Some old myths die in this new study of his West Indies childhood
Of his boyhood Alexander Hamilton habitually said very little. His political enemies said a good deal but mostly under their breath and only the most ill-tempered of them, old John Adams, went so far as to call him “the bastard son of a Scots peddler.” Hamilton’s family, by seeking to deny the fact of his illegitimacy, merely focused attention on it. Gertrude Atherton, in her fictionalized biography, The Conqueror, told a pretty tale of a blue blood rescued by wealthy relatives from the consequences of his mother’s shame.
All these misguided interpretations have enveloped Hamilton’s boyhood in a murk ol legend and conjecture, through which glares the single bare fact of his illegitimate birth. It is odd that this conlusion should persist. The English and Danish authorities of the islands where he passed his youth kept meticulous records and these records, lor the price oT a little digging, yield all the essential facts. They reveal a story of personal triumph over circumstances far transcending the mere stigma of bastardy.
His ancestry was British throughout. A fable flourishes in the Caribbean isles that through his maternal grandmother he inherited a quarter colored blood. The retord ol her marriage shows her to have been white, English and a widow, named Mary Uppington, when she married |ohn Kaucitt at St. George’s parish church on the island of Nevis, British West Indies, on August 21, 1718.
Faucitt was a widower himself with one daughter; an Englishman and a sugar planter, but an unsuccessful one. On an island where everyone else seemed to make a fortune in sugar lie slipped deeper into debt. He and Mary steadily lost acreage and owned but a dozen Negroes where others had scores. Eventually Mary Faucitt left him, taking with her their only child, Rachael, the girl who was one day to be Alexander Hamilton’s mother and who, in the custom of the place, had been brought up by the slaves.
Amid the tropical, amoral life of the sugar islands, specifically in Charlcstown, the seaport of Nevis, where the rich and successful played, Rachael blossomed quickly into a lush and beautiful adolescence under the eye of an ambitious mother. Before Mary left Faucitt she had steered his daughter Ann into a marriage with the son of one of Nevis’ wealthiest families, the Lyttons. Now she sought to do as well for her own child. The young Lyttons had moved away to the Danish island of St. Croix, but she had met, through them, a merchant named Lavien, middle-aged, flashy in appearance, boastful and well-connected. When he moved to St. Croix too, Mary and her daughter followed. True, he happened to be one of the few men the lovely girl found repulsive, but in 1745, in the drawing room of James Lytton’s fine house, “The Grange,” high up on St. Croix, Rachael Faucitt, aged sixteen, became at her mother’s insistence the unwilling bride of John Michael Lavien.
Five years after the wedding Lavien went rushing down to the town captain of Christiansted, one Bertram Pieter de Nully, in a state of fury, saying, “I want you to jail my wife!”
Now a lot of people knew by then that things weren’t as they should be at Lavien’s plantation house in the hills. His tastes were larger than his means. He was about to lose his land, but worse, there was trouble between him and Rachael, mother of his four-year-old son Peter.
Trouble? Lavien was explicit and his charges went into the record. Rachael was not only disobedient and rebellious; she forgot she was a wife. Repelling him physically, she had encouraged others. He had employed all ordinary means of discipline, and they were unlimited. She had threatened to run away if disci- plined any more. He wished to prevent her from running away.
So he swore out a warrant for her arrest. De Nully went up to the house and seized her and locked her in a cell in the Fort on the Christiansted quay.
Rachael, 21, looking from darkness into brilliant sunshine beyond, came to the first independent decision of her life. De Nully returned and told her that her husband wanted her released; that he had only wished to warn her, and would let bygones be bygones if she would promise to obey and be faithful. Rachael said no. She was never going back to John Michael Lavien: and all de Nully’s pleas could not persuade her. A wife must obey, he reminded her: your child, he said. Rachael adored children, and her first-born loved her. But Peter was not hers by law, except in a spiritual sense. Nothing was a married woman’s, by law. What Lavien chose to do with Peter he could do regardless of her.
“Rachael!” Once the world had rocked when Mary Faucitt used that tone. It had no effect now. Ann Lytton begged her half sister to think of James’ position; but Lytton was secure enough. Rachael said no.
