Monday, August 30, 2021

The Children of Afghanistan

The children of Afghanistan
Like desert shrubs they grow
Amidst the ruins of history
And guns and rockets too
 
Their mothers are all shrouded
In veils of mourning cloth
By the Taliban they’re surrounded
As they pledge their dreadful troth!
 
Their fathers turn to Mecca
As they beg for their salvation
Suffering the sad dilemma
Of a thousand generations!
 
What hope is there for peace
In the land of the Hindu Kush
Only when they beat their swords into plowshares—
And their spears into pruning hooks!
 
Les enfants d’afghanistan
Comme les fleurs du désert, ils poussent
Au milieu des fusils et assassins
Du Taliban farouche
 
Leurs mères sont toutes enveloppées
Dans des voiles d'étoffe de deuil
Par les Talibans elles sont encerclées
Leur voile est leur cercueil
 
Leurs pères se tournent vers la Mecque
Et prient pour leur salut
Il n’y a pas de remède
Pour les enfants de Kabul!
 
Quel espoir y a-t-il pour la paix?
Ecoutez mon témoignage
Quand on transforme leurs épées en socs de charrue
Et leurs lances en crochets d'élagage!



 

Thursday, August 26, 2021

In the Land of the Afghans beyond the Khyber Pass

In the land of the Afghans
beyond the Khyber Pass;
The bones of many men cry out
beneath the desert sands;
From the March to Kabul
in eighteen thirty eight;
The soldiers of the British Raj
received a gruesome fate;
Macnaghten as their leader
was slaughtered like a lamb;
His fate was sealed by treachery
from the ruler Akbar Khan;
They took his head and marched it through
the streets of old Kabul;
His trunk was hung in the bazaar—
a fate both grim and cruel;
They stormed the house of Burnes
and killed him with his staff;
Felled by jezails as lethal as
the snowy mountain pass;
It fell to William Elphinstone
to take up the British cause,
And so began the great retreat
for which their lives were lost!
The Afghan army massacred
sixteen thousand men;
And despite the Khan’s assurances
The women were murdered in the end;
The blood of Cavagnari
was spilled by Yaqub Khan;
His Treaty of Gandamak could not
save him in the end;
Defended to the last
by the Queen’s Own Corps of Guides;
When warned he said: “Keep up your heart—
dogs that bark don't bite!”
The soldiers of the Russians
besieged Afghanistan;
They fought the Mujahideen and set
the stage for the Taliban;
And now brave America
joins her brothers in the grave;
The proud Marines fought to free a land
that no army on earth could save!
And when the dust was settled
around the Abbey gate;
Their souls cried out,
"Get out brave men before it's too late!"

Wednesday, June 2, 2021

New Poem: The Orchids (in English and French)


The Orchids
The orchids in their mourning gowns
Beseech the Heavens with their cries
They wail and moan for their lost home
With petals moistened from the skies
 
They sit like orphans upon a rock
And take their sustenance from air
Their fate is what the Lord hath wrought
Such sorrow do these beauties bear!
 
These forest nymphs fear not their death
On barren ground they sit alone
Their sadness grows with every breath
For lack of shelter, hearth, and home!
 
On rocks and soil and trunks of trees
They carry on despite the strife
By day they germinate their seeds
And pray for their eternal life!
 
 
 
Les Orchidées
 
Les orchidées dans les robes de deuil
Avec des pétales mouillés par le ciel
On pleur pour leur maison perdue
Avec une tristesse perpetual
 
Ces orphelines de tristesse et misère
Leur destin est ce que le Seigneur a décrété
Elles tirent leur subsistance de l’air
De telles souffrances ont ces beautées.
 
Ces nymphes ne craignent pas leur mort
Sur le sol elles sont assise seuls
Avec une tristesse profonde et forte
Par manque d’accueil et de douceur
 
Sur les rochers et les troncs d’arbres
Leur vie et foi sont une merveille
Par jour elles germent leurs graines
Et priez pour leur vie éternelle!

