What It Means to Be American
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How the Survivor of a 1609 Shipwreck Brought Democracy to America

Stephen Hopkins, Colonist at Both Jamestown and Plymouth, Proposed a Government Based on Consent of the Governed

The Sea Venture, en route to Jamestown, was caught in a terrible storm like the one depicted in Shipwreck, an 1850 painting by Francis Danby. Courtesy of the Yale Center for British Art.

by Joseph Kelly
June 24, 2019

We don’t like to talk much about Jamestown. Established in 1607, it was the first permanent English settlement in the New World. But it was a shameful start to America.

Even before they landed, the governing councilors were at each other’s throats. John Smith, a former mercenary, was nearly hanged—twice—and narrowly escaped an assassin. Another councilor, George Kendall, was executed by firing squad. John Ratcliffe deposed the colony’s first president, Edward Maria Wingfield, and installed himself as president. Later, Ratcliffe himself was flayed by the Native Americans. Even the lowly settlers of this colony, which was a private venture of the Virginia Company of London, were impossible to rule: lazy, greedy malcontents. The ghastly image of cannibalism hovered over the colony in those early years.

By contrast, we like to talk about Virginia’s rival colony, Massachusetts, which got started more than a decade later. The Mayflower Compact and a spectacular, three-day Thanksgiving feast have come to symbolize ingenuity, industry, and self-determination. The authoritarian and puritanical Pilgrims, so the story goes, might have been staid and a little boring, but their governing was sober, orderly, and successful.

But it was out of the mess that was Jamestown, not the order of Plymouth, that American democracy was truly born. It was Jamestown’s colonists—in fact one particular man named Stephen Hopkins, present at both Jamestown and Plymouth—who invented the idea that government derived its authority from the consent of the governed.

Officers of the Virginia Company wrote all of the “reports” and “discourses” coming out of Virginia, and so most of the story of Jamestown has been sanitized, but when carefully reading one of those narratives, the True Reportory of the Wracke and Redemption of Sir Thomas Gates Knight, I found intriguing evidence about the curious career of Stephen Hopkins. The True Reportory tells the story of how a fleet of nine ships sailed from the River Thames in June 1609, ferrying 500 settlers, including women, children, livestock, and enough material to plant a whole English town in Virginia. For 400 years, Hopkins has been the villain of the tale, but reading the text suspiciously allows us to see Hopkins as he really was—and turns what we think we know about Jamestown on its head.

True Reportory was penned by the company’s secretary, William Strachey, a gentleman dilettante who lived on the edges of London’s theater society and hung around with William Shakespeare and Ben Jonson. The Reportory is his only memorable work, but it’s a masterpiece, a sea yarn so wild that it inspired Shakespeare’s last play, the fantastical story of shipwreck and marooned castaways called The Tempest.

The fleet, named the Third Resupply, was hit by a real-life tempest worse than its stage version. On July 23, 1609, “a dreadful storm and hideous began to blow.” A hurricane of unimaginable force overtook the fleet when it was just a week away from the Chesapeake Bay. Europeans thought those cyclonic, tropical storms were a sign that they had sailed beyond the frontier of civilization, out of God’s realm, and right into the wild territory of the devil. For three days and three nights the ships struggled against wind and waves. The smallest of them sank: All hands drowned.

The largest of all the ships, the Sea Venture, which carried most of the supplies, the new governor, the admiral, and Strachey, disappeared in the storm and was presumed lost at sea.

Seven ships limped, out of joint with broken masts, into the Chesapeake Bay. They found that Jamestown had been transformed by its first settlers into a strange American-English amalgam ruled by a man named Captain John Smith. He might have been a dictator, but the only respite from hunger and misery in Jamestown had come under Smith’s regime. By force of arms, he had detached the Nansemond, Paspahegh, Kecoughtan, and several other districts on the James River from the Powhatan Confederacy. These Native Americans paid tribute in food, and they bivouacked many settlers in their towns.