So she must leave St. Croix, and Mary Faucitt must go too. Lavien had been cheated, a man with friends in the highest places, respected for trying to keep his home intact. Mary, who had worked hard for respect and success, and had achieved a measure, was made to fee! her own situation in every way, by her creditors not least. When she bade the Lyttons farewell and with Rachael sailed home to Nevis, she was in utter poverty.
Arrived, Rachael gave her no peace. Back and forth between Charlestown, Nevis, where she lived, and the seaport of Basseterre, on the island of St. Kitts, only a few miles away, Rachael went. St. Kitts was dominated by a fortress, still extant, called Brimstone Hill.
Whenever the wind blew fair, Rachael sailed for Basseterre in any handy canoe or sloop. What she did in the shadow of Brimstone only Lavien would venture to guess; but soon she met there the 33-year-old merchant, James Hamilton.
His family’s home in Ayrshire, Scotland, was called, like Lytton’s place, “The Grange,” a name that would grace the happiest home of his son Alexander one day. James was son of the Laird of Cambuskeith; a younger son, however, in the colonies without fortune. But, he was charming and tender, and won Rachael’s starved affections for good. As soon as she saw him her restlessness was gone, her passion appeased, her adventuring at an end. From now on, she would be true to James.
They could not clear the way to marriage. There was no divorce in the British islands, and Rachael could hardly go back to Christiansted and sue. She moved in with James Hamilton.
They were happy, as far as domestic life was concerned, even when he failed as a merchant.
Rachael took him to the house of her mother on Nevis, but the unhallowed establishment was too much for Mrs. Faucitt, a highly moral woman. She left in a hurry. Rachael was content. Her man struggled to earn a living for her, but they still had little except happiness when James, Jr., arrived in 1753.
Mary went to the nearby Dutch island of St. Eustatius, but she had not deserted her daughter. In 1756 she returned and deeded in trust for Rachael three slaves, salvaged in her legal separation from Faucitt. On January 11, 1755, Rachael had given birth to one more son, Alexander. (The date is significant as differing from tradition and from tombstone statistics. Hamilton celebrated January 11 as his birthday but was always vague about the year. That given in the legal papers quoted later, and accepted here, was based on the St. Croix census, a record of great accuracy.)
James Hamilton had just gone bankrupt, a disgrace J he found hard to bear. Mrs. Faucitt took them all back to “Statia” for awhile, the church records there revealing “James and Rachael Hamilton” as sponsors for a friend’s infant, proving at least that they considered themselves man and wife.
John Michael Lavien now proceeded to disillusion them.
He sued for divorce, alleging that Rachael had been “guilty of such misdoings as between married people are indecent and suspicious” and reciting that she had been absent from him for nine years and had borne “several illegitimate children.” Hence “plaintiff desires freedom from her, barring her from all rights to him or the little he has, which belongs to him and his son by his marriage to her.”
The document was posted up, but never served on Rachael. In April, 1759, Lavien alone appeared before Governor von Proeck, and five justices. In goldtrimmed clothes, glittering buckles, with powder on his hair, Lavien called witnesses to say how common his wife was. The court deliberated and found that Rachael Lavien had had opportunity to appear; that she had “lived on an English island for seven to eight years,” and in that period had given birth to two “obscene” children (the expert translation from the Danish has it thus). The marriage was ended, the right to remarry being reserved to Lavien.
But Rachael was happy on Nevis, and the baby Alexander was the core of her felicity. From the beginning he was bright, and as he grew his intelligence became more striking—and more painful to him. By the age of ten he knew that late had marked him. Not that it was shocking to be illegitimate, on Nevis; some in the best families were, and it was well known. But Rachael’s miniature drama had resounded throughout the islands, in the only unforgivable way. On Nevis, sins were only sins when aired in court.
The cottage in Charlestown had no visitors; yet Rachael looked forward hopefully for the first time in her life. It was she, from bitter experience, who taught Alexander that force was bad. Denied schooling, she sent him to the Jewish school, the only one. The Jews were respectable, and respected, in the islands. His father provided something nearly as uncommon as an education there: a shelf full of books.
