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On June 2, 1609, a ship named the Sea Venture set sail for Jamestown, Virginia. On the way, the ship was blown off course by a horrible hurricane. The storm badly damaged the ship and all hands onboard fought off the rising water until the ship ran aground on the island of Bermuda. After salvaging parts of the Sea Venture to build another ship, the stranded group set sail again for Jamestown, arriving in Virginia on May 10, 1610.
News of the shipwreck and tales of the castaways traveled back to England, due in no small part to a publication by one Sea Venture traveler, William Strachey, who wrote dramatic tales about the adventure, including one incident in Bermuda involving an indentured servant named Stephen Hopkins who was accused of mutiny and narrowly escaped death.
Stephen Hopkins not only survived the Sea Venture hurricane, but would travel 11 years later on the Mayflower as both a guide and the father to Oceanus, the only child born on the Mayflower while it was at sea. The dramatic life of Stephen Hopkins seems to have inspired our favorite dramatist, William Shakespeare for his play, The Tempest, and specifically the character of Stephano, which came to life in Shakespeare’s performance just one year after the cast and crew of the Sea Venture landed in Jamestown.
Our guest this week, Andrew Buckley, is descended directly from Stephen Hopkins and has just completed a documentary film on his life. Andrew joins us today to share the story of Stephen Hopkins and walk us through the evidence that suggests Shakespeare’s character of Stephano might have been inspired by the real life of Stephen Hopkins.
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Andrew Giles Buckley, creator and host of the public media series Hit and Run History, is a historical novelist, commercial fisherman, travel book author, opinion journalist and world-class storyteller.
Andrew, a two-time Emmy-nominated producer, founded Hit and Run History in 2008. In their latest film, Stephano: The True Story of Shakespeare’s Shipwreck, Andrew and his crew are hot on the trail of Stephen Hopkins, a Virginia-bound castaway who found his way not only onto the decks of the Mayflower a decade later, but immortalized on stage as the drunken Stephano in Shakespeare’s final play, The Tempest.
Stephano premiered on Rhode Island PBS in 2021, followed by stations from Washington, DC to Los Angeles. Learn about broadcasts, screenings, and video-on-demand opportunities to watch the film at hitandrunhistory.com.
Official release from Rhode Island PBS: https://www.ripbs.org/blogs/bird-wire/stephano/
Folger Library’s Shakespeare Unlimited podcast feature on us: https://www.folger.edu/shakespeare-unlimited/stephen-hopkins-stephano-buckley
What I’ll be asking Andrew Buckley about this week:
- William Strachey, himself a poet and playwright, was on board the Sea Venture with Stephen Hopkins. Afterwards, Strachey published his account of his time on the Sea Venture. He called it A True Repertory: A most dreadful tempest, the manifold deaths whereof are here to the life described. Andrew, what year was this published? Was it a popular publication or, more poignantly, were there survivors of the Sea Venture voyage that made it back to London to tell their stories personally? How was the story of the Sea Venture and Stephen Hopkins circulated back in England during Shakespeare’s lifetime?
- One of the reasons scholars suggest Shakespeare may have been influenced by the story of the Sea Venture when he wrote The Tempest are due to some of the striking parallels between Strachey’s version of the event and Shakespeare’s play. For example, in the play, after the storm tosses the ship, there’s a general upheaval of roles on the ship where a great equality descends among the crew as everyone with able hands is called upon to try and save both the ship and the lives of those onboard. Andrew, did this situation where the nobles are being told off by the ship’s crew, or the nobles themselves stepping up to do the work on the ship, actually happen for the Sea Venture once the hurricane had subsided?
- Once the passengers and crew find themselves stranded in Bermuda, decisions have to be made about how to continue onwards to Jamestown. During this process Stephen Hopkins’ input about then Lieutenant governor Sir Thomas Gates lands him on charges of mutiny. Andrew, why was Stephen Hopkins accused of mutiny and does he face punishment for speaking out against Gates?
- …and more!