Thursday, September 10, 2020

The Amazing, Forgotten Story of Alexander Hamilton’s Boyhood in the Caribbean

 

Estate Grange, the plantation of James and Ann Lytton, figured prominently in Hamilton’s childhood. His mother, aunt, and grandmother lived here, and his mother was buried here.
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

Why St. Croix Was The Perfect Training Ground for Alexander Hamilton


When I was growing up, kids were not coddled as they are today. We were expected to work and keep busy, and stay out of our parents’ way. And so I lived mostly out of a suitcase as I traveled back and forth between one parent and the other. When it was my father’s turn to “host” me each summer, he would bring me to one of his business associates in St. Thomas and tell them to give me a summer job. This was how I ended up working in important trading firms in Charlotte Amalie and having an employer pay my plane ticket to and from the Virgin Islands each summer to work for him. He saw me as a valuable asset, someone he could train to eventually manage one of his stores. In his employ I learned how to negotiate and sell, I made valuable contacts in the business world, learned how to deal with customs, learned about letters of credit, and chatted with customers in Spanish, French, and English, thus perfecting my language skills. Without realizing it, I had begun my career in international business much the same way that Alexander Hamilton did two hundred years before.
Alexander Hamilton was about twelve years old when he began his career in the bustling port of Christiansted, St. Croix.

The West Indies, as I see it, was the perfect training ground for cultivating Hamilton's unique talents. In the busy ports of the Danish and Dutch islands, talent and hard work were much more important than family connections. A skilled worker was literally worth gold. One did not need a Harvard education or a family pedigree to grease the wheels of foreign trade. One needed to think fast on one's feet, understand credit, and make valuable contacts. This was the world that Alexander Hamilton grew up in. This was the environment that shaped and molded him into a financial genius, and this was the setting that provided the perfect crucible for turning him into America’s first Treasury Secretary and architect of America’s financial system. None of this would have been possible if he had been raised on a sleepy Virginia plantation or in an abstemious New England household.
Alexander Hamilton became the nation's first Treasury Secretary by virtue of his unusual family background and employment history.

While many historians think it is strange that Hamilton grew up as an American "outsider" in the bustling port of St Croix, I see it as natural and logical. The West Indies is one of the few places where a person of no family background or fortune can compete on an even playing field with the children of the rich and famous. It is a place where an intelligent self-starter can rise up to a position of prominence that would be unheard of anywhere else. It is a place where the technocrats mingle with the glitterati on a daily basis. So it makes perfect sense that Hamilton, poor, illegitimate, and orphaned, could have risen to a position of prominence in the firm of Beekman & Cruger. He had the brains, the skill, and the know-how that his employers desperately needed to run their firm. And take over the reins when they were off-island.
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.
As a person of high integrity, Messrs. Beekman, Cruger, and Kortright trusted Hamilton to manage their affairs while they were gone for months at a time. In the thirteen colonies, this would have been unthinkable. Positions of this level of trust were usually reserved for family members. Later, using the skills he learned in the West Indies, Hamilton turned what was essentially a paid apprenticeship into a career of prominence and influence that would ultimately help found a new nation. So, it wasn't just strange that Hamilton came from St. Croix, it was, in many ways, essential.  




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Wednesday, November 20, 2019

Alexander Hamilton's Boyhood in St. Croix: A Smuggler’s Paradise

The world that shaped Alexander Hamilton: Christiansted harbor in the late 18th century.
In researching my latest novel, The Lost Diary of Alexander Hamilton, I knew I had to master the art of smuggling. In the 18th century, smuggling was big business. It kept the thirteen colonies afloat, since, without their illicit trade with the West Indies, they would have been eternally indebted to London bankers. Indeed, as Peter Andreas points out in "Smuggler Nation", America was born a smuggler nation.

It is interesting but not ironic that America’s first Treasury Secretary and architect of our nation's financial system came from the West Indies. As a child growing up on St. Croix, Hamilton was at the very center of commerce. In those days, St. Croix was considered an “entrepôt”, an important transshipment center in the colonial trading system. And smuggling was a big part of that system. Sugar may have put the West Indies on the map, but it was smuggling that linked it to the rest of the world. And without it, the American Revolution would not have been possible.