It was a place of humming counting houses, expensively stocked shops and bulging sugar storage places, wharves sagging with imported luxuries; plush taverns, gaming places and a fashionable spa, with the blue of the sea on one hand and a sulphuric greenclad mountain on the other. Alexander, his reddish hair in a tight pigtail, his clothes a replica of James Hamilton’s and probably cut down from them, his eyes bright blue and his stature small, was aware that his father’s affairs were in a chronic mess. The Hamiltons were merely onlookers at good fortune. He saw the sugar riches pouring down from the heights, saw apprentice boys learning to be as wealthy as their masters, saw innumerable Negroes busy at tasks that proclaimed property of which they themselves were the most vital part, and knew himself less than the least of these.
His teacher liked to stand him on a table and make him recite the Decalogue in Hebrew. She fostered Alex’s precocious love of reading, and acquainted him with arithmetic.
He also knew something about the currently controversial Stamp Act. Like the Thirteen Colonies on the mainland, the Indies met King George Ill’s best-known measure with horror. “No taxation without representation” was the cry there, too. hi 1705, when Alexander was ten, boatloads of men came over from the neighbor island of St. Kitts and “helped” Nevis destroy its stamped papers.
One day that same year his father imparted a staggering piece of news. James Hamilton was a good companion. His sons would always love him. He asked Alexander now: “How would you like to take a journey?” A journey! What a wonderful thing! Where?
To St. Croix.
Actually, there was no choice. James had found work as manager for the firm of Archibald Ingram & Son at Basseterre. Ordered to St. Croix to collect a debt, he was in no position to refuse. So in the year 1765 he took Rachael, with the two small boys, back to the scene of her tragedy.
In the meantime matters had turned ill for fames Lytton. His elder son had cheated and fled, taking Lytton’s ship the James & Ann with slaves belonging to another. Lytton’s son-in-law, one Venton, had failed and run oft, taking his wife but not his child. Lytton brought up the child and made good the losses, but the shame weighed heavily on him, on his wile and his remaining son, Peter, whose affairs were crippled likewise. Jt was not a propitious moment lor Rachael to return with the evidences of her shame.
As the passenger sloop dropped anchor in the bay of Christiansted, Alexander saw a high stone wharf and a climbing town beyond. He saw ships with slaves in fetters, vessels loaded down with many cargoes. His blue eyes noted lengthy streets stretching up into the verdant hills, where Rachael had been married. He saw traders crowding and clamoring in the shade of colonnades, saw the color, smelled the smells, heard for the first time in his life the bustle of a commercial town.
Peter Lytton, a few years Rachael’s junior, found her a little house on “The Company’s Lane,” renting it in her maiden name, Faucitt. He would set her up in business, but she pestered James Hamilton on how long it would be before they could return home.
James was there to collect a debt, and the debtor repudiated the claim. It must be taken to court. So Peter Lytton obtained credit for Rachael from her landlord, Thomas Dipnall, provision warehouseman, and she put in a stock of foodstuffs and household articles to sell. Two bachelors from New York, David Beekman and Nicholas Cruger, just setting up in partnership at the lower end of King Street, living there above their store, sold her imported items at wholesale.
Rachael proved good at her job. At first young Lytton kept her accounts, but he was often away. He had a wife old enough to be his mother, with vast interests which he must manage. He said to ten-year-old Alexander Hamilton, “I will teach you how to keep accounts.”
As for James Lytton, he gave his wife’s unfortunate half sister six leather chairs for her house; and he and Ann persuaded the English church to accept her again; which meant not only that she found herself in good standing in the community she had feared, but (more important) that Alexander coidd attend the church school. Lytton, Jr., apprenticed young Jimmy to a carpenter.
Alexander played games and went to parties, helped men race boats in the bay, learned songs from Negroes newly come and seeking happiness, like himself, where they could find it. He joined in songs of French, Dutch, Scottish, and Danish children, his daily companions. He would always love to sing.
Life was good, because “Papa” was there, as precious to his sons as to her who called herself his wife. There was joy in the house on “The Company’s Lane.”
But James Hamilton might be sent anywhere on his return to St. Kitts. The firm had purchased land and commercial holdings in remote islands. He knew that Rachael and the boys would give up all lor him; that they dreaded parting; but in January, 1766, when Ingram & Son’s claim was finally allowed and the money paid to the emissary, James Hamilton went to Rachael and told her he was going back alone. He was all she ever asked, adored by both their boys, but he left them in Christiansted, and she never saw him again.
Alexander’s best friend at St. John’s School, one of his best friends through life, was Edward Stevens, son of a merchant of Christiansted. Neddy had the Scottish coloring Alexander had. Fair, rosy and slender in their little-old-man clothes, Ned and Alex were taken for brothers. They felt like brothers.
