Revisiting Hamilton the West Indian (not the Musical)
By Jeff McCord
Clearly, the multi-cultural Caribbean shaped the views and life course of America’s “West Indian founding father.” Alexander Hamilton’s youthful experiences with Afro-Europeans and varying religious beliefs and laws in a sea of islands controlled by competing nations informed his career. Then, as now, he stood apart from the many leaders who are products of privileged, restrictive communities of like-minded people.
Yet, if not for a hurricane that devastated St. Croix in 1772, Hamilton may never have moved to North America, never fought with Washington in the Revolutionary War and not served as one of America’s foremost defenders of the Constitution and our first Secretary of the Treasury. And, there would be no Tony-award winning musical based on his life.
Fortunately for Broadway musicals, on August 31, 1772 a hurricane did strike the then Danish West Indian island of St. Croix where young, impoverished Alexander Hamilton spent his most formative years. The storm was biblical in strength. A journalist’s account, found by National Park Service historian William Cissel, described its impact on what is now the largest U.S. Virgin Island:
“All the houses near shore were torn even to the foundations . . . The wall around the [Danish] King’s store house, which was above a yard thick, was tumbled down to the ground and hurled a hundred yards off . . . [The sea] swelled up to 70 feet above the usual height . . . In Christiansted, 460 houses were thrown down . . . All the ships were cast ashore, 50 or 100 yards [up] on the land.”
It was 16 year-old Hamilton’s story on this storm that caught the attention of the Danish Governor. He led the business community to raise money to send the prodigy to King’s College (now Columbia University) in New York. In the Royal Danish American Gazette, Hamilton wrote:
“It began about dusk from the North . . . and raged very violently till ten o’clock. Then ensued a sudden and unexpected interval, which lasted about an hour. Meanwhile the wind was shifting round to the South West point, from whence it returned with redoubled fury and continued so ’till near three o’clock in the morning. Good God! what horror and destruction . . . It seemed as if a total dissolution of nature was taking place. The roaring of the sea and wind, fiery meteors flying about it in the air, the prodigious glare of almost perpetual lightning, the crash of the falling houses, and the ear-piercing shrieks of the distressed, were sufficient to strike astonishment into Angels. A great part of the buildings throughout the Island are leveled to the ground, almost all the rest very much shattered; several persons killed and numbers utterly ruined; whole families running about the streets, unknowing where to find a place of shelter; the sick exposed to the keenness of water and air without a bed to lie upon, or a dry covering to their bodies.”
Hamilton’s erudite, compassionate account belies his lowly beginnings. Born in 1755 on the small British island of Nevis, his mother Rachel had earlier been thrown out and divorced by an affluent St. Croix planter who alleged she was immoral and “whoring.” Before being expelled to Nevis, she had been imprisoned in Fort Christiansvaern, which guarded Christiansted’s harbor. Resettled on Nevis, Rachel became the common law wife of James Hamilton, Alexander’s father. Although born of a wealthy, Scottish aristocrat, James was a struggling merchant.
When Alexander was eight or nine, James moved the family to the larger, more cosmopolitan St. Croix in a move to improve his business. In 1765, however, James abandoned Rachel, sons Alexander and James. He left the island to become a West Indian drifter. “My father’s affairs at a very early day went to wreck,” Alexander wrote years later.
To support her family, Rachel opened a shop in Christiansted in a two-story building at 34 Company Street one door down from the wooden St. John’s Anglican Church, which was a center of the island’s British community at a time when the English outnumbered St. Croix’s Danish and Dutch planters and merchants. The 1772 hurricane destroyed the church, which was quickly rebuilt of stone and can be visited today.
Rachel and her boys lived above her store, which sold supplies to plantations she bought wholesale from her landlord Nicholas Cruger, a leading merchant. Their house was near a grove of trees serving as a Sunday market place where slaves, who had Sundays off, sold their own produce. “Birds and fowl, pigs, goats, tubers, beans, a wide variety of fruit and vegetables, and cassava bread,” were offered, historian Cissel tells us.
Young Hamilton’s close acquaintance with the enslaved and free blacks who, in British and Danish islands, often served as policemen and militia men, likely informed his later opposition to slavery in the young United States. Despite slavery’s barbaric cruelties on Caribbean sugar plantations, the integration of West Indian whites and blacks in island communities was unusual within the Western world. Indeed, Charles Dickens later published the history of a West Indian regiment of free blacks — some recruited from Nevis and the British Virgin Island of Tortola — that fought alongside Red Coats in the North American colonies of Georgia and the Carolinas against Washington in the War of Independence.
In what could be a Dickens tale, three years after his father’s departure, Alexander and his mother both caught yellow fever. Hamilton biographer Ron Chernow describes their medical treatment:
“[They received] medieval purgatives so popular in eighteenth-century medicine. Rachel had to endure an emetic and a medicinal herb called valerian, which expelled gas from the alimentary canal; Alexander submitted to bloodletting and an enema. Mother and son must have been joined in a horrid scene of vomiting, flatulence, and defecation as they lay side by side in a feverish state in the single upstairs bed.”
Alexander survived both disease and treatment. Rachel died, leaving the boys orphans. Her landlord, Nicolas Cruger, took on 13-year old Alexander as an apprentice clerk, while the brother was apprenticed to a carpenter. Cruger and business partner David Beekman had an extensive general store, warehouse and a counting shop located at the corner of Kings and King’s Cross Streets in Christiansted where Alexander worked.
Alexander quickly mastered mathematics, finance, insurance and other important skills working at Beekman and Cruger — expertise he later used to establish the U.S. Treasury. Hamilton had also benefited from his mother’s personal library of 34 books — rare and expensive assets in the 18th century. Upon her death, however, her precious books and other more meager possessions were seized by her first husband’s family, leaving the boys destitute.
Of necessity, self-educated Alexander worked hard. In spare time, he wrote poetry and, as he put it, “spun castles in the air.” He sought escape from the “groveling condition of a Clerk to which my Fortune condemns me.”
Like so many other young men of his era, Hamilton saw the military as the answer. “What I need is a war,” he wrote.
Following the hurricane that improbably propelled him into pre-Revolutionary New York in 1773, Hamilton found his war. George Washington took him on as an aide, recognizing his unusual intelligence and skills.
Following the Revolution, more than a few of Hamilton’s contributions to the United States may be traced to his early Caribbean days. At a time when slavery was the legal underpinning of much of the North American economy, Hamilton said the abilities of black people “are as good as ours” and that slaves should be freed. He also said that civil rights and freedom of religion go hand-in-hand: “Remember civil and religious liberty always go together; if the foundation of one be sapped, the other will fall.”
To uphold these liberties guaranteed in the Constitution Hamilton championed, he supported a strong federal government.
Today in Christiansted, St. Croix’s largest town, some of the 18th century buildings and sites associated with Hamilton — including the fort where his mother Rachel was imprisoned — are protected within the Christiansted National Historic Site, part of the National Park Service. A Hamilton walking guide is available for interested visitors.
Publishers Note: Jeff and his family are taking some time off of the Island and exploring other tropical paradises. This column ran initially in the July 2016 issue.