In neutral Danish and Dutch islands like St. Croix, St. Thomas, St. Eustatius, and Curaçao, huge quantities of goods were imported, stored, traded, and often re-exported. These entrepôts played a vital role during the days of wind-powered shipping, and as a chief clerk for Beekman & Cruger, Alexander Hamilton would have been at the heart of this illicit trade. 

The weighing house in Christiansted (upper left) with its enormous scale, and the characters that comprised mid-18th century St. Croix society: wealthy planters, Danish soldiers and officials, enslaved Africans, and free colored women of property. While the picture shows strictly Danish ships in the harbor, most likely French, American, British, and Dutch ships were just out of view.
As Nicholas Cruger’s right hand man, Hamilton was in charge of organizing, managing, and shipping huge quantities of goods and currency. He would have had an intricate knowledge of the exchange rates between the various currencies: English pounds guineas, Danish rigsdalers and skillings, Dutch guilders, Spanish pieces of eight (pesos) and Portuguese Joes. He would have been responsible for keeping the books and managing the finances of the firm. A grasp of bookkeeping and the various journals would have been essential tools of his trade.


6 Skilling silver coin from the Danish West Indies, 1767, a coin Alexander Hamilton would have used and traded.
18th century rulers did not have an appreciation for free trade. They wanted to ensure a ready market for their goods, and would impose high taxes on outside competitors to keep them out. Laws like the Acts of Trade and Navigation and the Molasses Act were designed to protect the interests of British planters in the West Indies, to keep them safe from competition. These laws made it legally impossible for French, Spanish, Dutch, and Danish sugar, rum, and molasses to find a market in Great Britain or in any British territory, including the thirteen colonies. Instead, these products were smuggled by American vessels into the thirteen colonies, usually with a wink and a nod from the Customs Officials, and often a bribe.

So it is precisely because of Britain's protective mercantile laws that islands like St. Croix flourished. Why all this need for surreptitious shipping?

In the 18th century, almost all manufactured goods (paper, fabrics, household items, tools, glass, tiles, etc.) came from Europe, while meat, fish, grain, and animal hides came from North America, and sugar, rum, and molasses came from the West Indies. The balance of trade always favored Great Britain. Meaning, the value of British goods imported by the thirteen colonies vastly surpassed the value of American goods shipped to Great Britain. This left the thirteen colonies with a huge trade deficit. This also meant that Great Britain reaped a huge surplus in gold compared to the colonies. In other words, the purchasing power of North America was greatly hampered by their forced dealings with Great Britain on an exclusive basis. They longed for British goods, but they could not earn enough specie to pay for them by selling their own products to Great Britain. They needed a third source of revenue. This could only come about by smuggling to foreign ports. This lack of free trade proved to be an intolerable shackle for the Americans. They longed to purchase more European luxury goods, but they needed a ready supply of cash. So how could they accomplish this?

Through smuggling.

It is estimated that the value of British goods exported to North America was worth double the value of American goods exported to Great Britain. This left a huge trade deficit that could only be made up through smuggling. By definition, the American colonists needed a ready supply of gold and silver so they could continue to buy British manufactured goods. This could only be achieved through illicit trade with the French, Spanish, Dutch and Danish West Indies. In other words, the North American colonists were forced to smuggle their own goods to the non-British West Indies out of economic necessity. They needed a ready market for items such as bread, flour, rice, dried and pickled fish, barrel staves and hoops, and cured meat. In turn, the gold the islanders paid the North Americans for these products fueled their trade with England. In one year alone, 1770, New England sent to the islands three times as many staves and hoops for barrels and hogsheads as was sent to England. Philadelphia exported 23,500 tons of bread and flour to the islands, as compared to 264 tons to England. All of this was basically in exchange for sugar, molasses, rum, and cotton.


Benedict Arnold was a New England ship captain who grew wealthy smuggling goods to the West Indies, including St. Croix.