As far as Alexander was concerned, IiIe was still good enough. Afternoons when school was out he and Xeddy made plans for tame and fortune and far travel, which in the case of one of them were absurd. Evenings he read, or figured, in the lane, watching over the stock. By candlelight he pored over philosophies, histories and travel classics, but not until he had brought the books of the business up to date, working out debits and credits so well that elegant Nicholas Cruger, coming on him thus in Rachael’s place one day, remarked that he could use an apprentice in his counting house.
So Alexander got another place to run to: the colonnaded shop and shadowy office of Cruger and Beekman, whose affairs grew rapidly. Cruger understood small boys; and Alexander was still only eleven. The store was cavernous and dim, redolent behind its pillars. The partners dealt in mules and hides, lumber and rum, molasses, cotton, sugar, barrels and staves. Also slaves. Cruger was charmed because the boy showed a gift lor it all.
To the boy, home and family meant most. Cousin Peter Lytton was agreeable according to his lights but was naturally morose and miserly, and when the ancient woman he had married died he sank into despondency, for he had loved both her and her wordly possessions, to which others promptly laid claim. He could spare Rachael and the boys very little of his time.
Mother and children slept together in a bed that had belonged to her father, John Faucht, now deceased, who had willed her all he had. They ate from his silver and his dishes, and were waited upon by Rachael’s three slaves. After a while she began calling herself, for reasons of propriety, “Madame Lewine,” (or so the official record spells it).
Alexander’s disposition matched his sunny hair. In the office near the foot of King Street, close to the waters of the bay, he kept Cruger’s accounts, which were increasingly involved. For Cruger finished what Peter Lytton began, Alexander’s training in bookkeeping; till soon the boy outstripped them both. With an alert curiosity and an ingrained aptitude, Alexander mastered the intricacies ot St. Croix finance, a complex enough economy, and in the process came to understand the profits and perils ol piracy. The region was notorious as a pirates’ paradise. Those in the streets ol Christiansted were not all honest traders, but often smuggling and honest trade were pursued concurrently by the best. The boy studied this. The temptations lor slipping through the Danish West India-Guinea Company’s regulations and thereby making a lot ot money were great; but he also closely watched legitimate dealings between commoners and kings, and came to the conclusion, which he would never relinquish, that the governing and the governed profited most by mutual respect; that when either transgressed, evil befell.
Small, slender and frail, he stood in “Cruger’s Square,” checking oft Negro men, women and children as they were brought ashore, cowering, fearful, aching from their fetters still, and thinking nothing of it. The boy consulted with sea captains in shiny hard hats, with sailors in striped shirts and stocking caps. He talked to buccaneers. He touched his forehead to ladies from the hills down shopping in their painted equipages, who smiled and bowed in return.
Rachael “Lewine” was very proud. Her youngest would be a merchant himself one day, there was no doubt. A scholar, too. He was always reading about the world; about men who made history.
This was Hamilton’s life till he reached thirteen. His mother made and mended his clothes and kept his clumsy shoes in repair, kept his buckles shining. She fixed the ruddy pigtail of his hair and kept his linen washed. Her slaves had now increased to nine, one of whom was Ajax, Alexander’s slave, his mother said, forever. A boy named Christian belonged to Jimmy.
One morning in February, 1768, Rachael awoke with a high fever. Terror broke then into the little house. For Rachael to be ill was something so rare as to be awful. The boys ran to a lodger Rachael had taken in, Ann Macdonnell, who came down.
No need to call a doctor, she said: everything would be all right. She knew fevers. Mrs. Macdonnell put Rachael to bed and administered a violent purge. Rachael’s fever soared, more wasting even than the mode of treatment. Ann Macdonnell called a barber in, who bled Rachael. A further purge was given her.
No one told little Hamilton that this was wrong, as he stood and watched his mother die. Burning and depleted, bled, each hour she grew weaker. Put to bed himself, becoming feverish at last, he saw his mother in all her agony try to tempt his appetite. “Chicken for Elicks,” the rough spelling has it on the bill of her landlord, who supplied her table too.
Alex mended, but Rachael grew worse. The child’s physical fever went, and he returned to cower in a corner with his brother Jimmy. Peter Lytton, dropping in, called a doctor, who bled and purged Rachael still more.
