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Finding Alexander Hamilton in Nevis

Alexander Hamilton, once relegated to being "that guy on the $10 bill," is now a huge draw, thanks to the Tony Award-...

Posted: May 3, 2018 4:37 PM
Updated: May 3, 2018 4:37 PM

Alexander Hamilton, once relegated to being "that guy on the $10 bill," is now a huge draw, thanks to the Tony Award-winning musical inspired by his life.

Author and original "Hamilton" portrayer Lin-Manuel Miranda has won a MacArthur Fellowship and many of the show's cast members have become stars.

But there's one place not feeling the benefit of Hamilton's star power: the island of Nevis, where the Founding Father was born.

Nevis, a small island in the West Indies usually forced to play second fiddle to its bigger sibling of St Kitts (together they comprise the country of St Kitts & Nevis), doesn't even get mentioned by name in the musical.

In fact, there's only one reference to the place where Hamilton was born: "dropped in the middle of a forgotten spot in the Caribbean," a few seconds into the opening number.

The lack of shout-outs to Nevis makes sense, because it's Hamilton's time in the new country of the United States of America that forms the basis of the plot. But Nevis's residents know that Hamilton's story is incomplete without the foundations of his life, which were laid on the island where he spent his formative years.

A complicated history

While Hamilton was already famous in the US before the musical placed him higher in the American national consciousness, he remains a somewhat controversial figure in Nevis.

Some locals are proud of the fact that a famous man came from their island, but others feel disconnected because Hamilton never returned home. He was also a white man in a predominantly black community.

Hanzel Manners offers some perspective.

Manners is a Nevisian historian and the author of "Bamboo Shay: A Collection of Short Stories of Nevis." He has devoted his life to preserving local history for future generations, especially as the country changed significantly following its independence from the UK in 1983.

"Nevis was at one time the head of what we call the Royal African Company in the West Indian islands, and Nevis was the base," Manners says.

"All of the slaves to be sold in the islands landed in Nevis, just up the street there. The planters came from Antigua and St. Kitts and other places to buy their slaves here."

That main slave market, in fact, was practically next door to where Hamilton grew up.

"He would have seen [slave auctions] because he was born in 1757, and that was in the middle of slavery period. At that time, Nevis had a population around that time around 10,000 people, predominantly Africans."

It's that connection to slavery on Nevis that makes Hamilton's legacy so complex on the island. While he is often praised in the US for being ahead of his time and opposing slavery, that doesn't necessarily take into account the fact that Hamilton's family benefited from the practice.

Ron Chernow's book "Hamilton," which inspired Lin-Manuel Miranda to write the musical, argues that it was precisely this exposure to slavery's inhumanity as a child that caused Hamilton to oppose the practice as an adult.

"I think the fact that Hamilton was white and that his family had slaves might be some of the contributing factors as to why some persons don't really connect to him locally," Kris Liburd, a lawyer and native Nevisian, tells CNN Travel.

"In terms of national heroes here, we think of the first premier of Nevis, the honorable Dr. Simeon Daniel. We think of Sir Robert Llewellyn Bradshaw, the first premier of St. Kitts and Nevis, and Kim Collins, who at one point in time was the fastest man on Earth."

A quick look at a map of St Kitts and Nevis bears that out: Nevis has a highway named for track and field star Collins, while the airport on St Kitts is named for Bradshaw.

A mother's story

Also in that opening musical number is a line referring to Hamilton's mother Rachel Faucette as a whore. This claim, say reps from the Nevis Historical Society, is untrue and unfair.

Buck was married to a Danish man named Johann Lavien, whom she said was abusive to her.

Though divorce at the time was rare, Foucette was able to leave the marriage because her family owned property in Nevis and would be able to support her financially.

Later, Faucette fell in love with Scotsman James Hamilton. The couple lived together in what would probably be called a common-law marriage and had two sons, of whom Alexander was the younger.

Because his parents were not married, he was technically a bastard child. But that name has been distorted over the years to make it sound as if Faucette was a prostitute, which there is no evidence to support.

Eventually, James Hamilton left the family and Faucette died of yellow fever. Or, as Miranda puts it: "Alex got better but his mother went quick."

If you build it, will they come?

On a warm Saturday afternoon in Nevis, there are only a handful of people visiting Hamilton's birthplace, which doubles as the Nevis Historical Society.

Nearly all were cruise ship daytrippers who chose the historical society over a beach trip or visit to the island's botanical gardens, and each mentioned the Broadway show as part of their interest in Hamilton.

Despite the lack of a big crowd that day, the historical society reports that their international tourism numbers have gone up since "Hamilton"'s success. Nevis' airport and harbor are both on the smaller side, which keeps visitor numbers low compared to other nearby islands.

If Nevisians were hoping that the rebirth of interest in Alexander Hamilton would result in a windfall for the island where he was born, that hasn't happened just yet.

The historical society is trying to raise funds to buy the house next door, where Hamilton grew up.

"Here is a site on which the great American statesman was born and we're struggling to buy a building. America has all this wealth. Maybe somebody should just help us," says Manners.

"Most Nevisians are very proud to say where they came from. We might be humble, circumstances, we might even be poor, but find any Nevisian in North America and they'll be proud to tell you where they came from."

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