In memory of the Late Henri (aka Maurice) Cannegieter (1943-2016)
In his smooth and insightful introduction to the Hamilton White House performance on March 14, 2016, President Obama stated: “Hamilton is not just for people who can score a ticket to a pricey Broadway show. It is a story for all of us and about all of us.”
The President was addressing folks in the United States. We must take him at his word for most of us have not seen, will not see the show on Broadway but the reviews have been very positive, in keeping with the President’s assessment. Fortunately, there are recordings of the show and more importantly, there is the book that inspired it. It is therefore truly regrettable that this show has elicited, is eliciting, such a crass display of partisanship in commentary online.
Having recently read the book that inspired the musical I venture that it would not have received the kind of attention it deserves and is getting were it not for the show. I, for one, would not have read this biography published in 2004 were it not for the commotion surrounding the musical. The book is about the vital role played by Alexander Hamilton, a young West Indian genius, in the founding of the United States. It is about Caribbean history as it relates to Hamilton’s indispensable contribution. No wonder young Lin-Manuel Miranda (of Puerto Rican descent) was so moved by this biography.
Chernow’s peers are unanimous: his book is a magisterial reassessment of Hamilton’s legacy. Indeed it is a brilliant accounting of a past that, like all pasts, never passes completely, even when one tries to repress it, to suppress it or to rub it out completely. “Violence was commonplace in Nevis, as in all the slave-ridden sugar islands [...] All of the horror was mingled incongruously with the natural beauty of turquoise waters, flaming sunsets and languid palm fronds” (Chernow, 2005:19). Instructive and edifying accounts: true stories about us and others, and about us as others.
This biography and the musical it inspired, though separated in time, are inextricably linked. The book was published in 2004. Eleven years later, in 2015, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s hip-hop musical opened off Broadway. But before this providential twosome, there was the young man from St. Kitts and Nevis and St. Croix; with family roots in Europe, and all over the Caribbean. The book tells the story of the young clerk who sailed away from the islands for the North American Colonies; away from a past that would never really past. Ron Chernow’s Alexander Hamilton is an awesome garden, sad and splendid, full of gut-wrenching flowers; his scholarship and writing are the envy of all scribblers like us.
In New York, he got a first class education “partly underwritten by sugarcane harvested by slaves” (p.41). He toiled, loved, fought and feuded. He made it big, very big, but he could not fit in tout à fait, completely; he was too different. “He had expressed an unwavering belief in the genetic equality of blacks and whites – unlike Jefferson, for instance, who regarded blacks as innately inferior – that was enlightened for his day. And he knew this from his from his personal boyhood experience” (p. 210).
Hamilton is about all of us because of his race – because of the human chattel of his ancestors: “No less than in Nevis, slavery was all-pervasive on St. Croix – it was ‘the source from which every citizen obtains his daily bread and his wealth,’ [...] – with 12 blacks for every white [...] So extensive was the sexual contact between whites and blacks [on St. Croix] that local church registers were thickly sprinkled with entries for illegitimate mulatto children” (p.23). These accounts sound very much like the history of Saint Martin (French and Dutch), but we don’t write or talk about ours much, and that may not be healthy.
In a chapter entitled “Hurricane,” the disaster that struck St. Croix and other islands in August 1772, I came upon a name I recognized from the writings of Senator Will Johnson of Saba. Here is that gem in Chernow’s book: “Ordained by [Aaron] Burr in 1755, [Rev. Hugh] Knox decided to propagate the gospel and was sent to Saba in the Dutch West Indies [...] Knox left a bleak picture of the heedless sinners he was assigned to save” (p.35). The “picture” of those “keepers of negro wenches” is bleak indeed! I will refrain from quoting Knox’s description of that flock of unheeding sinners he left behind in “the Bottom,” rather I will suggest that the United States of America is, forever, deeply indebted to Sabans!
According to Chernow, the Rev. Knox was more than happy to climb up and out of “The Bottom,” when he moved on to St. Croix. There, he tutored young Hamilton and played a key role in the life of one of the future revolutionaries and Founding Fathers of the USA.
As for the Aaron Burr who had ordained Hugh Knox before he left for Saba, that gentleman was none other than the president of the College of New Jersey (later Princeton): the father of the Aaron Burr who would mortally wound Hamilton in a duel on July 11, 1804.
I could go on for hours clipping flowers in Mr. Chernow’s awesome garden: yellow bells and hibiscuses; tropical lilies and Bougainville flowers; orchids of all colours; and lots, lots of arrows: the arrows of sugarcane that aim at the Heavens as if to reproach them of something. I could go on snipping lots of other handsome flowers to try and persuade my reader of the treasure-trove in Chernow’s magnificent garden; all in an effort to convey a sense of adventure; of discovery; of commonality, community and identity.
Gérard M. Hunt