But among those on the seven remaining ships of the Third Resupply was the old president, John Ratcliffe, who deposed Smith within a few weeks of their landing. Smith was severely wounded and was obliged to sail back to England under charges of treason.

His successors were incompetent. Ratcliffe managed to get himself and couple of dozen men killed on a diplomatic mission to Powhatan. The Native Americans on the James River rebelled against the subsequent regime of George Percy. Jamestown now had several hundred mouths to feed and no resources. The winter and early spring of 1610 culminated a few months later in the infamous “Starving Time.” In desperation, some settlers carved meat off of the emaciated bodies of the dead.

Meanwhile, the Sea Venture had been lost to the world, but it had not sunk. The battering of the hurricane pried its planks apart. Oakum sealant spewed from the seams. The sailors hammered salted beef into the gaps. They pumped and they bailed—sailor and settlers alike, laborers and gentlemen like Strachey, who had never done a lick of real work in their lives—everyone struggled against the inexorable sea, against the gradual rising of the water in the hold. But there was no hope. They were in the mid-Atlantic. Everyone could see that the ship would founder. They bailed seawater just to lengthen for another hour the short interval of their lives. Finally, their limbs could work no longer. They consigned themselves to death. And at that moment, they sighted land.

The admiral steered the ship onto a reef a mile from shore. Improbably, 150 people made it alive onto one of the Bermuda islands. Strachey joined the corps of gentlemen that Sir Thomas Gates, the new governor of Virginia, organized to guard the company’s weapons and food and cordage and tools, which they salvaged from the wreck.

The settlers realized they had landed in paradise. Bermuda was a complete wilderness, inhabited by neither natives nor Europeans, its lagoons teemed with fish, fowl and swine roamed the woods, and fruit grew everywhere.

Most of the settlers had signed onto the adventure because of all the media hype that the company had orchestrated in the spring of 1609, but by the time of the shipwreck the sailors had opened their eyes to the real conditions in Jamestown. Virginia was not the “New Britain” of the propaganda machine. It was hell. Why go on, they asked themselves? Why not stay in Bermuda?

But Governor Gates had no intention of staying. He set the men to work on a new ship, a hybrid of timbers pried from the Sea Venture and new lumber hewn from the Bermudan cedars.

Some of the settlers resisted. Each plank hastened the completion of their coffin ship. They dragged their feet. They malingered. One group plotted to escape to another island and maroon themselves in the wilderness.

Gates caught wind of their plot, hauled the conspirators before the assembled camp, and convicted them for mutiny. Ironically, their punishment was to be marooned—without tools or supplies—on a little island. After several days of starvation, they begged for mercy.

The castaways knew then they were prisoners. Gates mustered them in the morning by a bell, counted them, marched them off under overseers to labor on the ship, and counted them again in the evening. They ate in messes—and all food was controlled by the company. They were forced to pray each day. Leisure was granted or withheld by the governor. It felt like a slave labor camp.

In January 1610, as the skeleton of the new ship was clothed by hull and decks, Stephen Hopkins revived the idea of escape. Clandestinely, he persuaded most of the castaways to abandon the company’s camp, sneak off to another island, and build their own village in the wilderness.

It was out of the mess that was Jamestown, not the order of Plymouth, that American democracy was truly born. It was Jamestown’s colonists—in fact one particular man named Stephen Hopkins, present at both Jamestown and Plymouth—who invented the idea that government derived its authority from the consent of the governed.

Hopkins was an unlikely leader. Indifferently educated, the 28-year-old might have had a low-level office leading prayers in the church. He had been an undistinguished farmer who had lost the lease on his fields. But on Bermuda, Hopkins found that he had a natural gift for oratory.

