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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