Speedwell (ship)

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  • Swiftsure (1577–1605)
  • Speedwell (1605–)
Launched: 1577
General characteristics
Tonnage: 60 tons

Speedwell was a 60-ton pinnace that, along with Mayflower, transported the Pilgrims and was the smaller of the two ships. A vessel of the same name and size traveled to the New World seventeen years prior as the flagship of the first expedition of Martin Pring.


Speedwell was built in 1577, under the name Swiftsure, as part of English preparations for war against Spain. She participated in the fight against the Spanish Armada. During the Earl of Essex's 1596 Azores expedition she served as the ship of his second in command, Sir Gelli Meyrick. After hostilities with Spain ended, she was decommissioned in 1605, and renamed Speedwell.


The Embarkation of the Pilgrims, 1843, US Capitol Rotunda. The name of the ship, Speedwell, and 1620 are written in the foreground of the painting.

The Leiden Separatists, a Captain Blossom, bought the Speedwell in Holland, and embarked from Delfshaven on 22 July 1620.[1] They then sailed under the command of Captain Reynolds to Southampton, England to meet the sister ship, Mayflower, which had been chartered by merchant investors (again Captain Blossom). In Southampton they joined with other Separatists and the additional colonists hired by the investors. The Speedwell was already leaking. The ships lay at anchor in Southampton almost two weeks while the Speedwell was being repaired and the group had to sell some of their belongings, food and stores, to cover costs and port fees.[2]

The two ships began the voyage on 5 August 1620, but Speedwell was found to be taking on water, and the two ships put into Dartmouth for repairs. On the second attempt, Mayflower and Speedwell sailed about 100 leagues (about 300 nautical miles (560 km; 350 mi)) beyond Land's End in Cornwall, but Speedwell was again found to be taking on water. Both vessels returned to Plymouth. The Separatists decided to go on to America on Mayflower.[1] According to Bradford, the Speedwell was sold at auction in London, and after being repaired made a number of successful voyages for her new owners. At least two of her passengers, Captain Thomas Blossom and a son, returned to Leiden.[3]

Prior to the voyage the Speedwell had been refitted in Leiden and had two masts. Nathaniel Philbrick theorizes that the crew used a mast that was too big for the ship, and that the added stress caused holes to form in the hull.[4] William Bradford wrote that the "overmasting" strained the ship's hull, but attributes the main cause of her leaking to actions on the part of the crew.[3] Passenger Robert Cushman wrote from Dartmouth in August 1620 that the leaking was caused by a loose board approximately two feet long.[5]

Eleven people from Speedwell boarded Mayflower, leaving 20 people to return to London (including Cushman) while a combined company of 103 continued the voyage. For a third time, Mayflower headed for the New World. She left Plymouth on 6 September 1620 and entered Cape Cod Harbor on 11 November. Speedwell's replacement, Fortune, eventually followed, arriving at Plymouth Colony one year later on 9 November 1621. Philippe de Lannoy on Speedwell made the trip.

Other ships named Speedwell[edit]

In 1656 a vessel called Speedwell made a voyage from England to Boston, carrying a party of Quakers including Christopher Holder and John Copeland. Arriving in Massachusetts Bay Colony under the Governorship of John Endecott, they were deported for religious reasons and obliged to return to Britain. In the following year another party, including six of the Speedwell company, returned via Rhode Island aboard Woodhouse: one of them became one of the Boston martyrs, judicially executed by Endecott.

In 1751 a vessel called Speedwell made a voyage from Rotterdam to Halifax, Nova Scotia, carrying a party of "Foreign Protestants"[6] including Johann Andreas Fultz. Captained by a Joseph Wilson,[7] Speedwell left Rotterdam on 18 May 1751, with 229 passengers, arriving in Halifax with 212 passengers on either 10 or 21 July 1751.

Speedwell in art[edit]

The reverse of the $10,000 bill shows a scene from Weir's painting of the Speedwell.

In 1837, Robert Walter Weir was commissioned by the United States Congress to paint an historical depiction of the Pilgrims. This painting was placed in the U.S. Capitol Rotunda at Washington, D.C. in December 1843. Known as The Embarkation of the Pilgrims, the remarkable 12 by 18 feet (3.7 by 5.5 m) painting is a scene on board the Speewell while harbored in Delfs [or Delft] Haven, Holland. The historical event dramatized took place on July 22, 1620.[8] Weir would later paint another, much smaller oil on canvas that is now displayed in the Brooklyn Museum of Art. The paintings are similar except for lighting and a few minor changes. The 1857 work measures about 4 by 6 feet (1.2 by 1.8 m). The Embarkation of the Pilgrims is depicted on the reverse of the 10,000 dollar bill (Federal Reserve Note) issued in 1918.[9] Only 5 examples of this bill are known, and "none exist outside of institutional collections."

Speedwell in fiction[edit]

A fiction based on fact novel, A Spurious Brood[10] outlines a possible explanation for the sabotage of Speedwell, based on the true story of Katherine More, whose children were sent to America on board Mayflower. In Hornblower and the Atropos, one of the C. S. Forester novels about fictional British naval officer Horatio Hornblower, a treasure ship named Speedwell has sunk in Turkey's Marmorice Bay, and Hornblower's mission is to recover the treasure from the bottom of the bay.