The settlers had all contracted with the Virginia Company, Hopkins admitted. They promised several years of labor. But the company did not keep up its end of the bargain. It was supposed to deliver them safely to Jamestown, and feed and clothe them. The hurricane intervened. It marooned them on a desert island, an abundant wilderness owned by no one. The shipwreck, he reasoned, dissolved their contract with the company, just as the waves had picked apart the Sea Venture on the reef.

These circumstances placed the castaways in a unique political circumstance. Each castaway, Hopkins explained, had been “freed … from the government of any man.” Even the “meanest” or poorest laborer among them was bound only by the natural law of self-preservation, which compelled him to “provide for himself and his own family.”

Hopkins did not use these terms, but he was describing pre-civil man in “the state of nature,” which is the basis of the social contract that would be theorized decades later by Thomas Hobbes and John Locke. Without the company contract binding them, Hopkins said, everyone was free. Each man could choose for himself if he would submit to Gates’ authority, strike out on his own, or head into the woods in a cooperative venture with other settlers.

Before the great escape to a nearby island had fully developed, two spies denounced Hopkins. Governor Gates again gathered everyone together so they could watch Hopkins, chained and condemned, beg for his life. His humiliation was a lesson for every discontented settler, and when Gates felt they had learned the lesson, he granted Hopkins clemency.

The ship was finished and launched in May 1610. Gates called it the Deliverance, but the settlers must have considered the name ironic. They did not board willingly.

A week’s sailing brought them to the Chesapeake Bay, and when they came up the James River on the tide, they found the little English fort of Jamestown had become a ghost town. The parapets were unguarded, the gates were off their hinges, the palisade was riddled with gaps, and ghostly forms of emaciated men came out of the houses crying, “We are starved!”

The arrival of the Bermuda castaways saved the lives of the last remnant of the Jamestown, about 60 souls who survived the “Starving Time.”

While the arrival of the ship saved those who remained in Jamestown, in the months to come, the place became a replica of the penal camp in Bermuda. “Discontents” fled constantly to the Native Americans. The Virginia Company executed those they caught, sometimes in grotesque ways, to terrorize the other prisoner-settlers. One man, for instance, was chained to a tree and left to starve to death in plain view of his friends, who dared not bring him a morsel.

Strachey’s tale, complete with Stephen Hopkins’ mutiny, humiliation, and defeat, was sent back to England, where it made the rounds of drawing rooms and salons. (Some months later, Strachey followed his manuscript back to England, where he compiled the laws of the colony and wrote a history rich with anthropological detail about the Algonquians.)

Shakespeare, apparently, read the True Reportory with fascination, because he borrowed several scenes and themes for The Tempest, which premiered at the Blackfriars Theatre in London in the fall of 1611. The play’s mutineer was a drunken butler named Stephano, an allusion to the villain in Strachey’s tale, the unschooled political theorist named Stephen Hopkins. The wealthy theatergoers watched Shakespeare ridicule the idea that common people might take responsibility for their own government. At about the same time that they were guffawing at Stephano’s revolution, the Virginia Company executed settlers it had caught in a mass escape attempt.

Stephen Hopkins kept his head down, did his time, and eventually made his way back to London. We do not know what he did for a living, but he was a solid, middle-class, head of household, with wife, children, and the contracts of two young menservants.

In 1620, Hopkins took ship again, this time in a little vessel that was going to land settlers on the Hudson River. But the Mayflower landed farther north, near Cape Cod, beyond the Virginia Company’s land grant. Someone—who could it have been other than Hopkins?—argued that as soon as the settlers set foot ashore, they would be free of their contract, free to determine for themselves their own government.

Under the sway of this idea, the famous Mayflower Compact created government, a “civil body politic,” through the mutual consent of the 41 men who signed the new contract. It seems almost preposterous that for 400 years no one has credited Hopkins with the idea—if not the language—of that document.

Joseph Kelly is a professor of English at the College of Charleston. His latest book is Marooned: Jamestown, Shipwreck, and a New History of America’s Origin.

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Primary Editor: Joe Mathews | Secondary Editor: Lisa Margonelli


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