IMAGE: Squanto or Tisquantum teaching the Plymouth colonists to plant corn with fish. Bricker, Garland Armor. The Teaching of Agriculture in the High School. New York: Macmillan, 1911. Page 112. Source
One of the heroes of American history is Squanto. also called Tisquantum, Squanto was a native American interpreter and guide for early English colonists. While little is known about his early life, Some authorities believe that he was taken from home to England in 1605 by George Weymouth and returned with explorer John Smith in 1614–15. His almost decade long residence in London coincides with when Shakespeare was writing plays about shipwrecked colonists encountering native tribes on mysterious far away islands, which is why this week, we are asking:
Did Shakespeare know Squanto?
It seems that Squanto was not taken by force when Weymouth was travelled to England, but instead sent as an ambassador to England by his father who entrusted Weymouth with his son as a tremendous sign of respect and mutual peace. The relationship between the English and at least one of Squanto’s tribes was amicable due to the work of Squanto. However, Squanto was quite double sided in brokering deals wherever it benefited him, being considered by many to be manipulative in his dealings. THis would lead Squanto to get a very negative reputation with many of the native tribes, who tried to kill Squanto and would have done so, had the English not protected him.
On his return trip in 1614-1615 with John Smith, one of Smith’s men, Thomas Hunt, rounded up Squanto with several other Indians and sold them into slavery in Spain. While it is not clear how Squanto escaped, he did get away, to join the Newfoundland Company and return to North America in 1619, where he found his entire tribe had been wiped out by disease.
Map drawn by Samuel de Champlain of Plymouth Harbor in 1605 showing native habitations.from National Park’s Serive Archaeology Program Website Source
In 1605 when George Weymouth took Squanto on board and returned with him and other Indians to England, he was sponsored by Henry Wriothesley, the same man who was a patron of William Shakespeare. Wriothesley and Arundell paid to have Weymouth travel to the new world and establish whether it was possible to start a settlement there. The reports published about the journey once they returned to England detailed talks with the Native Americans they encountered.
The report doesn’t give explanations, but the end of the story is that the explorers end up deciding to capture and enslave native americans. The men took five hostages (three by lying and two by force). The Indians were taken to Gorges, an investor in the voyage, and one book published in 1658 after Gorges had died names Squanto as one of the Indians which had been given to him.
IMAGE: Champlain’s drawing of Southern New England Algonquin Natives. Ford, Worthington C. (1912). History of Plymouth Plantation 1620–1647. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin Company for The Massachusetts Historical Society. Vol. I, p. 197. Source
Many historians doubt the timeline to that claim specifically and have concluded it would be difficult if not impossible for Squanto to actually have been one of the Indians given to Gorges, but regardless of whether Squanto was in this group, we do know Squanto was enslaved in Spain, escaped, and sought refuge in London before he joined the Newfoundland Company to return to North America. We also know that giving Indians as slaves and displaying them as sights from the New World for a side show in London was highly common in England during Shakespeare’s lifetime.
It was so common, in fact, that in 1610 as Shakespeare was writing the Tempest, he cinludes a joke about Indians on display in his play:
In The Tempest, Trinculor complains
“when they will not give a doit to relieve a lame beggar, they will lay out ten to see a dead Indian.”
Artist’s depiction of the attack on Capt. Nicholas Hobson’s ship by Wampanoag warriors in 1614 on Martha’s Vineyard, allowing Hobson’s captive Epenow to escape. Source
One of the Indians they can prove belonged to Gorges was Epenow. Epenow was exhibited as a physical marvel. His cries of “Welcome! Welcome!” were well-known among Londoners who frequented coffeehouses and taverns.
Shakespeare was probably thinking of Epenow when he mentioned a ‘strange Indian’ in his play Henry VIII.
“What should you do, but knock ’em down by the dozens? Is this Moorfields to muster in? or have we some strange Indian with the great tool come to court, the women so besiege us?”
The disgust, fear, outrage, and pain which was caused by the English coming to the US and deliberately deceiving and tricking the natives was long remembered, and one reason Squanto’s help to the Indians was so powerful, and worthy of such remembrance with gratitude today, is that the Natives were no longer friendly to the English settlers as they arrived at Plymouth in 1621.
John Smith records that that Squanto lived in England “a good time,” although he does not say what he was doing there. Plymouth Governor William Bradford, the Englishman who knew him best (and most sympathetically), recorded that after Spain he lived in the City of London.
There are no records to suggest Squanto and Shakespeare ever met one another, but with how much an Indian would have stood out in England’s culture of the time, it’s hard to imagine the playwright could have avoided knowing about Squanto’s visit, and pontentially even seeing him while Squanto was in London, particularly since Squanto is recorded as living in the same section of town as Shakespeare. Given the references in The Tempest, and the one in Henry VIII is considered almost certainly to reference Epenow who was so brutally displayed in London around 1612, there is no denying that Shakespeare was impacted by, influenced by, and interacted with Native Americans visiting England.
Download an annotated copy of
Juan de la Cosa’s Map of the World
Join the newsletter using the form below, and I will send you a free, printable copy of Juan de la Cosa’s World Map, that he created while on Columbus’ famous 1492 voyage to Cuba. This map helped writers like Shakespeare understand the world as they wrote about far away islands in the ocean. This map features notes and history about the world in 1500.