Book Launch Guest Post By Sophie Schiller, Author of The Lost Diary of Alexander Hamilton
In April of 2016, I was approached by a gentleman from St. Croix who asked me to write a novel about the early life of Alexander Hamilton in the West Indies. The reason for his request, he told me, was to show the world the importance of St. Croix in forming Hamilton’s character and his financial vision for America. He wanted to demonstrate how this unlikeliest of islands provided the necessary background for Hamilton’s singular genius in developing America’s financial system.
We spoke over the phone several times and the wheels in my brain started turning, but I was deeply involved with another project that I wanted to finish. And truthfully, I had doubts that I would be able to tackle this subject matter. While we did hold several conversations about the idea, I remained skeptical about the feasibility of it. But I remained firmly committed to finishing the project.
When I was finally ready to start in February of 2018, I almost didn’t know where to begin. I had to learn about the history of St. Croix during the Danish Colonial period, plantation slavery, the triangular trade, the local economy, the history of the West Indies, social values and customs, the history of Alexander Hamilton’s family, his parents’ struggles, his personal struggles, and I had to develop a timeline of everything that happened until he left for America in 1772. Sounds like a lot? ;)
Luckily, at this time, I made the acquaintance of an American historian named Michael Newton, who was working on his own new biography of Alexander Hamilton using newly discovered records from the Danish Rigsarkivet. Michael’s research became indispensable to me, and I will forever remain indebted to his perseverance and commitment to uncovering the unknown parts of Hamilton’s childhood.
|The world that shaped Alexander Hamilton: |
Christiansted harbor in the late 18th century.
|Free black militia of the Spanish colonial Army 1770-1776|
This was the most surprising part of the research. Free Black Militias in a slave economy? Actually, it made perfect sense to the Danes. The militia of free blacks in the Danish West Indies existed to keep order on the island. They patrolled the towns regularly and served, in some cases, as slave hunters. Many of the free blacks owned slaves themselves, and were quite prominent socially. These people had never been written about before, so I thought it was time to give them a voice. And so, Peter Tongelo, the Captain of the Free Black Militia in the 1770’s became a key character in my novel. I based his personality on Louis Gossett Jr.’s performance in An Officer and a Gentleman, a performance that had astounded me in my youth.
Eventually I developed a story that centers on Hamilton’s struggles to survive on his own after his mother dies and his father leaves the island. Since it is well-known that Alexander had a personal servant named Ajax who was taken away by his mother’s first husband after her death, I developed a story where Ajax is sold to a brutal planter and Alex vows to save him out of loyalty and friendship. But above all, the theme of the novel is about overcoming obstacles and challenges. Hamilton reasons that if he is to rise above the “groveling conditions of a clerk”, he must master the art of commerce and become a self-made man.