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On the Mayflower: Robert Coppin, First Mate

As one of the mates aboard the Mayflower, Robert Coppin assists Master Jones in sailing the ship. He is the only sailor aboard who has been to New England before. Here are his answers to questions asked by students.

  • Grades: 1–2, 3–5, 6–8

How old are you? 
I was born after the Spanish Armada was defeated in 1588. We don't think of dates of birth as very important in England, at least to commoners. I'm about 30 years old.

Do you have a family?
Yes. I have a wife named Mary and a son and a daughter. My son's name is Robert, but we call him Robin. And my daugher is named Elizabeth, after the old queen.

Is it hard to be away from your family for so long?
It can be very difficult, but I know if I don't go to sea they will not eat, so I know I have that responsibility as their father.

When did you start to sail?
My father put me on a ship when I was 12, as an apprentice to a ship's master. I served him (the master) for seven years.

Who taught you how to sail?
Well, my father paid the master mariner or ship's master. I don't know how much, but a considerable amount. For that money, I learned how to read and write, how to navigate, and how to sail. I learned how to keep an account book. I also learned my faith from the man who was my master. That was part of his responsibility. And so, I was with him for seven years. Wherever he went, I went. I received a new suit of clothes every year.

After seven years I became a journeyman, which is what I am now. I received some tools of my trade — a cross staff, a book of tables for finding out the height and latitude of the sun. As an apprentice, I could earn no money. Now I can. In all trades, you start off as apprentice, and work up to journeyman and then eventually become a master.

A journeyman is no longer an apprentice, and no longer a master.

What jobs did you have before you became first mate?
When I first became a journeyman I worked as a bosun (shortened version of boatswain), which means I was in charge of common sailors — making certain they repair the ship. Ships always need to be repaired. I was also in charge of teaching them about how to repair the ship properly. Also, disciplining them. If sailors do anything wrong, the bosun is responsible for punishing them.

What are the first mate's duties on board ship?
I'm in charge of half the crew. I work for four hours and then I sleep for four hours. I make certain the ship is getting repaired, that the sails are being trimmed properly, and that the man who is steering knows which way to steer.

How much money do you make in your job as first mate?
I make 60 shillings a month. Common sailors make 18 shillings . But, I don't mean to brag. I'm not a poor man, and I suppose I could put beef on my table every day if it was not against the law.

What do you like best about your job?
Going home to see my family. The second best thing though (after being in the middle of the ocean and making certain you are staying on course) is that at the end you see the place you hoped to be sailing toward. That is a great relief.

What is the worst part of your job?
Being away from my family and being in the middle of a storm. Sometimes there are waves on the Atlantic Ocean that may be 50 or 60 feet in height — that is not unusual. I am always cold and wet.

Did you think you'd make it to the New World?
I have no fear of that. I trust in God. But likewise, I've already been there before. I know the place we're going to. I was there six years ago in 1614. I was working as a quartermaster on a ship called Elizabeth, after our old queen. It was hired by a man who used to be the governor of Jamestown, Captain John Smith. He's a man of some fame.

Captain Smith hired two ships to come to the northern part of Virginia to chart the coastline. Some men fished, and some men planted a garden to see what the ground would be like. The chart that was made was given to the Prince of Wales. And he put the name New England to this part of Virginia.

What was the first thing you saw when you landed in America?
America when I first saw it, well, it looks a great deal like a garden that has not been touched in hundreds of years, since the flood. It's very wild. And sometimes it can be very frightening. I come from a very large city in England, and I do not have to worry there about wolves attacking me. The weather can also change very quickly in America, whereas in England, the weather changes very slowly. It's hard for me to imagine bringing children and families to a place like that.

How long will you stay in America before returning to England?
I don't think we should have to stay in America for more than a month or so. All we will be doing is finding a place for the passengers. Then we must return home.

Where do you eat, sleep, and go to the bathroom on the ship?
I normally eat at my master's table. The man who is in command of the ship — his name is Christopher Jones — he is the ship's master.

I sleep in a small cabin called the Round House or the Chart House.

We don't take a bath at sea. I only take a bath once a year. We don't have any rooms for bathing. The very forward-pointed part of the ship is called the "Beaks Head" and it serves a number of purposes, including a privy. On the side of the ship there are black shelves that stick out that are called channels. This is another place where you may do your business.

What do you think of the Pilgrims on the ship?
I would not call the people I travel with Pilgrims. I would call them passengers. Half of them belong to a church that they have created. And they break the laws of my king. I have seen them be very kind, but it's very difficult for me to accept people who break the law. The other half of the passengers are simply coming to Virginia for land in order to help their families. However, passengers on a ship are very dangerous, for they can get in the way of the sailor's work. So they worry me.

Do you ever get scared sailing on the water?
No. I would say the difference between men that work on land and men that work at sea is that men that work on land think they are safe, whereas sailors never think they are safe. You put your trust in God, for it is he alone that shall survive you.

What is life like back in England?
Life in London is like any other city, I suppose. There are goods from all over the world brought into port, many far-fetched indeed, coming from the Indies and the Americas. There is something to do every hour of the day and night, if you've the mind and coins in your purse. The rich and the poor live almost atop one another, with small hovels erected in the alleys amongst the fine mansions.The crowds and the noise are something you have to see for yourself. 'Tis always a shock after the quiet of the ocean.

