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An economic system based on slave labor

CARIBBEAN CHILDREN / Alexander Hamilton's upbringing on the Danish sugar colony island of St. Croix marked his policy as the United States' first finance minister and one of the founders of the United States. He was particularly interested in slaves – and what traces did slavery leave on the island?


At first glance, memories St. Croix. in the Caribbean about a mixture of Jamaica, Kolkata and Gran Canaria. In the capital Christiansted, there are more or less maintained remains of the Danish colonial period (1733–1917) with the characteristic Romanesque arches that also adorned Norway's capital Christiania. On the semi-dry patches of grass along the roads outside the city, lean horses graze. Plants penetrate windows and doors in abandoned houses, and many buildings lack street signs and house numbers, making it difficult to find my first destination: 34 Company Street, one of Alexander Hamilton's childhood homes.

Hamilton, with whom I first fell in love when I took a course in American history at San Francisco State University, was one of the founders of the United States, co-author of the Constitution and Federalist Papers, and the country's first finance minister. In addition to having his own Broadway musical, Hamilton has become the main character in my new novel while working on the title I founded the United States.

I have come to see what life on St. Croix may have looked like almost 250 years ago, when the island played a significant role in the triangle trade as one of the world's largest sugar producers based on slave labor. How was Hamilton's policy influenced by the childhood community? And what is it like to live on St. Croix today?

Taxation without representation

The inhabitants of the American Virgin Islands (St. Croix, St. Thomas and St. John) have US citizenship but cannot vote in the presidential election unless they have a permanent address in one of the 50 states of the United States. They pay taxes to the federal government in the United States, but not locally. According to the population, the islands suffer from corruption, dilapidated infrastructure, lawlessness and low social mobility due to poor educational opportunities and self-protective elites. Corruption is particularly prevalent in the notoriously incompetent WAPA (US Virgin Islands Water and Power Authority).

One of the tasks was to inspect the slaves that the company imported, before they were sold on the market for the plantations.

Precisely the fact that they were taxed without representation was the main reason why the American colonies declared independence from the British throne in 1776 in rebellion against this scheme. One may wonder what the freedom fighter is Alexander Hamilton had said if he had been told that his childhood island had not yet liberated itself from colonial power, which was transferred from Denmark to the United States together with the rest of the Danish Virgin Islands in 1917. Ironically, St. Croix pr. 2020 in the same unfree relations with the United States as the American colonies did to England in 1776.

Alexander Hamilton


In the capital Christiansted I go fast so as not to look like a tourist. But I'm not fooling anyone. Cars are honking, drivers are asking if I'm doing well, if I need help. A taxi driver shouts out the window, "Slow down, slow down." Alexander Hamilton was also asked to take it easy when he was the first US Treasury Secretary to introduce an economic system, a mix of government and private initiative. But the only thing that got over his furious pace was the depression he went through when his eldest son Philip was killed in a duel in 1801. Hamilton also died in a duel, against Vice President Aaron Burr in 1804. Since he fired up in the air rather than targeting his opponent, America's sharpest and most productive political soul was just 49 years old.

Alexander Hamilton is the least prominent founder of the United States and is portrayed on the 10-dollar bill despite never becoming president. He began his life in 1755 on the island of Nevis, where his French mother Rachel had two sons with the Scottish noble son James Hamilton after escaping from her Danish husband and first son. The Dane refused to grant Rachel a divorce and thus sentenced Alexander to bear the stamp as a louse cub. Shortly after the family moved to St. Croix in 1765, James Hamilton ran away, and the ten-year-old never saw his father again.

Alexander Hamilton

I ask some men outside a store on Company Street if they know where number 34 is, where Alexander Hamilton lived from the age of 10 to 14. On the ground floor of the same building, the mother ran a grocery store for the plantation owners, well assisted by young Alexander, who, despite his lack of formal schooling, kept the accounts. The men do not understand what I am looking for, but point in the direction of the only tourist attraction nearby, the cemetery belonging to St. John's Anglican Church at the end of the street. Little do the men know that the same church refused to bury Hamilton's mother when she died of yellow fever, since she had two illegitimate children. Few permanent residents I ask have heard of Hamilton, or they mix him with David Hamilton Jackson, a local hero who organized the descendants of the slaves in 1915 into unions. Hamilton Jackson's threats of a strike caused the Danes to cease their activities in the Virgin Islands two years later, which in turn led to the transfer of the islands to the United States.

The traumatic history of slavery on sugar plantations has led to a reluctance to cultivate the very fertile soil.

Alexander Hamilton was only 14 years old when he lost his mother to yellow fever. The ambitious boy was employed as a clerk at the import / export company Cruger, where, despite his young age, he gained a lot of responsibility and trust. One of the tasks was to inspect the slaves that the company imported, before they were sold on the market for the plantations. The sad constitution the slaves were in on arrival, shook Alexander deeply, and he remained opposed to slavery for the rest of his life.

Among other things, he refuted notions that Africans were an inferior people by claiming that "their natural facilities are as good as ours." He also recruited slaves to participate in the War of Independence on the part of the patriots, both because he believed it would contribute to the long-term liberation of the slaves and because he wanted to prevent the slaves being recruited by the British to fight the patriots. Hamilton also co-founded The New York Manumission Society in 1785, which advocated the gradual abolition of slavery and the liberation of African slaves in New York.