Rachael had never failed her sons before. She failed them now. She died on February 19, 1768, with both lost little boys beside her.
This was the experience that marked Hamilton permanently. The day Rachael died, the Danish judges of the Probate Court came to her house and went carefully over every inch of it, including the storeroom, which they found neatly stacked with salt pork, smoked beef, smoked and salted fish, rice, flour, fruit and butter. They went over her books, their report remarking on their excellence, sealed up her rooms and her effects, held her slaves—and, in the end, the Hamilton boys’ home was theirs no longer. They could remain until some shelter was found for them. James Lytton did not offer any. Aged and infirm, he could not forget the disgrace Rachael had brought on the family. Peter Lytton was named the boys’ guardian by the court. He gave no invitation either.
Rachael was buried on February 20, 1768, on the Grange plantation, in a bit of ground James Lytton had reserved, the two little boys, veiled, trailing forlornly behind. After the funeral the Probate Court made final appraisal of Rachael’s property. As late as August of that year it looked as if the Hamilton boys might inherit something. On August 3 John Michael Lavien brought suit for all of her property. Everything she had owned, he said, belonged to his son Peter. Her two “obscene children” had no status at all. The court decided in his favor. Young Peter got it all, except the chairs. James Lytton claimed and got those, plus interest, and kept what he got.
The carpenter to whom he was apprenticed took Jimmy into his home. Alexander clung to Peter Lytton, but Peter somehow could not make room for him. The extent of Peter’s pity was to buy back Alexander’s books. There remained stylish Nicholas Cruger—whose partner Beekman had retired from the firm.
Cruger, young and hearty, with a blond Teutonic appearance, was gregarious and gay, the model of a wealthy bachelor; a rich man, with few worries. He came on Alexander Hamilton languishing at a high desk in the dim counting house.
“Boy,” he said, “we’re both bachelors, you and I. There’s room upstairs. How would you like to live here with me?”
So Alexander got a home. Nicholas Cruger housed him, in a room above the counting house, from 1768 to the day he left St. Croix. But from this time forward Hamilton shrank from affection. Lytton was his own, even if only half his flesh and blood. Alexander was in spiritual debt to Cruger, but the attitude of Peter Lytton patently contributed to his lifelong reluctance to give love to any man. Though the upstairs residence of Cruger on King Street was young Alexander’s home, it is plain that at Peter Lytton’s there was something the boy craved. At age fourteen, on a July afternoon in 1769, Hamilton went to his cousin’s house and found some people there.
There were always people there. Lytton had many slaves, including Ledja, mother of his only son. There were constant visitors. This day Ledja wept.
In the bedroom lay Peter Lytton, suicide.
Eighteen months later they buried Lytton, Sr., next to his son. Father and son both left fortunes big enough to be the subject of litigation by many claimants for many years. Neither left the sons of Rachael anything.
As a direct result of their deaths, however, a change took place in Alexander’s life. A Lytton appeared who loved him at sight.
This was the wife of John Venton, James Lytton’s son-in-law, cause of most of his troubles. Ann Venton had been born on St. Croix in 1743, and so was only twelve years Alexander’s senior. Decamping to New York with her husband, deserting her child, she had later quarreled with Venton, but had managed to put roots down. She came back only to pick up her little girl and claim her share of her father’s estate, but, embittered as the other Lyttons, she proved far more sympathetic toward young Hamilton.
She requested Hamilton to be her agent. It seems quite clear that she told him that if he would watch over her inheritance of two-sevenths of the residue of her father’s estate, she would share her inheritance with him. From the time of her arrival in Christiansted till long after his departure thence, Hamilton had regular accruals of capital from there. It is true that she herself got little for a long while, and had come home with less. The Lytton estates would not be settled for a dozen years. But modest installments were paid out, expenses disbursed, and allowances made for this and that. Alexander’s signature is on all receipts for Ann’s share.
There has always been speculation as to who financed Hamilton’s voyage to New York and his education in New Jersey and there. From the record, he did it himself. Ann helped, but Nicholas Cruger made him his clerk, and paid him wages, and even threw commercial opportunities his way. Some of the mercantile transactions Hamilton handled were for his own account. One of his letters says so specifically, anxious over the settling of bills.
