Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Birth on the Mayflower - historical fiction

The Birth of Oceanus Hopkins
November 6, 1620
The Mayflower, sailing in the North Atlantic Ocean
Father – Stephen Hopkins
Mother – Elizabeth Hopkins

Reproduction of the inside of the Mayflower.  Oceanus would have been born in a space such as this
filled with people, animals and food.  There were curtains for privacy.

Fourteen year old, Constance lay on a hard wooden pallet in the ‘Tween deck of the Mayflower; her younger sister Damius clinging to her as the ship fought to stay upright.

Her parents slept in the berth beneath them; her brother  sleeping in a hammock outside the curtain of the cabin with their two servants. 

She could hear the waves washing across the ship deck as the boat leaned heavily from side to side.  Her father had tried to reassure them, looking up from his charts and calculations. “The wind is a gift from providence, sent to take us to the new world.” Lying in the dark, listening to the wind and waves she whispered over and over “Its just the wind taking us to the new world…it’s just the wind taking….”  She was the oldest and needed to set a good example but her fathers words had not freed her from her fears.  Her father had gone to Jamestown when she was a baby and had been shipwrecked for over a year.  While he was gone her own mother had died as well as her baby sister.

When he returned  he had married, Elizabeth.  She had been good to her and her brother, Giles, but she still missed her own mother and blamed her fathers trip to Jamestown for her losses.  She had hoped that when her father returned to England, he would be content to live there but he would have no peace until he had returned and brought all of them with him.

One night, in England, she had overheard her step mother crying.
“Please Steven.  I‘m afraid to go to America.  The baby is already moving inside me and will be born before we arrive.  Please wait till the colony is settled and then we can go. “

Constance heard a long silence and held her breath as she waited for her father’s reply. She knew she should not be listening to her parents talk but she had to know if they were going to America and if mother was having another baby.

She heard him push his chair back and stand.  She heard him throw wood on the fire and then she heard his reply. “It is a fine place, America.  There’s land for people such as us. There are hillsides full of forests and streams  with fish.  The soil is fresh and good. If we want to create a new life we have to go now.  The baby will be born in America.   We will be there in time to build a cabin and have the baby in our new home.”

She heard the soft muffled cries of her stepmother.  Her life had not been easy.  Her own parents had died when she was young and she had been a servant after that. 

“You are my husband and I’ll go where you take me. I am not afraid of dying but only of leaving these children orphaned.  Constance and Giles and have already lost a sister and a mother. They do not want you to see but they grieve them still.”

Constance’s thoughts were interrupted by the ship’s sudden heave and wondered if her father ever regretted his decision.  

Her step mother was restless on the berth  beneath her.  She could hear her shift her body, the wooden boards that held up the mattress damp and bending more each day. She had been cross and irritable and had made them go to bed after a cold meal of dried beef and beer. 
“The sea is too rough to start the charcoal.” Her step mother complained. She held her back and cried out when Darius accidently bumped into her playing chase with a small boy her age.

“We will never be in Virginia before the baby is born.” 

Constance gathered the wooden plates and spoons and rose to wash them in salt water although she did not think their simple meal had made them dirty at all.

“if we hadn’t taken all these people we would be there by now.” Constance pouted.  “They’re so mean anyway always calling me an “outsider” when we were here first.  I hate them all.”

“Constance.  Mind the  way you speak.”

“It’s true. They wouldn’t even be going if father wasn’t going to pay the shipping company back for their passage.  They don’t even know what they are doing.  They just sit and pray all the time.”

She picked up her skirts hem and walked to the upper deck.

She spent long hours in dreary chores and lessons all the while wishing she could be a ship’s apprentice.  The ship had several apprentices who were clever boys her age who were learning to be merchants.  They were allowed on the upper deck  and could enjoy the fresh air.  She hated it down below with the smell of animals and humans suffocating her with every breath.  Her only hope was the chamber pot.

“I’ll take the chamber pot” she insisted.  “It’s no bother to me. “

“The servants can take it,” her mother protested but not before Constance had scampered onto the upper deck carefully balancing the pot in her arms.