What do you eat on the Mayflower?
Our food aboard has been typical fare for a voyage. Such foods that can be kept are salt beef, salt fish and the like, peas porridge, oatmeal, dried fruits, ship's biscuit, and beer have made up our meals these many weeks.

Do you have a dining room on the Mayflower?
The sailors eat in the fo'c'sle, where the cook prepares our meals. Master Jones eats in his cabin with some of the officers. The passengers eat below in the 'tween decks.

Do the children have a place to play?
The passengers, including their children, live below in the 'tween decks. They play there as they may. We wouldn't want them up on deck getting in the way of us and our work.

How is the ocean?
The ocean has been its changeable self, I suppose. We have enjoyed both calm sailing and furious storms, as could be expected for a voyage begun so late in the year.

Why did the sailors call the Pilgrims "Glib-glabbety puke stockings"? Did the sailors call the Pilgrims any other names? What did they mean?
A "glib-glabbety" signifies one who prattles a great deal, usually to no purpose. "Puke" is flea-colored, and like most insults, signifies little. Such language as some of my fellows have used towards those of the Leiden church, is not fit for your ears, and I will not repeat it. The term they hate most is "Brownist," after one famous man of their opinions who recanted his errors and returned to the English Church. They maintain they are practicers of God's ways and not a mere shallow faint-hearted man, and an apostate at that.

I was wondering if your family has been to the New World. If not, do you plan on bringing them there? Will your son follow in your footsteps?
No, no one in my family save myself has ever been to the New World. There are some that say it would be safer here. London has many snares for the unwary, with gambling, play-going, and other unwholesome activities in every parish in the city. For myself and mine, I'm more worried about the wild beast and wild men. I've no plans to bring my family here to the wilderness. I suppose every father wishes for his son to want to be like him. When he is somewhat older, I will see where his talents lie, and then apprentice him to
a suitable trade.

What happens if a passenger makes trouble on the Mayflower? Are there certain punishments, and who administers them?
If a passenger transgresses, it is for the ship's governor, Master Carver, to see to his punishment. There has been very little need, but should there be, I suppose he would be whipped.

Do doctors deliver the babies?
Birth is properly the concern of women. None of the passengers, so far as I know, are licensed midwives, but there are some godly matrons amongst them who have seen to such as have had need.

Questions Upon Landing

Has anyone died during the voyage?
Besides one of my company who died during the voyage and a servant lad who died when our journey was almost over, one of the passengers gave birth to a stillborn child, a son I believe.

What are the dangers that the Pilgrims face on board?
The passengers have faced the dangers we have all faced. That of storm, bad food, and sickness.

What kind of wood is the ship made of and how was it put into the water for the first time?
The Mayflower was built of good English oak and launched from the shipyard by being rolled from the stocks. Being a London ship, I suppose into the Thames River.

How big is the Mayflower?
The ship is some hundred feet long, and big enough to hold 180 tuns, which are very large barrels, of cargo.

Is there any other power besides the wind?
The wind and the sea are the only power there be for such a ship. For the shipboat and shallop, we can row with oars.

Do you ever fear that you don't have enough sails to make the journey? Did you bring more sail cloth with you?
There are a full suit of sails for the Mayflower. If any rip, we just mend them. Were any to be damaged beyond repair, we'd just sail home with less canvas to the wind. There is canvas for mending, as well.

Are there any lifeboats in case the ship sinks?
The Mayflower carries her shipboat, and a shallop for the passegers to use when coasting. Our carpenter has finished mending the shallop recently. It was much opened by people lying there during the voyage.

Does the ship ever stop at night, or do you just keep going?
Ships only stop if they are becalmed, or at anchor. We have watches throughout the night, and the stars to sail by.

How many people are in the crew and what do they do?
There must be between twenty and five-and-twenty seamen aboard. There are some with special duties such as the bosun, who sees to the sails and rigging; the carpenter, who has his tools ever ready for splicing the mast, calking seams and so forth; the pilot, who when we make land doth take charge of the ship until he bring her safely to harbour; and other officers, as well as the common seamen, who do the work of sailing under the officers' direction.

Do all of the people on the ship wear the same type of clothing and are they comfortable?
We seamen wear clothes fit for our work, loose enough to haul line or climb the rigging, and good wool caps upon our heads. The passengers dress as they please, in such fashions as they may, much like yeomen everywhere, I suppose.

Do the Pilgrims and sailors fight a lot during the voyage?
There has been little dispute between us and the passengers for some time.

What are the Pilgrims' chores?
The colonists' work will start in earnest once they have settled on a place for their plantation. They have gone out exploring twice, but have yet to determine where they will live. Then they will be abuilding as
quickly as they may, for it is already winter, and it has snowed much since we anchored at Cape Cod.

Were you happy when the Pilgrims finally left the Mayflower?
Most of them are still aboard, but I will be happy when they are all finally ashore and we may return to England.

Where did everyone sleep?
We have kept to our quarters, the passengers aboard in the 'tween decks. Those on shore have slept in barracadoes of driftwood and branches.

Do you know who the oldest person was on board?
I expect the oldest man aboard is the elder of their church, William Brewster.

Do you fish?
We did not fish along the way, but since we have been exploring Cape Cod, we have seen several grampus washed up on the shore, and gathered an abundance of mussels. The bay is a most hopeful place, and cannot but be of fish in their seasons, skate, cod, turbot, and herring must all abound here.

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