What was Alexander Hamilton's part in all of this? As chief clerk for Beekman & Cruger in Christiansted, he was responsible for keeping the system in motion. He would receive the North American goods, find buyers on St. Croix for them, as well as receive Dutch, Spanish, and French goods (sugar, rum, molasses, cotton, coffee, cacao, etc.) for use by the North Americans. Some of these goods were African slaves, which no doubt fueled his strong anti-slavery stance during the course of his life.

Some of the activities he would have engaged in his day-to-day life would have entailed creating false clearance papers, partial entries, or mislabeled packages. For instance, later in the Revolution, we know that  Dutch merchants in St. Eustatius were shipping gunpowder to North America in tea chests and rice barrels by means of false labeling. In other cases, they were shipping the gunpowder in glass bottles labeled "spirits". Many of these shipments may have passed through St. Croix on their way to the American colonies.

How do I know this?

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." 

To give you an example of the cost of smuggling: In 1763, a shipment of 15,000 hogsheads of molasses was imported into Massachusetts, “all of which, except for less than 500, came from foreign (non-British) ports.” It was estimated that the value of the duty on molasses alone, if collected, would amount to $25,000 per year. Money that would have gone into the King’s treasury.

How did the Danish authorities react to smuggling? In my research, I’ve discovered that the Danish West Indies were a virtual smuggler’s haven. Charles Reade, a resident of St. Croix, wrote to James Pemberton in Philadelphia on March 8th, 1774 that much of the trade occurring on the island was being conducted by “smuggling.” Sir Joseph Yorke, British Ambassador at the Hague, had built up one of the better spy systems in Europe. On August 5th, 1774 he wrote his superior in London: “…Holland is shipping contraband directly to America, or trading with her in the Dutch and Danish islands of the Caribbean.”

Smuggling is a crime entirely created by governments. Broadly speaking, smuggling entailed any trade that circumvented the Acts of Trade and Navigation. In the mid-18th century, there was also a steady flow into the colonies of “foreign” (code for French) sugar and sugar products obtained through Dutch, Danish, and Spanish intermediaries in the West Indies or directly from the French themselves. Of all smuggling activities, the Dutch trade was the most sophisticated and best integrated into the consumer culture of New England and the Middle Colonies. The Dutch trade was, at its core, the shipping of goods from the European mainland to North America without fulfilling the Crown’s requirement that the merchant vessel stop at a port in Great Britain and enter its goods. By shipping directly, a merchant stood to save the cost of off-loading and reloading his goods and to avoid import and export taxes. He was then able to undercut his competition by selling his smuggled goods at a lower price.

In the 18th century, the British government collected a great deal of its income from customs duties - taxes paid on the import of goods such as tea, cloth, wine and spirits. The tax was as high as 30% in some cases, so these items became quite expensive. Smuggled goods were a lot cheaper since no duty was paid. People were ready and willing to buy smuggled goods, and it became big business.




Working in the trading firm of Kortright & Cruger (formerly Beekman & Cruger), exposed Alexander to all types of trade, including the African slave trade, which no doubt fueled his strong anti-slavery stance during the course of his life. 

According to the Danish historian, Waldemar Westergaard, smuggling in the Danish West Indies became a “fine art” and was one of the “approved ways to wealth and affluence and even to titles of nobility.” The results of this liberal policy toward smuggling were reflected in the increased trade with the Dutch and the English colonists in North America, who were adept at “wriggling through the meshes of eighteenth century commercial regulations.” The visiting Dutch traders, always willing to sell their wares on credit, were highly successful among the planters in the Danish West Indies. No doubt, Beekman & Cruger were the agents of many of these sales.
Alexander Hamilton always maintained that he received "the most useful part of his education" while working for Beekman & Cruger in Christiansted.
While it is recognized that John Hancock was a smuggler of products like Dutch tea, glass, lead, paper, and French molasses, what’s not commonly recognized is that Alexander Hamilton, as chief clerk for Beekman and Cruger, was right in the thick of things. As Boatner wrote in his Encyclopedia of the American Revolution, “Amid the British, French, and Spanish islands were the Danish island of St. Croix and the Dutch island of St. Eustatius. These two were important supply points and neutral havens for American privateers and smugglers from the start of the Revolution.” Indeed, while working for Beekman & Cruger on St. Croix, Alexander Hamilton did receive the “most useful part of his education”.