Meanwhile, Alexander’s friend Neddy Stevens had gone north, to King’s College in New York, leaving Alexander feeling worse than ever. He must be where he could acquire wider knowledge; could not only learn, but excel. Situated as he was he must excel, he was convinced of that. Only surpassing achievement would excuse his existence; but how attain it? How gain higher knowledge among these study-shy plantation men and traders?
He wrote thus to Neddy. Neddy was homesick, and had planned to spend the Christmas holidays in a journey south and back. Alexander wrote him on November 11, 1769:
There spoke the island boy. Only war took one without fortune from home.
No war; but there was a lot of trouble suddenly upon St. Croix. A palace revolution in Denmark, so minor that though it filled the headlines it would get into few of the history books. The queen was implicated and rudely incarcerated. The throne was shaken, and would never be the same again; but what concerned Denmark’s dependencies in the Caribbean was that without warning, island notes were dishonored in Holland, England, Prussia, France. In Christiansted a scramble for liquid assets ensued, among men who were in many instances land millionaires. Hamilton’s lifelong adherence to hard cash can be traced back to this crisis.
Cruger owned vast estates in cotton and sugar. He had his choice of slaves, and made shrewd purchases. His storerooms on King Street were jammed with food, clothing, building materials, ship chandlery, liquor, and the makings of the barrels. For all this there was great demand, yet Cruger barely preserved his business, his associates, his family and his friends from ruin because of his lack of specie.
That he did preserve them was due in considerable measure to young Hamilton. Through observation Hamilton knew where profitable cargoes could be sold for cash. He had kept his eyes open, and moreover was expert at getting the last penny out of poor cargoes, having been left so much on his own and possessing a natural zest for working things out.
Late in 1771 Alexander met the man who affected the course of his life perhaps more than any other. Hugh Knox, Presbyterian clergyman, came to Christiansted in 1771, when Hamilton was sixteen. The lad was presented to him as a worthy subject for his spiritual efforts, and responded as a flower to the sun. Here at last was a man of ideas! Knox believed in education as he did in God. He even wished to educate the slaves. It was, Knox said, only because they, untaught and godless, were the guides and philosophers of the young that there was so much immorality down here. Educate them, he said, elevate them, and you will elevate all—provided you instill a zest for personal education in the breasts of their white masters also. Alexander saw Negroes as people for the first time.
Knox talked about morality as something from within, relating it to free choice; and that brought up the everlasting subject of contemporary politics. Rule without reason, Knox told Alexander Hamilton, damaged both the rulers and the ruled.
So far there had been nobody to discuss such issues with. Knox, a mere exploratory visitor as yet, was manna to Alexander Hamilton.
The influence of the minister on the youth was immediate and enduring. Where piety was concerned it would manifest itself in irregular but reverent church attendance throughout life; and an overwhelming desire for Communion at the end.
By the time the clergyman’s initial visit drew to a close his interest in young Hamilton knew no bounds. He marveled at the way the youth absorbed and digested facts, the manner in which he had mastered, alone, subjects too abstruse for many men. Whatever he read he went out of his way to understand, and he read endlessly. At seventeen he was brilliant and informed in every way, far beyond the possibilities of this small scrap of land. So much was clear to Hugh Knox.
Knox told him that he must go north, preferably to the college at Princeton, New Jersey. As if he needed urging! Knox hammered at the theme the more insistently as he came to know the youth better. Alexander answered, I am seventeen, and all the journeys I can hope to take are local voyages for Mr. Cruger, my employer and benefactor.
One afternoon in August, 1772, Alexander looked into the dusk cast by the pillars of Cruger’s arcade, and saw the curious light in the street outside.
He finished a written report to Cruger, and sat listening to the wind. Beyond the arcade the afternoon had gone dark gray—ominous sign on a tropic isle. The daylight seemed to thicken. Everything appeared to wait. Reared in the Indies, Hamilton knew what portended. All Christiansted did, and was more than ordinarily dismayed.
