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Noble: A piece of work

The phrase “a piece of work” is not nearly as modern as I thought. It appears in Shakespeare’s “Hamlet:” “What a piece of work is a man, how noble in reason, how infinite in faculties.” Shakespeare’s usage expresses a positive connotation.

However, when the phrase initially migrated to America, it took on a pejorative tone to describe individuals with unusual and perhaps difficult personalities. Today’s interpretation of the phrase is more elastic and conveys a sense of mild mockery.

When I first learned of Stephen Hopkins, that phrase came to mind, not because he was especially unscrupulous, but because he was a bit of a scamp who improbably found himself in historically significant moments. Some of those instances were perilous and his survival was never assured.



In 1609, Hopkins traveled from England to Jamestown, Virginia. He sailed on the Sea Venture, which shipwrecked on the island of Bermuda. While the survivors set to work building two smaller vessels with the debris, Hopkins fomented a mutiny, which the governor swiftly suppressed. Hopkins was sentenced to hang but persuaded the governor to relent by invoking the ruination of his family should he be executed.

Improbably, Hopkins thrived in Jamestown and departed only reluctantly upon learning of the death of his wife, Mary, whom he left behind in England along with their children. Upon returning to England, he remarried and went to work as a clerk for a clergyman while brewing ale as his side gig.



A group of religious separatists living in Leiden, Netherlands, began preparations to establish their own colony in Virginia and heard about this reasonably pious clerk who had already been there. Thinking someone with his skills and experience might come in handy, the Pilgrims made Hopkins an offer that a guy always up for an adventure could not refuse.

When Hopkins boarded the Mayflower, his entourage included Constance and Giles from his previous marriage, his new wife, Elizabeth, and their son Damaris. Elizabeth would give birth en route to the aptly named Oceanus.

Of the 102 passengers on the Mayflower, only 41 were true Pilgrims. The remaining individuals were the ship’s crew, craftsmen, and merchants. Hopkins, although religious, was still considered a “stranger” or non-Pilgrim.

The story of the Pilgrims’ journey is one of hurdles and setbacks at nearly every turn. The Mayflower eventually made it to the New World, but much later in the year and much farther north than expected. As a result, there was unrest among the passengers who claimed that the original contract with the Virginia Company was void since they never made it to Virginia. Since Hopkins made similar complaints while previously shipwrecked, the speculation is that he may have been one of the agitators behind the unrest.

The upshot is that the Mayflower Compact was drafted to restore order and establish a legal framework for the colony, and Hopkins was one of the signatories.

Of the 102 passengers that arrived in the Plymouth Colony, half died that first winter. Amazingly, the entire Hopkins family survived.

In the early days of the colony, Hopkins was included in many of the scouting missions and negotiations with the Native Americans. Thus, he was a member of the community in good standing. That did not last.

In his later years, Hopkins received citations and fines for offenses such as overcharging for ale and allowing the playing of shuffleboard on Sundays. Not all Puritans were puritanical.

A few years after the imbroglio involving Hopkins on Bermuda, Shakespeare wrote a play about a storm, a shipwreck and a remote island. The play also includes the character Stephano, the king’s drunken butler. Although drunk, or because of it, Stephano plots a coup with Caliban and Trinculo. If this is sounding familiar it is because it has been speculated that Hopkins’ misadventures en route to Jamestown inspired Shakespeare’s play, “The Tempest.”

Four hundred years ago, the Hopkins family, along with the surviving passengers of the Mayflower, celebrated a bountiful harvest with their neighbors, the Wampanoag Native Americans. Rather than dwell on all they had lost, they instead celebrated.

The companion of thanks is hope. Hopkins, my 10th great-grandfather, and his fellow colonists hoped for a better future. To be an American is to be an optimist.


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