Books and Resources Andrew Buckley Recommends
Here Shall I Die Ashore: STEPHEN HOPKINS: Bermuda Castaway, Jamestown Survivor, and Mayflower Pilgrim. Caleb Johnson, Xlibris, November 20, 2007.
This Land Is Their Land: The Wampanoag Indians, Plymouth Colony, and the Troubled History of Thanksgiving, David J. Silverman, Bloomsbury Publishing; Illustrated edition (November 5, 2019).
Marooned: Jamestown, Shipwreck, and a New History of America’s Origin, Joseph Kelly, Bloomsbury Publishing, October 30, 2018.
A Stranger Among Saints: Stephen Hopkins, the Man Who Survived Jamestown and Saved Plymouth, Jonathan Mack, Chicago Review Press, April 7, 2020.
“The direful spectacle of the wreck, which touch’d The very virtue of compassion in thee, I have with such provision in mine art So safely ordered that there is no soul—No, not so much perdition as an hair Betid to any creature in the vessel Which thou heard’st cry, which thou saw’st sink.”— Propsero, Tempest, (I.2)
Stephen Hopkins via William Strachey
William Strachey, himself a poet and playwright, was on board the Sea Venture with Stephen Hopkins. After they survived this incredible journey, Strachey published his account of his time on the Sea Venture. He called it A True Repertory: A most dreadful tempest, the manifold deaths whereof are here to the life described. The reality of the plight of these travellers was a shock to everyone who learned about the journey back in England. In fact, as Andrew shares this week, travellers on the Sea Venture would have had the opportunity to see Shakespeare’s version of the story in the Tempest when it was performed in England:
[Strachey’s] account of this [journey to Bermuda] didn’t get published until 1625, giving him 15 years to punch it up. But more importantly, that account of the wreck was part of a larger narrative that he put together about going to Virginia and such, but it all stems from a letter that he wrote in July of 1610, that was written to a lady (unidentified) and it was an account of everything that happened, including the wreck, and more importantly, it got back to London, caused a sensation, because there was a miraculous rescue, so to speak, a self-rescue, by the people aboard the sea venture who were thought to be list. It wasn’t a ship going to Jamestown, it was actually the flagship for a fleet that was going to relieve the colony, so all the important people for the colony were also considered lost when the ship was lost, and when they rescued themselves by rebuilding a ship and word got back t London, it was considered a miracle. The Virginia Company used it as a marketing gimmick at the time to promote the Virginia Company and say that God was behind creating a new colony for England. It was seen as Providential;. And just a ew months later the tempest was performed in November at the banqueting hall.
In his publication for Shakespeare Quarterly, “William Strachey’s “True Repertory” and Shakespeare: A Closer Look at the Evidence”, Alden Vaughan details the history of Strachey’s writing and possible influence on Shakespeare’s The Tempest. There are some modern scholars who question whether it’s plausible to think Strachey’s True Repertory could have been available to Shakespeare. Even without Strachey’s publication being available to Shakespeare, however, the story of the Sea Venture would have arrived in London with Sir Thomas Gates, who came back (with Strachey’s original letter), in 1610, just months before The Tempest was first performed in England. You can read Alden Vaughan’s excellent work on the history of scholarship surrounding Strachey’s document, complete with diagrams and maps of the Bermudas and the Virginia Colonies circa 1600s, on JSTOR. You can access that document here. Remember you can get that document as a free JSTOR subscriber/independent researcher, or you can login with your institutional login. You can also access academic journals like this one at your local library.
“This gallant which thou seest Was in the wreck; and, but he’s something stain’d With grief that’s beauty’s canker, thou mightst call him A goodly person: he hath lost his fellows And strays about to find ’em.”— Propsero, Tempest (I.2)
During a crisis, there are no nobles
One of the reasons scholars suggest Shakespeare may have been influenced by the story of the Sea Venture when he wrote The Tempest are due to some of the striking parallels between Strachey’s version of the event and Shakespeare’s play. For example, in the play, after the storm tosses the ship, there’s a general upheaval of roles on the ship where a great equality descends among the crew as everyone with able hands is called upon to try and save both the ship and the lives of those onboard. Andrew, explains that this situation where the nobles are being told off by the ship’s crew, or the nobles themselves stepping up to do the work on the ship, did actually happen for the Sea Venture once the hurricane had subsided.
