The West Indian Island That Shaped Alexander Hamilton


Ann Mah (The New York Times) blends history with snippets of her own travels through the U.S. Virgin Islands to tell the story of Alexander Hamilton’s family and his early years in St. Croix. [Many thanks to Michael Connors for bringing this item to our attention.] Here are a few excerpts; I highly recommend the full article:

Before he achieved Revolutionary War glory, or became a founding father and an author of the Federalist Papers; before he established a sophisticated financial system, served as the nation’s first Treasury secretary or engaged in the type of petty political feud that would lead to his death in a duel at 49; before the $10 bill immortalized his beaked profile; and over two and a half centuries before a Broadway musical about his life would weave itself into the cultural spirit of the early 21st century, Alexander Hamilton was an orphan struggling to survive on the Caribbean island of St. Croix. Though he left as a teenager — and never returned — Hamilton’s tragic West Indian childhood informed his entire life, shaping his views on government, economics, slavery and much more.

[. . .] Alexander Hamilton was born on Nevis, an island in the British West Indies about 140 miles southeast of St. Croix, in either 1755 or 1757. (Lost documents and his own subterfuge have obscured the true date, but historians generally agree on 1755.) While he was not quite “the bastard brat of a Scotch pedlar” — as John Adams once acidly described him — the circumstances surrounding his out-of-wedlock birth were certainly infelicitous. His father, James Hamilton, the dissolute fourth son of a Scottish laird, had washed up on the island of St. Kitts. He met the beautiful and spirited Rachel Faucette Lavien and the two embarked on an ill-fated romance. [. . .]

In 1768, Rachel succumbed to a vicious fever and died here, leaving her sons essentially orphaned. Eighteen months later, their guardian cousin committed suicide. Penniless and alone, the brothers separated; James became an apprentice to a carpenter and, in an operatic twist, Alexander found himself living in the Christiansted home of a wealthy merchant’s family, and working for the import-export firm Beekman and Cruger.

[. . .] Fortune brought him first a hurricane. In 1772, a fierce storm devastated St. Croix. Hamilton described to his father the “prodigious glare of almost perpetual lightning, the crash of the falling houses, and the ear-piercing shrieks of the distressed”; it was a letter of such marked literary skill that it was published by the local newspaper, The Royal Danish American Gazette, where it attracted the attention of several prominent businessmen. They began a subscription fund for his education, and a few months later Hamilton was on a ship bound for Boston.

“Men are generally too much attached to their native countries to leave it and dissolve all their connexions, unless they are driven to it by necessity,” Hamilton wrote in 1775. By the time he wrote these words, he was a student at King’s College in New York and an ardent supporter of the American cause, his ignominious West Indian beginnings so far behind him that they had almost become a source of shame. He had managed to escape his past — and he never looked back. [. . .]

For full article, see

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