Ships Have Meanings

We have departed Neah Bay, rounded Cape Flattery and are moving southerly along the Washington coast. The day is beautiful but disturbed by two issues: dealing with a bag of sour, green plums (maybe braise with star anise?). The other – somewhat more taxing – is to find meaning in the voyage of the Mayflower 400.

Mayflower 400 during sea trials (c) 2021 IBM

Mayflower 400 is a remarkable machine. Created by ProMare and IBM (aided by a wealth of international expertise), the vessel possesses the fourth (highest) level of autonomy ie. complete autonomy, even when offline. There is no-one on board and the ship really can sail itself.

The directing brain is a collectivity of Nvidia chips known as the “Captain” – an AI persona whose memory banks carry one million nautical images to ensure safe passage through shoals, reefs and crowded shipping lanes – plus the Captain knows well sailing imperatives such as the official global-collision regulations and safety conventions.

Thus equipped, the Captain has been tasked to navigate the Mayflower 400 across the Atlantic in commemoration of the 1620 voyage of the Pilgrim Fathers – and the vessel is currently in the Azores.

The main purpose of the project is not as it might seem – celebratory – but a practical test of “how autonomous seafaring technology can support ocean and climate research in the future”. Mayflower 400 is essentially a container carrying 700 kilos of scientific kit that includes a ‘tongue’ to taste and analyse the water it sails on. The hope is that a successful Mayflower 400 will breed many more autonomous, crewless research vessels to spread out across the oceans.

What troubles me about the project is not the science, which is admirable, but the feeling that there must be a deeper meaning to the voyage. There is something thought-provoking about a self-navigating boat, empty of people, that sails in the mythos of the original Mayflower.

As Jay Parini points out: “Americans, having no ethnic uniformity, depend on myths, which lend an aura of destiny to our collective aspirations. We have numerous stories (true, or more typically, half true) that help create a sense of national identity …. One of the most potent stories in our treasure-house of tales that collectively constitute our national narrative involves the transatlantic Mayflower journey of the Pilgrims, those plucky English Separatists who in 1640 fled oppression in the Old World to create a sustainable community, shaping a form of independence and self-government at Plymouth Rock.”

It does not matter today that the 1620 Mayflower attained only fame and mythological status in the mid 19th century when the lost journal of William Bradford was rediscovered and became a best-seller. These days the myth is at the core of America. As New England Today says: “It’s no longer just the Pilgrims’ ship. It’s our ship. It’s come to symbolize the story of every dreamer who searched for a new life on a distant shore. In a way, it carried us all here.”

But not quite all of ‘us’. There is a very different “Mayflower” for African-Americans. In 1619, the White Lion carrying “twenty and odd” Africans arrived in Jamestown – the first people to be sold into slavery in English America. “What did the spiritual legacies of the Pilgrims and Puritans mean, if anything, to those who had arrived at America by way of the slave ship rather than the Mayflower?”, Kenyon Gradert asked.

In the mid-nineteenth century, as the mythos of the Mayflower bloomed, African-American writers and abolitionists made much of this Mayflower/White Lion duality. One such, Presbyterian minister and former slave, Henry Garnet, wrote that in 1620, “the Angel of Liberty hovered over New England, and the Demon of Slavery unfurled his black flag over the fields of the sunny south”. To Garnet, writing in 1848, the ships represented two very separate spiritual empires, empires that would shortly clash in the Civil War.

So how will historians of the future interpret the voyage of Mayflower 400 ? Will the mythos of the real Mayflower be supplanted in a soulless future, humanity replaced by machines. Or will the empire of the White Lion re-emerge – the AI Captain a harbinger of a new kind of ascendancy, enslaving us to the machine? But perhaps Mayflower 400 will just do its job and tell any future generations how exactly we managed to kill the oceans.


There are many surface and submersible vessels of varying degrees of autonomy – see for example Saildrone

The website for Mayflower 400 – with a live feed of progress across the Atlantic – click here

A good CBS film explaining the Mayflower 400 project- click here

The Captain of Mayflower 400 tweets regularly – @AI_Mayflower (as she explains, a slight technical problem is currently holding the ship in the Azores)

The Mayflower and the Slave Ship: Pilgrim-Puritan Origins in the Antebellum Black Imagination
Kenyon Gradert (c) 2019 The Society for the Study of the Multi-Ethnic Literature of the United States

The Conservative Covenant: The Rise of the Mayflower Compact in American Myth
Mark L. Sargent, The New England Quarterly, Jun., 1988, Vol. 61, No. 2

They knew they were Pilgrims. Plymouth Colony and the contest for American Liberty John G. Turner (Yale UP) reviewed in Journal of Ecclesiastical History by David D Hall, Harvard Divinity School

Henry Highland Garnet The Past and the Present Condition and the Destiny, of the Colored Race – a Discourse (1848)

And on the nautical theme – Stanford’s Songs of the Sea sung not by Milo Harries unfortunately but wonderfully by Gerald Finley –

Boiler Handles, Scapa Flow
(c)2022 Meirion Harries