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. 

THE LOST DIARY OF ALEXANDER HAMILTON, the story of Hamilton's forgotten boyhood in the Caribbean is now available for pre-order from Amazon. Special introductory price only $2.99. Click here.


Friday, September 20, 2019

Papillon and 1984, Two Sides of the Same Coin


When a man betrays his friend what does he have left?

Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman as Henri Charrière and Louis Degas, two ordinary men who find themselves in extraordinary circumstances.

Papillon is about a man who refuses to give up all he has (friendship) to appease an authoritarian government, while 1984 is the reverse. In this manner they are two sides of the same coin.

Papillon is the story of Henri “Papillon” Charrière, who has been wrongly convicted of murder and sentenced to life in the penal colony of French Guiana. During the voyage, he strikes up a friendship with Louis Dega, a forger who is known to have money. Charrière offers Dega protection in return for some of the money. But when Dega sees the brutality of life in the penal colony, and his almost certain demise under horrid conditions, he decides to join Charrière in his escape. What started out as a business transaction becomes a friendship that neither of them expected. For indeed, when one has nothing to his name, when everything has been taken away from you, friendship may be the only thing a person has left. Indeed, that is when he must decide if that friendship is worth fighting for and possibly dying for. This is the theme of both movies.

Papillon takes a dreadful turn when Papillon defends Dega’s life and is thrown into solitary confinement. The brutal scenes that follow show the strength of Papillon’s character, his will to live, and his refusal to reveal who has been sending him extra nourishment, which would have been a death sentence for Dega. The theme here is friendship and honor, and the extraordinary degrees to which men of character will go to protect and defend their friend. Ironically, it is only through the horrible ordeal of solitary confinement that Charrière’s greatness of character is revealed. Horrible conditions can make or break a person. And the first thing that usually goes is character, but Papillon shows that loyalty can survive even under the worst conditions.

Dream sequence:
Heavenly Court:  “You know the charge.”
Papillon: “I’m innocent. I didn’t kill that pimp. You didn’t have anything on me so you framed me.”
Heavenly Court: “That is quite true, but your real crime has nothing to do with a pimp’s death.”
Papillon: “Well then, what is it?”
Heavenly Court: “Yours is the most terrible crime a human being can commit. I accuse you of a wasted life.”
Papillon: “Guilty.”
Heavenly Court: “The penalty for that is death.”
Papillon: “Guilty.”

1984, on the other hand, shows the opposite side of the coin. In the novel, Winston Smith finds a true companion and friend in Julia. But the authoritarian regime under which they live cannot abide dual loyalties. They expect total and uncompromising loyalty to the State. When the State finds out about their affair, Big Brother captures and brutalizes Smith until he finally breaks and betrays Julia. In so doing he turns into the perfect, subjugated citizen, no better than a worker bee. The friendship and love that gave his life meaning is destroyed in the name of totalitarianism. In the end, Winston Smith is turned into a grotesque human being. Not grotesque in his physical features, but grotesque because his character has become distorted and corrupted. Grotesque because he has betrayed the one thing that had given his life meaning, while at the same time freeing him from a life of servility to the State:  his friendship with Julia.



Winston Smith and Julia.


Friendship is the theme of both Papillon and 1984, except that in the case of Papillon, the characters are exalted, while in 1984 the characters are debased. Both are timeless classics, but the only one I can watch over and over is Papillon because I believe in the greatness of mankind even under the worst conditions. But I am aware that the opposite can be true, that mankind can be debased and corrupted even under the best conditions. In the end Papillon chose to eat cockroaches rather than betray his friend. His sacrifice redeems his soul from Heavenly punishment, and he merits a second chance at life. Which goes to show you that friends are not just there to pass the time with, sometimes they are sent to us by God to redeem ourselves.