- Historic Sites
The storm that wrecked the Virginia-bound ship Sea Venture in 1609 inspired a play by Shakespeare— and the survivors’ tribulations may well have sown the first seeds of democracy in the New World
April/may 1983 | Volume 34, Issue 3
A deeper discontent seemed to have infected one Stephen Hopkins, a fellow to be reckoned with since he had considerable knowledge of the scriptures “and could reason well therein.” A qualified clerk and a family man, Hopkins had been selected earlier by Minister Bucke to read psalms at the Sunday assembly. He had gotten into a heated dispute with two companions who reported him as being an advocate of seditious and irreligious views. Hopkins’s views were indeed such as to “shake the foundation” of the small community. A garrulous, headstrong man, he proclaimed loudly that he was not just advocating delay in construction of the ship and not just advocating a break with authority to gain better treatment. No, he was advocating that all the ordinary folk use the occasion of the wreck to dissolve the existing official relationship. He was advocating both personal and religious independence of company and church control. “It was no breach of honesty, conscience, nor religion to decline from the obedience of the Governour,” he argued, “or refuse to goe any further led by his authority except it so please themselves.” The governor’s authority was for Virginia, not these islands. And the company’s contractual hold on them had terminated when the wreck occurred. No longer indentured, they were “freed from the government of any man.” Even the lowest among them was now subject solely to his own conscience and bound by it only “to provide for himselfe and his owne family.”
This was not the first time such radical views had been expressed, nor the first time they were spoken by an Englishman. But it was certainly the first time they were voiced in the Western Hemisphere and with the force of such personal commitment. Strachey, however, saw this merely as a base attempt to gain personal profit, for both pearls and ambergris had been found on the island and were very valuable. Once free of the governor’s control, the conspirators would set up a private colony of their own.
At the tolling of the bell, everyone assembled before the governor’s Corps de Garde , and the prisoner, in manacles, was brought forth to face his accusers. The charge of conspiracy against him was entered as a religious offense. Hopkins denied that he had advocated separatism from the Anglican Church, claiming that he only wanted reform. And he denied that his position on secular matters constituted mutiny against the Crown. These were separate matters of conscience that every man should judge for himself. To this the governor responded that he appeared “both the captaine and the follower” of his own mutiny; and thus found, it was not seen why he should not pay “with the sacrifice of his life.”
The governor duly passed sentence, and Hopkins was made ready for execution. But with death facing him, Hopkins’s argumentative bent gave way to instincts of self-preservation. Though a man of principle, he had no desire to become a martyr. “So penitent he was,” wrote Strachey, “and made so much moane,” that the better sort sitting on the martial court, including Newport, and Strachey himself, were moved to make “humble entreaties and earnest supplications” in Hopkins’s behalf. The governor commuted his sentence.
Despite these incidents, life on the island had for most of the survivors settled into a routine: rising before dawn, morning public prayer and the meting out of punishments, work on the ship or in gathering food, evening prayers, reporting for punishment, and bed. Only rarely was there time for fun or sport; but there was enjoyment in hunting hogs with the company dog and in a game of taming wild pigs by going among them and rubbing their stomachs until they grunted and lay down with pleasure.
Gates built a memorial cross on the main island from the timbers of the Sea Venture .
Minister Bucke had the opportunity to perform all the rites of the church: on Christmas he celebrated communion for all; on the twenty-sixth of November he officiated at the marriage of Admiral Somers’s cook, one Thomas Powell, to Elirabeth Persons, a maidservant of Mistress Horton; on the eleventh of February he christened the daughter of John Rolfe and gave her the name Bermuda; and on the twenty-fifth of March he christened the son of Edward Eason and gave him the name Bermudas.The Rolfe child died,as did four other people, all of whom Minister Bucke buried with appropriate rites.
In November chill winds blew in from the sea. Ripe berries were no longer available for the picking, and the wild hogs grew thin and meager. Gates ordered a further reduction in allowances and cut out the distribution of ship staples entirely. The situation was only partially relieved by the arrival of the seabirds, the cahows, which swarmed in during the night and flew above the camp making their strange, lonely cries. Soon they were laying eggs in narrow burrows between the rocks where the hungry hogs sought them out in competition with hungry men.