Wednesday, June 2, 2021
Thursday, September 10, 2020
|Estate Grange figured prominently in Hamilton's childhood. His mother, aunt, uncle, cousins, and grandmother lived here, and his mother was buried here.|
As a young child growing up in St. Thomas, I had heard stories about Alexander Hamilton’s boyhood in St. Croix. I learned about the triangular trade in school, and about the importance of sugar cane and rum. Occasionally, I would stumble upon wild cotton bushes growing near my Northside home, evidence of a once-flourishing plantation. Sugar mills dotted the landscape, contrasting sharply against the pristine blue sea and the lush green hills. Each sector of the island was named after an “Estate”, which I later learned was a plantation. Sometimes I would find Danish and Dutch pottery peeking out of the dirt. One time, after heavy rains, my class stumbled upon a cache of old Danish coins that dated back to the colonial era, back to the days of tall sailing ships. History is at your fingertips in the West Indies, and I drank it in like a thirsty sailor. And then I fell in love with it.
In those days, the airport in St. Croix was still named after Hamilton. But with the waning years, his popularity faded. His old house on Company Street in Christiansted was reduced to rubble, the trading firm where he worked no longer existed, and the memory of his life in St. Croix was lost in the sands of time.
That is, until the musical “Hamilton” became a smash hit on Broadway.
By that time, I was a busy writer with both feet planted firmly in the Edwardian era. I had no desire to write about plantation slavery in the 18th century or the triangular trade. Those were painful subjects to write about. My entire class was glued to the miniseries “Roots” in the 1970’s and some of those scenes were downright painful and uncomfortable to watch. No, I was much more comfortable working in the modern era.
Until April of 2016 when I was approached by a gentleman from St. Croix who asked me to write a novel about Hamilton’s childhood in St. Croix, to draw more attention to the island. Since I considered the gentleman a visionary, I accepted his challenge. And soon I began delving into the task of researching and writing about Alexander Hamilton’s forgotten boyhood in the Caribbean.
I soon learned that Hamilton’s boyhood in the West Indies entailed not just Nevis, the island of his birth, or St. Croix, the island of his maturity, but also St. Eustatius, the island of his early education, where he had learned to repeat the Ten Commandments in the school of a Jewess, where he was so small he was placed standing by her side upon a table. But his years in St. Eustatius were fraught with hardship, and soon his father was forced to take a job in the neighboring island of St. Croix.
|Earliest known portrait of Hamilton by Charles Wilson Peale dates to around 1780.|
My research took me to Christiansted, to all the streets he would have walked. I visited the fort, where his mother, Rachel Fawcett, had been imprisoned, to the Danish West India and Guinea Company Warehouse, where slave auctions had been held, and the Scale House, where great bales of merchandise were weighed. I visited the Governor’s Mansion, a breathtaking example of 18th century Colonial Danish architecture. I strolled past stately mansions, ruined greathouses, ancient cisterns and abandoned brick ovens, imagining what life was like back in the 1760’s and 1770’s. There are still many fine examples of West Indian-style villas similar to the one his mother would have lived and worked in.
During the time I spend on St. Croix, my research took me on a journey of the mind, to a time when sailors and planters cavorted with smugglers and wenches, where slaves and free Africans mingled to form a bustling, cosmopolitan town on the Caribbean Sea, where great sums of money changed hands. Where fortunes were made and lost. Where smuggling and free trade flourished under the nose of the Danish King. Where skippers bribed customs officials with sacks of gold and helped the fledgling American Republic break free of Britain’s rule. Where the English cheered when news of the Stamp Revolt broke out on the neighboring islands of St. Kitts and Nevis. Where men, women, and children were carted across the sea and sold at auction like cattle. All of this happened in the gaze of Alexander Hamilton. This is the world he grew up in and it was the world I wanted to recreate. I wanted the reader to experience life in a tropical sugar colony—with all its glories and woes—with as much detail as I could muster. What I found was a boy who displayed enormous resilience in the face of all odds, a boy who displayed the kind of courage reserved for the great Roman and Greek statesmen of Plutarch’s histories, a boy who would forge a new path for himself and in so doing, forge a new nation. I believe the world of Alexander Hamilton still exists somewhere—if not in the recesses of my imagination, than at least in the pages of my book.
The Lost Diary of Alexander Hamilton by Sophie Schiller ($8.50, Tradewinds Publishing) is out now.
Sunday, May 31, 2020
|Alexander Hamilton was about twelve years old when he began his career in the bustling port of Christiansted, St. Croix.|
|Alexander Hamilton became the nation's first Treasury Secretary by virtue of his unusual family background and employment history.|
|The old Danish custom house probably stands on the grounds of an even older custom house where Hamilton would have spent much time clearing goods and paying generous bribes.|
Wednesday, November 20, 2019
|The world that shaped Alexander
Hamilton: Christiansted harbor in the late 18th century.|
|6 Skilling silver coin from the Danish West Indies, 1767, a coin Alexander Hamilton would have used and traded.|
|Benedict Arnold was a New England
ship captain who grew wealthy smuggling goods to the West Indies, including St.
Charles Reade, a resident of St. Croix, wrote to James Pemberton in Philadelphia in 1774 that much of the trade occurring on the island was being conducted by smuggling. A Captain Bryne from Antigua reported that he had learned of a schooner which arrived in St. Croix in 1775 to procure gunpowder for America, and "offering any money" for the purchasing. In addition, there is a letter in which Nicholas Cruger writes that he will be paying a tax on brown sugar, when it is really "clayed sugar", and paying the customs agent a "fee."
|Alexander Hamilton always maintained that he received "the most useful part of his education" while working for Beekman & Cruger in Christiansted.|
You can read about Alexander Hamilton's lost boyhood on St. Croix in my forthcoming novel, "The Lost Diary of Alexander Hamilton" due out in 2020.
***Special thanks to Michael Newton for his help in writing this blog post.
Friday, September 20, 2019
|Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman as Henri Charrière and Louis Degas, two ordinary men who find themselves in extraordinary circumstances.|
|Winston Smith and Julia.|
Tuesday, September 17, 2019
(From The Lost Diary of Alexander Hamilton, due out in 2020.)
Monday, September 16, 2019
While I was growing up I never had a chance to see “My Fair Lady.” Actually, I probably had a thousand chances to see it but never bothered because I was always too busy, or I considered it irrelevant or boring. My mother used to watch it constantly, which probably contributed to my dismissing it as irrelevant. Finally after many years I saw it and was amazed that it portrayed a profound universal truth.
What are some Universal Truths in literature or film that you have discovered?