"Human cargo"

To expand my access to research sources, my Airbnb host Sherron is taking me to a St. Croix Hiking Association membership meeting. There, local eco-idealists talk about their struggle to accelerate the agricultural industry on St. Croix. According to them, the traumatic history of slavery on sugar plantations has led to a reluctance to cultivate the very fertile soil, and most of the fruit and vegetables on the island are imported. A woman hands out watermelon plants, and I am recommended to visit the big agricultural fair AgFair, where the Caribbean islands exhibit their specialties.

On the journey by bus to the agricultural fair outside Frederiksted, I am joined by a talkative elderly farmer. After the bus is about to collide with a car that does not comply with the island's left-hand drive rule, the farmer lists in detail every crop he grows on his farm, including pineapple, chili, cassava and cucumber. My gaze is constantly drawn to a damaged part of the skin at the base of his thumb, and soon he tells unsolicited about the injury. It started with an infection in a water blister that led to dead tissue, and ended with three weeks of hospitalization and skin grafting from the thigh. As the farmer leaves the bus, he gives me a warm hug and promises to send me a letter with a poem. Although it falls short as historical compensation, I promise to send him a box of his favorite food: King Gustaf sardines.

I am later introduced to national park worker Bruce James, who invites me on a tour of the fortress in Christiansted. As I walk towards the fortress, I pass American "snow birds" (similar to Norwegian Granka tourists who head south to soak up the sun) and Danes who want to admire the crown jewel in their extremely profitable colonial history. The tourists who paddle around in wetsuits and swimwear with silver bracelets from the local jewelery artist Sonya's make me unwell. With the immunity you get from moving in privileged groups, they settle on this island which to me seems like the foundling of the Caribbean, without reflecting on how many slaves, Danish settlers and prisoners who died here from disease and inhuman hard work to produce sugar, molasses and rum in the triangle trade.

With ranger Bruce Jenner

During the tour, James says that the slaves who were transported to the island were taken through the Scale House to be registered and valued. Contrary to popular belief, the slaves on board a ship were not necessarily retrieved from the same port on the Gold Coast. Sometimes as few as 2-3 were picked up from each port. Thus, those who were picked up first, lay farthest and suffered down in the smelly, dark and hot cargo hold while the ship lay at the quay in the various ports.

25-30 percent of the slaves (called "human cargo", human cargo) died on the crossing to the Virgin Islands. Thousands died from working themselves to death on the sugar plantations. Some of the slaves had to work at night unloading the light yellow bricks, which were ballast in the slave ships (the barrels of rum and molasses were ballast on their way out again), and built floors with them. For this they were compensated, and some eventually managed to buy themselves free. The free Africans lived in a certain area of ​​Christiansted, near the Airbnb home I rented, on Hill Street. In addition to carrying out construction work, some also worked as overseers and had to help calm down rebellious tendencies among their own. The bestial punishments for slave incitement were listed in The St. Croixian Pocket Companion, which the government in Copenhagen distributed to permanent residents. This says a lot about the constant fear the white minorities must have lived under:

If a slave attacked a white person, he would be hanged or beheaded, after being stabbed with red-hot firewood and castrated. If a slave raised a hand to rebel, his hand was cut off. If he tried to escape, he had his foot cut off. If he tried to escape for the second time, he had his other foot cut off. Those who were brought back after escaping could also have iron collars with spikes facing inwards towards the neck, so that they could not crawl through the bushes without having their necks cut across.

The prison that Hamilton's mother was in at the fortress in Christiansted due to alleged infidelity

Hurricane scholarship

After attending Wayne Nichols' Hamilton tour, I finally find 34 Company Street. Nichols points out a plot not far from the cemetery and says that Hamilton's house was behind an ugly, gray wall that was built after the house was demolished. Nichols' dream is for the US government to reconstruct the original house and turn it into a Hamilton Museum. There are currently no museums for Hamilton on St. Croix. The traces of him are limited to a plaque on the facade of what was his employer on King Street, the import / export company Cruger.

As a 17-year-old, Hamilton received scholarships from local elites, including employer Cruger, after revealing his unusual intellect with a newspaper article about a catastrophically devastating hurricane. He used the scholarship to travel to New York to study. Studies were postponed when the War of Independence broke out in 1776, and Hamilton quickly became involved with the victorious American patriots – first as an artillery captain in a local militia, and later as George Washington's personal assistant, letter writer, French-language resource and strategist. After his efforts in the war, and helped by a marriage to a young woman from New York's economic and political nobility, Hamilton was appointed Secretary of the Treasury in George Washington's first cabinet in 1789.

What had Hamilton thought about today's United States with its racistly motivated conflicts, contempt for politicians and lack of universal safety nets, where the distance between normality and ruin for many is only a week's wage away? Is this how Hamilton predicted that the nation experiment that began in 1776 would culminate? And if so, would he still have risked his life for the patriots?

Hamilton has been accused of strengthening the executive at the expense of the legislature and the judiciary, and of consolidating the federal government at the expense of state independence.

At the time, Hamilton's first priority was to cement a union of fundamentally different territories, which in 1861 was divided into a bloody civil war over the same question that characterized the creation of the United States: Is it acceptable to base an economic system on slave labor?

Historical facts about Alexander Hamilton's life are taken from Ron Chernow's biography, Hamilton (New York: Penguin Books, 2004). See also Harold Syrett and Jacob E. Cooke (eds.), The Papers of Hamilton. Volume 2 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1961–87).


Hilde Susan Jaegtnes
Hilde Susan Jaegtnes
Author and screenwriter for film and television.

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