Strachey’s account is extremely dramatic, and even cinematic, it was a really great account of what a hurricane was like and a lot of people didn’t have experience with tropical hurricanes in northern Europe, even the sailors themselves.
Following that, the fleet of ships was scattered and even though the storms subsided what they found afterwards was a leak in the ship, with 5 feet of water in the hold the day after the storm. They started manning the pumps in three places on board the ship 24 hours a day and after a number of days, they had 9 feet of water in the hold, so they could not catch up with it. The acting governor at the name, Gates, broke the company of people (140 men) up between the three pumps, creating bucket brigades, and every man regardless of position was set to work the pumps, hour on, hour off, for days. They said three days and 4 nights of constant pumping, they knew they were going to sink in the middle of the Atlantic. There was no relief, there was no other vessels, they couldn’t see the rest of the fleet, and “hands that had never known work were set to work” so that rigid class structure known in England completely broke down, because i twas that or we are all going to sink.
You see that in the opening scene of the tempest, when the sailors are saying to the nobles, “get out of my way, we’re trying to run the ship” the nobles are offended by it but the fact is that if we don’t all chip in, we’re going to die.
When you are in a crisis situation, all hands are needed to keep everyone alive. This quick thinking and working together is very likely responsible for the survival of so many from the Sea Venture.
“Upon this shore, where you were wreck’d”— Prospero, Tempest, (V.1)
Stephen Hopkins accused of mutiny
Once the passengers and crew find themselves stranded in Bermuda, decisions have to be made about how to continue onwards to Jamestown. During this process Stephen Hopkins’ input about then Lieutenant governor Sir Thomas Gates lands him on charges of mutiny. Andrew explains,
Once they cited Bermuda and found a way to shore, wedding the ship into a coral reef, Bermuda was completely unpopulated and it was considered the isle of devils, it wasn’t a place where ships wanted to go because the reefs would tear your ships apart. There was no one there it was a desert island.
Once ashore, they realize the isle of devils is a completely wonderful place, with pigs left there when the sailors put them ashore, and wild pigs, sea turtles, birds, eggs, and all sorts of things and palm tree hearts, cutting down trees and eating the palm hearts, and it was really a paradise. They had stumbled upon this tropical paradise, and coming from England (where there was a general exodus of people going to Jamestown, anyway, with a high mortality rate due to disease and conflict with the native populations), so the thing is that once they go t ashore there was tension between Gates, a military man, who had served in the Netherlands. He was in charge of the settlers and the soldiers, and on the other hand was Somers the admiral head of the sailors and they broke into two different camps because Gates was very severe. He instituted essentially marshall law. One sailor hilled another sailor and Gates wanted him executed, Somers said “No, we need him, and it wouldn’t have been the punishment at sea” so Somers wanted to get his people away from Gates who was going to execute people. They needed two vessels. And the vessel they were building wasn’t big enough for everyone, and they needed to get everyone to Jamestown. Several people were saying “why are we leaving?” Jamestown might be worse, and this place is amazing. Around Christmastime, there’s no exact date, but word comes that Hopkins had confided that the Governer Gates had no authority. He was supposed to be the acting governor of Virginia, but he didn’t have authority on Bermuda, his charter didn’t cover that. Word got back to Gates that Hopkins had made this declaration, and Gates convened a marshall court where Hopkins was sentenced to death for mutiny. Hopkins begged for his life, saying he had a wife and children at home, and killing him was a death sentence to his family as well. Captain Newport and Strachey intervened on behalf of Hopkins as well and Gates listened to “the better sort” and spare Hopkins. From then on there was no more word of Hopkins creating trouble. There were other problems, but not due to Hopkins. Hopkins was helping with the religious services, he could read and write, and reason, he could look at the situation and make decisions.
