Smoke and mirrors

Photo by Sarah Joy on Flickr
Hidden away in the heart of the ancient Barbican area of Plymouth, England are the authentic Mayflower Steps. You probably know the story. In 1620, a little ship set sail from the South Devon port and launched out across the great Atlantic Ocean, carrying a contingent of around one hundred Pilgrims - mainly Puritan folk - and abut thirty crew. When they eventually arrived in the New World they established one of the first colonies on the East coast of what is now the United States of America. The Mayflower was a relatively small ship, and the stone steps from which it departed are even smaller. In fact, they are so small that only a few of the locals and a handful of historians know where they really are.

For any visitors to my home town of Plymouth (and this includes many Americans), the Mayflower Steps are ostensibly located on a stone pier in Sutton Harbour. A portico with pillars and a balcony has been erected to celebrate this famous voyage of discovery, and it is visited by thousands every month. The engraved stone at the base of the monument simply declares 'Mayflower, 1620'. Those who visit and take photos to capture the moment are largely unaware that the steps are fake. They have been built on a part of the Barbican that simply didn't exist back in 1620. Four centuries ago, the water's edge was back at least 30 metres from its current location. You see, the truth is often much more mundane than the myth.

Photo by Mick Lobb on Geograph
In reality, the true Mayflower Steps are located inside a nearby public house called the Admiral McBride. Specifically, they are under the floor in the Ladies toilets. This can be confirmed by anyone who cares to visit the premises, simply by asking the bar staff. The Mayflower Steps portico has not been built there with the intention to deceive, merely to celebrate such a great feat of human endeavour. Most of the visitors to the site have no idea it is faux, and if they did many would probably not care too much. But this manipulation of historical fact is useful as a metaphor for a challenge facing contemporary society around the changing nature of 'knowledge'.

Sometimes referred to egregiously as 'alternative truth', there is plenty of fake news and manufactured 'fact' available today. Knowledge is now more vulnerable to manipulation that it has ever been, due to mass media and the proliferation of the Web. It is not hard to deceive people today, because many take content they find on the Web at face value, and some have yet to learn how to question and cross reference the information they encounter. Much as a magician or illusionist will misdirect us from what is really going on, so fake news often fulfils a similar function, distracting us from what is really going on. Certain politicians have learnt to do this.

Education has a key role to play in countering this problem. Many educators work hard to teach students how to discern fact from fiction, and how to verify the truthfulness of content on the Web. The notion of 'digital literacies' embraces a range of skills and competencies, but perhaps one of the most important is the ability to know when content is fake or real. We constantly encounter untruths, some of them subtle. The City of Plymouth markets itself as 'Britain's Ocean City', but it is actually quite a distance from the Atlantic Ocean, located on the English Channel. We will never know the true extent of all the smoke and mirrors the Web contains, but it would certainly do us no harm as a society if we possessed the skills to determine truth from fiction. However, we also need to acknowledge that people sometimes feel comfortable believing in a well-manufactured lie if it confirms their personal bias.

'Useful lies are preferred to harmful truth.' - Geoge Orwell

Creative Commons License
Smoke and mirrors by Steve Wheeler was written in Plymouth, England and is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.


Jig said…
To take that even further, the reality is that such a vessel would probably not have come right to the shore at all, but rather anchored in a sheltered position out of the way. The ship's master and perhaps some members of the crew might have come ashore in the ship's boat but the passengers were persecuted as a group of religious heretics, refugees if you like, so would not have had any desire to expose themselves. In addition, all their wealth would have been converted to things useful to them in the New World and as a result they would not have had any money cover any costs involved in spending time away from the Mayflower.

But as you say, that does not conjure up such a noble image eh?
Gareth Hunt said…
It's funny, I was telling my year 7 students the exact same story about the Mayflower in a lesson today. They seemed intrigued that such a historical place would be underneath the toilets in a pub!
Steve Wheeler said…
Yep, exactly my point. Thanks for the extra detail.
Steve Wheeler said…
Thanks Gareth. It's a great teaching opportunity.
Anonymous said…
And they actually set sail from Delfshaven:
Steve Wheeler said…
Really? More smoke and mirrors perhaps? Their journey took them from Holland to Rotherhithe, then onwards to Southampton and finally to Plymouth before they launched out on the final leg to the New World. That's why the new colony was called Plymouth rather than Delfshaven :)

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