“Air, sweet air.  I don’t care if I do get knocked over board.  I’d rather drown than suffocate one more minute.”

Constance threw the contents of the pot overboard and rinsed it with an on coming wave.  She felt the salt winter spray her face; cold but welcoming.

One sailor who had cursed and ignored the word of God had already fallen in the sea and drowned, an example to them all of God’s ability to punish the unholy. Constance,herself had believed that it was more because of his carelessness and showing off than the hand of God. Anyway she was more ashamed to have the servants see her private business than she was afraid of God throwing her to the waves.  One hundred and two of them all squished together in a boat only 90 by 20 feet

“Chamber pot duty, eh?”

She turned to face a young man her age who smiled.

“Well, I don’t see you doing anything so much finer, Besides I want to come up on deck.  I hate it down there. My step mother is about to have a baby and I just want to be back in England with my friends.”

“We’re lucky to be going.  It’s a big new world all ours for the having.” 

“Father was there and he nearly died in a shipwreck going to Jamestown.  He can’t stop dreaming of Virginia. “ 

“Yea, I hear him talking and telling stories of his adventures; you just a baby left in England. Said his men almost killed him in a mutny except he didn’t want to leave you and your brother orphaned and all so they let him go.”

Constance shrugged.  “And now we are back again. Danger or not.”

Her mother, having no friends or relatives, had turned to her as both confidant and friend. Just two nights ago she had instructed her on what to do if the baby should come aboard the ship. 

“Here Constance, let me show you a special package that I have made in case the baby should come and you are called to help.”

 She had then shown her a small package of baby things; a pair of scissors and a string from the ligaments of a cow that had been dried and baked.  There were tiny blankets and a hat her mother had made from the wool she had spun back in England.

“Who will be the midwife.”  She had asked as her mother re-wrapped the tiny things and starred ahead, her hands clutched tight in her lap.”

She remembered the birth of her sister, Damaius, who was now two.  The women from the village and the midwife had shooed her out of the way and had never asked for her help.  Her mother’s bed was moved in front of the fire and for many weeks women brought her fine food and did her wash.  The only fire here was of charcoal and there was no midwife.

Now her mother was planning for a birth here on the boat.  She had lived in a crowded city and like al children, knew the sounds of birth coming from between cracks in the walls of the houses even when children were sent outside to play.

She listened to her father’s snores along with those of the other ship’s men. She had come to play a game in which she tied to guess, in the morning, which snore went with each person and gave them nicknames like “ whistle, whistle, snort, snort “ or “thunder on the mountain.”  But this night she only noticed her mother’s breath. Soft, like the big Mastiff dog aboard the ship. A panting and then silence. She listened hard and sat up in bed. Her sister began to cry so she lay back down with her, counting her mother’s  breaths and then the silences and the snore of her father. Would he wake up? Why didn’t her mother wake him? The panting times came more often than the silence. She heard the people next to them stir and vomit from seasickness. She heard the servants start the charcoal fires when the seas became calm and all the while her mothers breathing; small little waves upon a shore they had not yet reached.

 Silence and then the waves, which caught her mother in her chest and came out as a small prayer that only she, could hear. She wanted to jump up and go to her but her father was asleep and she could not disobey and get out of bed without permission. Her sister would cry and everyone would be mad at her for waking people up.

In the next cabin, she could hear the wheezing and coughing of the grandfather from Holland. She knew only a few words in Dutch; but enough to know he wished he were home. They all wished it. She did not understand why everyone couldn’t just go to whatever church they wanted but the pilgrims as they were called in England had been thrown into prison and father said even a ship alone in a big sea was better than that.

She heard her mother begin to sing psalm 100. “Tis He that made me and not we…..enter ye, His gate, His courtyards with praising.”  Constance wondered if she was singing the hymn to the baby. Over and over to come through the gate and be blessed and loved by us all.

Could the baby hear the prayers and hymns they sang? Could he hear the waves and the sounds of the sails or the sailors calling orders?