Stephen Hopkins would survive his mutiny trial and go on to board the Mayflower in 1620 to come back to the Virginia Colonies with his family. It’s there that Hopkins would setup as a tavern owner in the New World.
“Monster, lay-to your fingers: help to bear this away where my hogshead of wine is, or I’ll turn you out of my kingdom: go to, carry this.”— Stephano, Tempest, (IV.1)
Stephen Hopkins, the Tavern Owner
In the play, the character Stephano is certainly trying to overthrow the leader of the island, so that could be seen as one parallel with Stephen Hopkins’ story of mutiny, but another primary characteristic of Stephano in the play is that he carries around a container of sack, which is an alcoholic beverage and Stephano nurses this bottle throughout the play. Given that the real Stephen Hopkins was a Puritan, I am quite surprised to think a character based on a Puritan would be getting drunk, or certainly that he would be making alcohol. Andrew explains how this reputation came about:
Stephano floats ashore on a butt of sack and progressively gets drunk, and progressively less charming. I’m the direct descendant of him and I grew up with direct stories of the Mayflower. I was always hearing at family meetings with my family, that “well, he was on the Mayflower, but he was different, he wasn’t one of those religious nuts from the Congregation.” There was a great pushback by people in southeastern Massachussets, the old Plymouth colony, that we were not Puritans, (and this term can be used as a pejorative to describe anyone that was more conservative than the Church of England). Hopkins, was an anti-conforminst, perhaps a Brownists, which would be meaning that not only are you rejecting the Church of England, you are rejecting a lot of centralized authority, a very early form of libertarianism. People should be able to covenant with God in their own way. Very very small religious involvement in your day to day lie, but at the same time, he married into a family of tavern keepers back in England, so he would have had a background not only in the servicing of alcohol, but in the making of alcohol, and since alcohol was ever present, Hopkins would have not only been associated with alcohol, but that’s possibly one of the reasons he was going to Jamestown, because Jamestown had very bad water and they needed people with skills and one of those skills would have been as someone who could make alcohol. In Bermuda, they do start making alcohol from what they have there including making alcohol from juniper berries from the cedar trees there, and that’s an early form of gin, and they are also making something from the palm hearts and fermenting that. So wherever the English go, alcohol follows, and it’s very possible that association was there as well. On the other hand, making Stephano a drunk simply allows him to became someone to make fun of and not take seriously, but the thing is that Stephano is a butler, which comes from Bottler, and it was servant who serves alcohol. A close association between stphen hopkins who later ran a tavern in Plymouth Colony and Stephano who is serving the alcohol in the party.
The association with Stephano being a drunk and progressively getting more and more inebriated during the play begins to make more sense in context of the story of Stephen Hopkins and his role as a tavern owner and brewmaster being central to his identity.
“Were I in England now, as once I was, and had but this fish painted, not a holiday fool there but would give a piece of silver: there would this monster make a man; any strange beast there makes a man: when they will not give a doit to relieve a lame beggar, they will lazy out ten to see a dead Indian. Legged like a man and his fins like arms! Warm o’ my troth! I do now let loose my opinion; hold it no longer: this is no fish, but an islander, that hath lately suffered by a thunderbolt.”— Trinculo, Tempest (II.2)
Caliban, the Indian
When the story of the English going to the New World is told today, there is often a heavy focus on the English imposing their presence on the Native Americans, so I was surprised to hear about two passengers on the Sea Venture, Namontack and Machumps, who were Natives of Virginia, had traveled to London as emissaries and now were on the Sea Venture returning to Virginia. Andrew explains that as ambassadors and political representatives for the native tribes, many of the natives routinely traveled to England in the 16-17th century for the purpose of trade, alliances, and representation:
Early on, there were more Native Americans speaking english in England than there were English in North America (certainly speaking native language), Namontack and Machumps were sent over from Virginia by Powhatan to be able to find out what the English were like. The problem was that we don’t exactly know whether they were on board this vessel or not. According to John Smith, they were on the Sea Venture, but one of the ideas is that they had gone off when they were in Bermuda, by themselves, with their own separate camp, and then one of them disappears. What happened to this second person? It’s believed that story, (whether or not it was the sea venture) but that is the basis of the character of Caliban.
