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Sir Ranulph Fiennes Sir Ranulph Fiennes

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Exploring The Mayflower with Sir Ranulph Fiennes

The epic explorer Sir Ranulph Fiennes talks to us ahead of 2020’s Mayflower Commemorations
Written by Daniel M. Byway
Published on December 06, 2019
First published in the January-February 2020 edition of The American magazine

What does the Mayflower mean to you? It’s a question I’ve been asking myself ahead of the 400th anniversary of the vessel’s famous Transatlantic journey. As we usher in 2020, and a year of events commemorating the Mayflower Pilgrims, how do we reflect on that monumental moment 400 years ago?

I recently attended one of the Mayflower 400 Speaker Series in London, a string of talks commemorating the anniversary through 2020. That evening’s speaker was Sir Ranulph Fiennes, the man described by the Guinness Book of Records as ‘the world’s greatest living explorer’. I had the honor of sitting down with Sir Ranulph ahead of his talk, and I started by asking what the Mayflower meant to him? His answer struck to the core of the Mayflower legacy, “It means that we have a wonderfully strong blood link with America”, before playfully adding that “even if, every now and again, there are weird people in charge of both places... we still do definitely feel cousinly, which is a huge advantage. The Special Relationship means an awful lot to me, and I hope it continues."

Amid modern debates on the Special Relationship, the Mayflower almost acts as a cultural anchor, keeping US-UK links intact even in the most tumultuous of times. Sir Ranulph traced the Relationship from the Mayflower to more recent events, explaining that “it affected the Second World War and the First World War, just that alone enormously. My Dad, who was killed in the Second World War, was at Salerno just before he was killed, where the Americans, the Brits and the Commonwealth countries were all fighting together, and without that Special Relationship, the War might easily have gone the other way.”

One of the incredible elements of the Mayflower story is the voyage itself. In Nathaniel Philbrick’s notable work Mayflower, he describes the ship as having “blundered her way through storms and headwinds, her bottom a shaggy pelt of seaweed and barnacles, her leaky decks spewing salt water on to her passengers’ devoted heads”. Sir Ranulph’s expeditions have taken him across both poles, and to environments and conditions that test human endeavor to its limits. I wondered how he thinks of the Mayflower voyage in the context of his own achievements? “I'm very frightened of sea travel ... that's a very frightening voyage. I think that's amazingly brave how they did that. We've been on ships, but not sailing ships, in very rough Antarctic seas and even that sort of scared me stiff. I don't mind rough rivers in rubber boats, but that's different because you haven't got the huge power of, everywhere you look, the waves that are all around you, the deep. No, I wouldn't have envied them at all."

William Halsall, <i>The Mayflower in Plymouth Harbor</i>, 1882 William Halsall, The Mayflower in Plymouth Harbor, 1882

Given his experiences, it’s no surprise that Sir Ranulph makes an ideal motivational speaker. What motivates people to go on such journeys and expeditions? "I've written books with that same question, and there are so many answers, so many different motivations, that it would be impossible to just summarise one. Nowadays, our group would be going to try and break some geographical or physical record which hadn't already been broken. There's a competitional nature. We so far have raised £18.9 million for charities. The third motive would be, we take scientists with us who wouldn't ever get the chance to go to the remote places where they can do their work."

Sir Ranulph identifies "Charity, science, competition" as some of the things that have driven him over the years. The Mayflower’s passengers had a very different set of motivations in 1620. Philbrick described the Pilgrims as “men, women, and children who were willing to endure almost anything if it meant they could worship as they pleased”. As well as commemorating the Special Relationship, an important element of 2020’s events will be illuminating the stories behind the Mayflower Pilgrims and their reasons for taking on such a dangerous journey. Sir Ranulph encourages a thorough exploration of the Mayflower’s UK history as part of the anniversary, reminding Americans and Brits visiting sites in the UK and US to “do your background history.”

Part of that education will be addressing the Mayflower’s legacy in terms of the interactions between the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag Tribe who assisted them in their early years on American soil. Sir Ranulph has explored environments in Greenland, Australia, New Zealand and other locations where indigenous populations have been affected by colonisation. When I asked him about this aspect of the Mayflower story, he explained that "Wherever you've got the original local people, who at some point have been badly treated by the early colonials, it is absolutely very important to carry on restituting and giving back, and being helpful towards those people who precede you. The Mayflower Pilgrims wouldn't have survived without help from the locals, and advice on how to harvest." Members of the Wampanoag Tribe are involved in 2020’s celebrations, including guiding tours in Plymouth, Massachusetts, which is important in terms of using 2020 as a platform for teaching and learning about the Mayflower and the reality of its history.

I was speaking with Sir Ranulph on the eve of Thanksgiving, a Holiday which is inextricably linked to that first Winter for the Pilgrims in America. As a side question, I asked him how he gave thanks during his expeditions? "The three of us, when we did our around the world expedition, in the tent in the middle of nowhere, we would just have a Sunday service, that's why my nickname was Padre. We discovered that the only hymn we knew was Jerusalem ... 'and did those feet in ancient times'. The nearest person would be 800 miles away."

Sir Ranulph’s life is an incredible story. What was notable, though, was his humility. Whilst I politely use the English honorific ‘Sir’, he says at the end of our discussion that he doesn’t really use the title as he “didn’t earn it, my Grandad earned it”. For a man with his accomplishments, I fancy a Knighthood is the least he deserves. Then I thought about the experiences of the Mayflower Pilgrims, and how we might look back at the history that they created which, at the time, they likely hadn’t considered. 2020 will be a fascinating time to research, review and reflect on the Mayflower Legacy, and what it means to each of us.

If you're interested in the story of the Mayflower Pilgrims, The American will be covering the story throughout 2020 - you can subscribe to The American magazine. For further details on Mayflower 400 celebrations in the UK and US, check out www.mayflower400uk.org.


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