By Diane Bair and Pamela Wright
Updated January 12, 2023, 12:00 p.m.
Was he born in 1755 or 1757? Nobody’s sure, but historians agree that Alexander Hamilton’s birthday was Jan. 11. Which happens to be a fabulous time to visit his birthplace, the island of Nevis, in the Leeward Islands of the West Indies.
How paradisiacal is this place? Nevis was the location of not one but two movies with “paradise” in their titles released this year, “Christmas in Paradise,” and “A Week in Paradise.” Episodes of the TV series “Below Deck” and “Billions” have been shot on this lightly-touristed dot in the sea. Actress Cicely Tyson is from Nevis, and “Scary Spice” Mel B is of Nevisian descent (and is currently a tourism ambassador). The Who’s Roger Daltrey has a house here. Not to mention, the island was the prime getaway spot of one Princess Diana — you can sleep overnight in the very villa she favored, in an old sugar mill-turned-luxury-hotel.
In spite of that star power, Nevis is remarkably genuine and low-key. One of the safest places in the world statistically, the 36-square-mile island has no fast-food joints, and no traffic lights. No buildings “taller than a palm tree” are allowed. “Nevis is truly a peaceful, tranquil gem,” says Devon Liburd of the Nevis Tourism Authority. Guests praise the island’s authentic old Caribbean vibe. The Bath Hotel, built in 1778 and now a historic site, is considered to be the first hotel in the Caribbean.
If you love lush, green islands with humpy hillsides and meandering fauna (including donkeys, goats, and monkeys) and scant commercialism, you’ll adore Nevis. It takes some doing to get here, which may explain how it avoided overdevelopment; from Boston, visitors connect through New York or Miami to St. Kitts, take a 20-minute taxi ride to the pier, and then take a brief water taxi or ferry ride to Nevis. The island has a small airport that offers transport between neighboring islands.
NEVIS + HAMILTON
The best way to go Full Hamilton? Book a Hamilton-themed tour with Greg Phillip, owner of Nevis Sun Tours (www.nevissuntours.com). Phillip, past CEO of the Nevis Tourism Authority, has hosted actors from the original “Hamilton” cast, Christopher Jackson and Renée Elise Goldsberry, on his tour. He’s seen the play twice, and has extensively researched our “brilliant but complicated” (in his words) American founding father.
This isn’t one of your typical “wasn’t he fabulous?” tours. “We present history in its raw state. We will walk in his footsteps and be part of the story,” Phillip says. Hamilton’s oceanside birthplace, now the site of the Hamilton Museum and the Nevis Museum, is located just 115 steps from Crosses Alley, which functioned as an Ellis Island of sorts for enslaved people brought from West Africa to the West Indies. Enslaved West Africans were shipped to this centrally located island and conscripted by plantation owners to work in the sugar and indigo fields dotting the Caribbean islands — the “greatest human rights violation in history,” in the guide’s words.
As a child, “Hamilton would’ve heard people screaming and crying who were being held at Crosses Alley as he was falling asleep,” Phillip says. “He would have seen people chained to people who were already dead or dying.” Shackles have been found at the site, indicating a holding area for newly enslaved people. Just up the street was a slave market, now a bus stop.
As you visit historic sites in Charlestown, one of the oldest settlements in the Caribbean, Phillip unspools the narrative of Hamilton’s childhood. The boy was educated by Jewish scholars since the other schools in Nevis, all church-run, wouldn’t accept the offspring of unwed parents. “Hamilton was ostracized for this, and that shaped who he became later,” Phillip says.
Orphaned before he was a teenager, Hamilton went to work as a merchant’s clerk and, thanks to benefactors who saw his promise, was sent to New York to be educated. He became caught up in the American Revolution. We know the rest of the story: Hamilton became a successful lawyer, served as a member of Congress, and wrote many of the Federalist Papers that helped frame the Constitution. He was the first Secretary of the Treasury under President Washington in 1789 and was killed in a duel with Vice President Aaron Burr in 1804.
Most of us knew little of Hamilton until Ron Chernow’s biography “Alexander Hamilton” was published in 2004. Lin-Manuel Miranda transformed it into a Broadway show in 2015, and “Hamilton” has since won an armload of Tony Awards and the Pulitzer Prize.
The Hamilton Museum outlines the highlights of Hamilton’s life in a series of panels. Just outside the museum is a shiny new bronze statue of the man. Local reaction has been mixed, Phillip reports. “Some people said, ‘Why are we erecting a statue to a slaveholder when every other place is tearing them down?’”
Yes, slaveholder. In spite of Hamilton’s reputation as an abolitionist, a paper published in 2020 by Jessie Serfilippi, an interpreter at the Schuyler Mansion State Historic Site in Albany (Alexander Hamilton married into the prominent Schuyler family in 1780), reveals that Hamilton himself was likely an enslaver. A 1784 entry from Hamilton’s cash books documents the sale of a woman named Peggy. The document is now exhibited in the Library of Congress. That page of Hamilton’s cashbook is reproduced in the Hamilton Museum.
“I challenge you to think about Alexander Hamilton in a new way,” Phillip says. “Did he own a slave? Records show he did.” But the guide takes a nuanced view. “History caught him in a moment of transition between who he was and who he became,” Phillip says. “Who else could end slavery but people in power, people who likely owned slaves?”
LOW-KEY + LOVELY
Slavery was outlawed on Nevis, then part of the British Empire, in 1834. Along with sister island, St. Kitts, Nevis achieved independence in 1983. Of the two, Nevis is smaller, with a population of about 12,000 and just a smattering of restaurants and hotels.