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.