Why had she become so quiet?  Constance‘s mind searched for an explination. “Dreaming she whispered. “I was dreaming.”  Darius had wrapped her hair around her tiny fingers and was sucking on the other hand.  The canvas sheets smelled of her nightly accidents and the wine that had been stored here in other voyages. “My little cargo of wine barrels “her father would tease.

Constance stared at the ship’s wall; turning her head to watch as pieces of light made their way into the cabin.  “The moon “

“Constanta”   and then again and again.  “Constinata.” 

She sat up.  It was not a dream.  Her feet landed softly on the ship’s floor and she stood by her mother’ side as she reached down from beneath the wool blanket to bring up a crying baby.”

“The baby”   Her father sat up, searching for a candle so he could see.

“Giles take Darius.  Everyone please leave Constance and me alone.  You’ll see him later.”

“A boy”  Giles smiled.  “I have a brother.”  He took his little ssister into his arms and went out to wait by the charcoal fire and eat some hardtack with beer. 

“A bowl.  I need a bowl/”   Constance sounded bossier than usual but he handed her the bowl.

Soon women from the other cabins were awake and crowded into the tiny cabin offereing herbs and tastes of their best food. 

Constance carrtying a bowl covered with a piece of linen came out and walked to the stairs that led to the upper deck.

“Throw the afterbirth in the sea.”  Her mother told her. 

 Although it was still dark,  she climbed to the upper deck and stood by the railing. The night had cleared and  stars covered the sky. She said a prayer for her new brother and tossed the placenta to the waves sure that life would be better for this new one than it had been for them.

On the horizon the morning was turning the sky pale grey.  It almost looked like land. 

By the time she went down the ‘tween deck was bustling with women fixing tea and wrapping the baby and scolding her for being in the way.  They scolded her mother too for not calling them and being alone. Even the women from Holland brought her soup and warm tea and tried to take care of the family so she could rest.

Later in the day the baby was named Oceanus; the ancients name for the Atlantic Ocean.   Constance  held him while her mother slept. telling him all about England and Holland and all about America.  She  told him he would meet the Indian children who she hoped would play with them and teach them new games. She  told him that  maybe in America anyone could be whatever he or she wanted and maybe one day a girl like her could even be a sailor.  He smiled; the wise smile of  one born half way between what was and what was to become.


In the 17th century, women gave birth with midwives or close family and friends.  Although there were doctors aboard the Mayflower, they would not have been trained in childbirth or thought it appropriate to assist a woman.  The Mayflower had an official doctor who carried with him a small chest of medical supplies but this was intended for the ship’s crew; lack of sanitation, scurvey and accidents being the greatest medical challenges of a ship of that time.

At the time of Oceanus’s birth, the maternal mortality rate was 1 to 1.5 % and one in ten babies died before the age of two.  Two other women were pregnant on the Mayflower; Susanne White who gave birth to Peregrine on the ship off Cape Cod and Mary Norris Allerton who died later that spring, with her baby, in childbirth.   Oceanus, the only baby who was born on the voyage, died a later that year at Plymouth.

Walking is often used as a natural method of assisting with labor as is the comfort of a familiar home and friends.  Giving birth in a crowded space with little privacy and no friends would have offered Elizabeth a unique challenge in childbirth. Cabins were little more than canvas walls around a bunkbed.  To preserve privacy, Elizabeth, would have needed to remain in her small quarters.  There were two groups of passengers on the Mayflower; those from Holland and those from England.  The inability to communicate with most of the women on the ship would have made the birth more difficult.

In this story we see Elizabeth make the most of her situation through a familiar song, gentle breathing and prayer.  Unable to go out and walk, we can imagine her creating a small, warm, world on her small bunk surrounded by ocean on all sides. 

Ultimately a birth is a deeply private affair and we find Elizabeth creating that world for herself and her baby.  For Elizabeth, the mystery of childbirth, must have seem small compared to this journey to new land where she had no idea how she would live. 

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