involved the Pilgrims working part time cod-fishing and fur-trapping for the benefit of Weston and his investors, and part time for themselves.

But the terms soon changed, “fitter for thieves and bondslaves than honest men,’’ according to one account, and the Pilgrims refused in the end to honor the agreement. Before they had traveled a single nautical mile, their preparations, shaky from the start, were thrown once more into turmoil and confusion.

The Pilgrims were misled again when they decided to purchase a small sailing vessel of their own in Holland, to accompany a larger ship bought on their behalf in London. The master of the vessel they acquired - the Speedwell - “overmasted’’ the ship, so that, when she was in full sail, seams opened between the planks, causing the hull to leak. According to Philbrick, it proved “an easy way to deceive this fanatical group of landlubbers.’’

Having been deliberately delayed and deceived, all 102 passengers - only half of them in the end avowed Pilgrims - sailed to America aboard a single ship, the Mayflower. Also, the Pilgrims’ intended destination was the northern edge of the Virginia Colony at the mouth of the Hudson River (near present-day Long Island), hundreds of miles from Plymouth. (A lucky historical break for those of us born and reared in Massachusetts.)

As if sufficient obstacles hadn’t already been placed in their way, an even greater one remained. “With the exception of Jamestown,’’ Philbrick writes, “all other attempts to establish a permanent English settlement on the North American continent had so far failed.’’ And Jamestown, founded in 1607, wasn’t exactly prospering. Between 1619 and 1622, 3,000 of the 3,600 settlers sent to the colony had died.

Indeed, if they were to survive, writes Philbrick, the Plymouth settlers, who were “hoping to re-create the English village life they so dearly missed while remaining beyond the meddlesome reach of King James and his bishops’’ had to quickly transform themselves from discontented and disorganized English Pilgrims into resourceful New World pioneers.

Anyway, that’s just some of the story I’ll be telling my Irish friends when they ask me, as they do every year, why we have such a significant holiday so close to Christmas. And on my next visit home, I’ll be heading down to Plymouth to see how the Pilgrims and their plantation are getting on all these years later.

Medford native Steve Coronella has lived in Ireland since 1992. A collection of his essays and humor, “This Thought’s on Me: A Boston Guy Reflects on Leaving the Hub, Becoming a Dub & Other Topics,’’ is available from The Book Oasis in Stoneham. He can be reached at sbcoro@eircom.net.