The wind roared. The blackness deepened. The Negroes in their cabins began to wail in concert with the wind. It raged. Soon, doors and shutters were flying off. The night became a horror of inanimate objects, human bodies, every kind of thing hurtling through the dark as real night fell. The sea beyond the Fort was a turmoil. It was St. Croix’s most devastating hurricane of all. Half the houses in Christiansted were in ruins before morning, part of Cruger’s among them. By dawn, in the harbor, not a vessel remained. Far up on dry land ships leaned crazily, plant life, animals, humans crushed beneath. In the hills where the great plantations were, vegetation strewed the ground. The cane, the cotton, were devastated. Slave huts were swept away like leaves. The masters’ houses stood up better, but not much. In Frederiksted three houses were left standing. There were very many dead.
The storm struck on August 30, 1772, and was so ruinous that for months little could be thought of but survival. One evil was swiftly eliminated. Looters, on the morning after the storm, prowled the ruined houses, the shops, the rich warehouses for booty, offering it surreptitiously for sale.
The Danish governor, a new one, von Roepstorff, posted a proclamation. Those whose houses were sufficiently intact must take in all they could of those whose homes had been destroyed. The rest should address themselves to him, and the churches would be opened to them. Captains were forbidden to take advantage by overcharging for articles brought in. Everyone having any needed item must put up a notice to that effect, and “Who sells the most reasonable will surely be the best burgher.” Anyone caught selling higher than he advertised would have his stock confiscated. Each planter must provide for his slaves, “as his own interest dictates.” Everyone with a whole canoe must go out and catch fish. Finders, colored or white, of anything must deliver it up on pain of being adjudged thieves and punished accordingly—which meant, under contemporary law, death.
This invocation of the legitimate and orderly struck a deep chord in Alexander.
That Sunday, he heard Hugh Knox preach his first sermon in his new pastorate, the clergyman having been invited to minister to the combined Dutch Reformed and Presbyterian communities of Christiansted. It was a discourse on the hurricane and its meaning. The boy went home and wrote a letter to his father. He was in the habit of writing to James Hamilton, who had been on the island of St. Vincent, far to the south, for some time. Alexander described the holocaust, recapitulating the governor’s part in enthusiastic terms; occasionally employing, and sometimes improving upon, phrases from the sermon of Hugh Knox.
Knox came on him before the letter went off, was handed it to read, was stunned. A writer of some experience, with a number of published essays to his credit, sometimes he took over the editorship of the Royal Danish-American Gazette, the local paper, the regular editor of which was one of his many friends. He said to Alexander: “Let me publish this.”
Hamilton’s immediate and instinctive reaction was fear of being known to a wider public. Knox had to use his best persuasions; but the letter appeared in the Gazette on October 3, 1772, the clergyman supplying an introduction in which he stated that it had come to his notice by chance, and that those to whom he had shown it thought it might be of general interest.
What St. Croix, St. Thomas and neighboring islands read was an immature and highly imitative outpouring of youthful emotion; yet interest proved very general indeed. The piece created a sensation.
By coincidence, an open letter addressed by the Reverend John Witherspoon, head of the college at Princeton, New Jersey, to “the inhabitants of Jamaica and the other West Indian islands,” appeared at about the same time. It asked financial aid for professorships at the institution, and that the sons of the islands be sent to enjoy the facilities there.
Knox read the appeal while marveling at the display of mental calisthenics on the part of his young friend, and at once exhibited it to him, insisting that Hamilton of all boys ought to take advantage of it.
Cruger wrote to his family and friends in New York. Knox wrote to his brethren of the cloth in New Jersey; also to the headmaster of a grammar school at Elizabethtown, where Hamilton could prepare for college. The master, a new one, Francis Barber, was only slightly Hamilton’s senior, but Knox described him as a man of highly progressive educational ideas, excellent with boys whose gifts were outstanding, and quite willing to speed them through.
This suited Alexander. He had had enough of waiting. Once on the mainland he would be bound by no delays. He must acquire knowledge fast. His haste, in fact, would lead to President Witherspoon’s reluctantly turning him down when the time came, and to his entering King’s instead; but that is another story.
Preparations were completed. Vaguely he heard the names of two strangers who had promised to receive and aid him: William Livingston; Elias Boudinot. Through the good offices of Knox and Cruger, these two New Jersey residents would sponsor his admittance.
He sailed in midsummer, 1773, as supercargo on Cruger’s ship, the Thunderbolt, armed with paid-up letters of credit for his benefit drawn by Cruger & Kortright, a new partnership, on their correspondent house, Lawrence Kortright & Co., in New York City; a town that little knew (though few things could have surprised it then) what was in store for it.