Who Started America’s Quest for Liberty?

Marooned: Jamestown, Shipwreck and a new History of America’s Origin by Joseph Kelly. 2018. Bloomsbury Publishing (Kindle edition)

Here Shall I Die Ashore: Stephen Hopkins: Bermuda Castaway, Jamestown Survivor, and Mayflower Pilgrim by Caleb Johnson. 2007. Xlibris Corp (Kindle edition)

After I wrote about Stephen Hopkins in my post about Shipwreck and Shakespeare. I had a chance to hear author Joseph Kelly talk at our virtual family reunion this fall. He discussed events surrounding Hopkins’s life, and what he viewed as his early contribution to the idea of freedom in the New World. Kelly claims that Hopkins’s revolt against the Virginia Company while wrecked on Bermuda (memorably but savagely depicted in the actions of the drunken butler, Stephano, in Shakespeare’s The Tempest) is the earliest known instance of the idea that the legitimacy of governments rests on the consent of the governed. The famous Mayflower Compact is the second, and Hopkins very likely influenced its making.

Kelly ties the principle Hopkins expressed to an earlier phenomena in the New World, the escape of enslaved Africans in Spanish colonies and the founding of self-governing communities in forests, swamps and mountains, out of reach of their former masters. These people were referred to as “Maroons,” and the term came to be applied to other castaways. This part of his account reminded me very strongly of The Exiles of Florida. The term, “Seminole,” originally referred to similar communities of Native Americans who moved to Spanish Florida’s forests and swamps to escape their enemiesand who were joined by large numbers of escaped slaves from English colonies to the north.

Another group similar to the Maroons were English soldiers who went “native” in Ireland. This was going on at the same time as the Virginia Company was beginning its program of colonization in America. Conditions in the part of Ireland held by the English army, were awful, particularly among the soldiers in border outposts. Many deserted and settled among the Irish in the unoccupied lands. This pattern was repeated at Jamestown, where a number of Virginia Company men deserted to the native people. In most of these cases, we have little record of their fate, much as with the earlier Roanoke “Lost Colony.”

Why was this happening among the people who had voluntarily signed up to go to the New World? As Kelly explains, the terms and conditions of employment turned out not to be as promised. Technically everyone who signed up received one share of company stock in exchange for venturing their lives, butaccording to the contract, holders of a single share were treated as company employees, without any rights except to sustenance and shelter. Only those who received multiple shares, because of sought-after skills, social position or actual cash ventured, had the freedom to vote on governance matters and choose leaders.

By the time Hopkins, in the flagship Sea Venture, with both the Governor, William Strachey, and the Admiral, George Somers, aboard, was wrecked on Bermuda, the ordinary adventurers had probably begun to hear from the ship’s crew and some of the soldiers aboard the real situation at Jamestown. They might have felt relief at reaching an uninhabited archipelago instead, especially one with plenty of food and water and a tolerable climate. It would have been a shock when Governor Strachey immediately imposed strict discipline, with onerous work schedules, required rollcalls, prayer services, etc. The Sea Venture sailors were so restive under this regime that Admiral Somers used his authority as fleet commander to take them to another island, where they could follow the discipline they were used to on board ship.

Hopkins’s rebellion was premised on the notion that the wreck voided their contract, since they were not in fact, in Virginia. Any activities and any sort of governance ought to be based on mutual consent, not Strachey’s command. Quite a few of the disgruntled venturers agreed. The Governor obviously saw it differently, and since he had the soldiers on his side, his view prevailed. Hopkins wisely chose to plead for mercy. I’m lucky he did, because as a direct ancestor of mine (assuming that’s correct) I would not be here if he’d been hanged.

After the maroons escaped, or rather were forced to head to Virginia on the two ships they constructed, Hopkins seemed to have kept quiet. He even became a reader in the Jamestown church, which everyone was forced to attend. He learned at least some of the local Algonquin language. Still, he seems to have had no desire to remain under the miserable rules and starvation conditions in Virginia, and he returned to England.

By 1620, he was ready to try again, and he signed on to a new company, the one formed by the Pilgrims. This time he brought along his second wife and his children. It was his daughter, Oceana, who was born on the Mayflower, although sadly, she died shortly after they landed.

From Kelly’s point of view, the key contribution of Hopkins to the Plymouth Colony and the future United States of America, was to instigate the drawing up of the Mayflower Compact. William Bradford, in his history of the Plymouth colony, says that it was partly to allay the discontent among the “Strangers,” (non-Pilgrims who came to fill out the company) that a written agreement was drafted and signed, specifying how the colony was to be governed. Again, Hopkins’s thought that landing on a remote shore, far north of where they were supposed to be, broke their original agreement and left them to decide for themselves how they would be governed. One hundred fifty-six years later this idea, that the broken relationship between the colonies and England left Americans at liberty to set up a new government, formed the basis of the Declaration of Independence. 

Fortunately in 1620, it was a group of relatively mild-mannered religious dissenters, not wealthy and powerful English aristocrats, backed by soldiers, who heard Hopkins’s arguments,and they went along with them. Perhaps Hopkins, who knew the native language, was too useful to get rid of, or maybe thecompany was too small to lose anyone at that point.

Does Hopkins deserve to be revered as a founding father? I certainly think his position in colonial American history is exceptional: Bermuda, Virginia and Plymouth – quite an adventurous life. He also helped negotiate one of only a few treaties with Native Americans that were not broken during the lifetimes of the signers, another being William Penn’s with the Lenape. He was possibly English America’s first recorded tavern keeper, cause enough for renown in the eyes of many. Hopkins’s ideas about consent were certainly not unique. Within a generation or so, the Levellers, who formed, in the words of Christopher Hill, one of the first modern political parties in England, were asserting similar principles. One of the authors in my next post, Elizabeth Anderson, has quite a bit to say about them and about how their struggle for freedom and dignity byordinary people faced with powerful people and corporations continues to this day.

Caleb Johnson’s biography of Hopkins gives much more detail about his life, insofar as we know it, but without Kelley’s focus on what political views he might have had. Still, he makes clear that Hopkins was a dissenter, not only in Bermuda, but also in Plymouth. He was sometimes part of the governing council and a key player in relations with the Pequot and other Indians and at other times a thorn in the side of his Pilgrim neighbors. He was fortunate to have produced several surviving children, among whom his oldest daughter, Constance, moved with her husband, John Snow, to Eastham on Cape Cod. It was here that her descendants would have married into the Doane family, descendants of John Doane, who came to Plymouth on a later ship and played an influential role in the 1630s and 40s before moving to the Cape. It was a daughter of that family who married my great great great grandfather in the 1760s and lived with him in North Carolina.