The most famous ambassador, emissary to England from North America was Matoka (sp?) (Pocahontas) she married one of the Sea Venture survivors, John Rolfe, after she had been kidnapped and returned to England, they returned to North America and the Virginia Company was looking to show her off, because her support of the Virginia company, to England to meet among other things, King James himself. She was used as an ambassador and PR vehicle. After she had given birth to a son, they were on their way back to Virginia, and she gets sick and she passes away in England. Hopkins was very likely aboard the same vessel as Pocahontas when she returned to England from Virginia, and he was in London at the same time, and it asks the question of who was at Pocahontas’ funeral, it makes sense to think Hopkins would have been there.
When we see the character of Stephano being friends with Caliban, a native, this friendship is a reflection of Stephen Hopkins’ life. Hopkins was a kind of ambassador for the English to the Native tribes and was a good friend to the natives.
We’ve noticed that life imitates art imitates life in this instance because Hopkins leaves his family to try and find a better situation in Jamestown due to the changing fortunes for farmers in England at the time. He was looking at things and trying to evaluate what was happening in Jamestown, he was serving 7 years indentured to the company, with an eye towards bringing his family over if it was a favorable situation. He ends up an assistant to the minister and trouble in Bermuda, but once in Jamestown, he continues his service to the minister and There was a close to 90% mortality rate for those settlers, and yet, he survived, and this survival is attributed to the fact that he isn’t toiling in the fields, but if he is the assistant to the minister when Pocahontas was baptised, he would have bene present at her marriage and he could have been part of the company when she went back to England as well, the timing is right, but later on, a couple of years later, Hopkins is in England, getting on board to the Mayflower, one of the wealthiest, two servants, his kids, and his pregnant wife. The religious congregation is not what’ he’s part of, but it’s very likely that he was recruited as a person who and expertise with North America and certainly with the native Americans. They are headed to the mouth of the Hudson River which is the northern extent of the Virginia company charter. He was considered the local expert na the local guide. Massasoit to confirm a treaty of friendship in 1621. His skills were utilized early on especially that first year to survive the hard winter. Later he was running a tavern as well, and it was said his family had said this too, when the Native Americans stayed in Plymouth, they stayed with Stephen Hopkins. Oceanus did not survive, there’s no record of him passing away aboard ship, but beyond that there’s no record of him living. Hopkins seems to have been pretty prolific in his children, so there are many descendants of Hopkins.
We have several episodes on That Shakespeare Life that detail history of the Mayflower, Plymouth Colony, Jamestown, Squanto Pocahontas, and more. I’ve linked to several of these episodes within the notes for this week’s episode, so click those to explore further. Alden Vaughan is one of the most well known and well respected authors on this time period in history. He has been a guest on our show and you can check out his episode here.
Read William Strachey’s True Repertory
See images of the original True Repertory
Alden T. Vaughan
Shakespeare QuarterlyVol. 59, No. 3 (Fall, 2008), pp. 245-273 (29 pages)Published by: Oxford University Press
Timeline of the Discovery of Bermudas http://www.bermuda-online.org/history1505to1799.htm
ALDEN T. VAUGHAN
The Virginia Magazine of History and BiographyVol. 126, No. 2 (2018), pp. 170-209 (40 pages)Published by: Virginia Historical Society
Namontack’s Fate: The Last Voyage of the First Powhatan Envoy to England
Author: Woodward, Hobson
Early Native North American Responses to European Contact: Romantic versus Rationalistic Interpretations
Bruce G. Trigger