Before Alexander Hamilton was “young, scrappy and hungry,” trying to make a name for himself in New York City, he was fending for himself on a small island in the Danish West Indies. That island – St. Croix – had a profound impact on Hamilton, setting him apart from the other U.S. founding fathers. And that history, for the sake of cultivating pride and boosting tourism, should be more celebrated.
With the award winning, Broadway musical “Hamilton” playing on nearby Puerto Rico, the time is more pertinent than ever to get on board. After retiring from his role as the lead in the musical two and a half years ago, writer/composer/actor Lin Manuel Miranda has returned to the role for a three-week run of the show in San Juan.
Miranda, who was inspired to write the play after reading Alexander Hamilton’s definitive autobiography, is giving all the proceeds of the San Juan production to fund arts in Puerto Rico. Having spent his boyhood summers on the island with his grandparents, Puerto Rico is dear to Miranda’s heart, and he’s given an outpouring of love to it since Hurricane Maria devastated the island in 2017.
I saw the play last Saturday. It’s an incredible work of genius that deserves all of the accolades its won and more. And Miranda’s affection for Puerto Rico shines throughout the production right down to the final bow, where he proudly holds up the island’s flag while the audience cheers.
But one thing that struck me is that St. Croix is never mentioned throughout the entire play, and is only alluded to in some of the songs. As the catchy intro number goes, residents there were impressed by Hamilton’s aptitude and “Took up a collection just to send him to the mainland” in the early 1770s.
It’s not a criticism of the play or of Miranda that St. Croix isn’t directly mentioned, or that Miranda hasn’t really talked about St. Croix in his interviews despite the fact that the island was devastated by the same hurricanes as Puerto Rico in 2017. Hamilton himself didn’t share much about his humble beginnings in the Danish colony, since he was trying to fit in with the other founding fathers who all came from more prestigious backgrounds. Orphaned as a teenager and sent to work in a shop, it’s no wonder Miranda wrote that Hamilton was “Dropped in the middle of a forgotten spot in the Caribbean.”
With the spotlight on “Hamilton” in Puerto Rico, and national media paying attention to the play’s run (Jimmy Fallon went live from Puerto Rico last week and interviewed Miranda, and many large newspapers have covered it), St. Croix should take note and consider highlighting the following aspects of Hamilton’s upbringing to show how special and loved this “forgotten spot” really is.
St. Croix was foundational to Hamilton getting real-life economics experience. As a young teenager in the 1760s, he was trusted to manage a trading company in Christiansted. The town’s busy port was frequented by all of the colonial powers in the region, so young Hamilton got firsthand experience in dealing with different currencies and languages. More than 1,000 ships a year came to the port from Europe, the Americas and other Caribbean islands. This experience would serve him well in his studies in New York City and when he later established the U.S. Treasury System.
Coming from a working class family allowed Hamilton to learn business. His mother, Rachel, who is buried on St. Croix, opened a small store at 34 Company Street in Christiansted. It was there that her son learned how to do the books and he then started clerking for a trading company on King Street.
Living near the Sunday market, where freed slaves came to sell their goods every weekend, meant that Hamilton regularly interacted with blacks, an experience that led to his stance as an abolitionist. At that time, St. Croix had about 22,000 slaves, 1,000 freed slaves and 1,000 whites living on it. Some revisionist historians point out that Hamilton overlooked his anti-slavery beliefs to get ahead politically, but he nonetheless thought slavery was morally wrong, economically impractical and bad for the young country.
Hamilton recognized the ills of slavery in the grave human suffering he saw on Caribbean sugar plantations.
One of young Hamilton’s letters that was published in the local gazette described the aftermath of a major hurricane and the tragedy he saw around him, given many slaves had died due to their unsafe dwellings that couldn’t withstand the winds.
Since the play first debuted in New York in 2015, St. Croix has seen a small uptick in tourists interested in learning about the life of Hamilton. As a result, there have been some organized walking tours in the town. Hamilton’s residences at 23 and 34 Company Street no longer exist and neither do the offices of his employer, Beekman and Cruger, which stood at 7-8 King Street. Yet there are many Danish colonial buildings still standing that evoke the time period Hamilton grew up in.
Hamilton isn’t the only important historical figure to come from the Virgin Islands – we can’t forget the “Queens of the Fireburn” and General Buddhoe among others. It’s just that his story has captured the national imagination and that popularity is an opportunity for St. Croix, which has long received less tourists than St. Thomas and St. John. It’s also an opportunity to establish St. Croix as a place of significant historical importance.
In past assessments, the entire island of St. Croix has met all of the criteria to be designated a Natural Heritage Area, which the National Park Service defines as “places where historic, cultural and natural resources combine to form cohesive, nationally important landscapes.”
With interest in Hamilton’s life at its height in light of the play’s popularity, St. Croix stands to gain from sharing the story of his humble beginning with more and more people. Perhaps a Department of Tourism campaign is in order, one that also highlights other prominent Virgin Islanders like those mentioned above. The founding father himself would likely encourage the island to capitalize on the buzz.