The opening song for the blockbuster musical Hamilton describes the founding father’s birthplace as “the middle of a forgotten spot in the Caribbean ” At only 36 square miles, Nevis, the undeveloped and reserved sister island to flashier St. Kitts, does get overlooked at times.
Skipping this oasis is an ill-advised move for anyone interested in stunning landscapes, flawless beaches and the early years of Alexander Hamilton. You won’t find the twisty drama of the Broadway play, but you will uncover the quiet charm of the island that helped define an American hero.
Sugar mills dot Nevis’ emerald slopes and Georgian buildings line its narrow streets, probably little different from when Hamilton was a boy. As I step past women carrying parasols to block the sun and glimpse monkeys darting between the palm trees, it does feel like I’ve traveled back in time.
In Charlestown, the island’s tiny and colorful capital, gingerbread houses and winding roads supply the backdrop for the start of Hamilton’s intriguing history. An eye-catching tree known as a flamboyant — the national flower of St. Kitts and Nevis — swoops over the stone walls of the Nevis Heritage Center , its crimson blooms forming a pretty canopy over the entrance.
A bronze plaque hangs on the wall, announcing that this is the site where Hamilton, the first U.S. treasury secretary and the man who established the U.S. Mint, was born in 1757.
This two-story Georgian overlooking the waterfront houses the Museum of Nevis History (explorenevis.com/the-museum-of-nevis-history) and the first floor boasts the restored remnants of Hamilton’s birthplace as well as exhibits on the culture and history of Nevis.
The Nevis House of Assembly, the island’s parliamentary body, meets on the second floor. The building dates to 1680 but was destroyed by an earthquake in 1840, and was restored — with the original exterior staircase — in 1983.
With the soundtrack from Hamilton playing in the background, I’m ushered into the humble showcase of the war hero’s early life.
The small museum features a painting of the house as it looked when he was born, a portrait and quotes from his contemporaries: “He is enterprising, quick in his perception and his judgment is intuitively great,” said George Washington. The other half of the museum shows off historic artifacts of the island itself, including pottery and carnival costumes.
Across the courtyard, the Nevis Heritage Center displays the permanent exhibit, Alexander Hamilton: The Man Who Made Modern America, a version of which toured the U.S. a couple of years ago. The showcase lays out Hamilton’s journey from a poor boy born out of wedlock (the “bastard, orphan, son of a whore” described by nemesis Aaron Burr in the musical) to a powerful statesman.
Just outside the center, the island’s slave market was located next door to the Hamilton house. The location isn’t marked, but older locals can tell you exactly where it is. It’s widely believed, especially on Nevis, that Hamilton, fought for the abolition of slavery and never owned any slaves — even though this was a practice followed by George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and other national icons — because he had seen firsthand how they were treated on Nevis.
“Growing up next to the slave landing point would have influenced his outlook and ideals as they relate to slavery,” says Devon Liburd, director of sales and marketing at the Nevis Tourism Authority. “His quest later in life was to do all in his power to end slavery in the USA.”
Because of his birth to unwed parents, Hamilton already knew what it was like to be scorned by society.
This influenced much of his life’s path, starting with his education. On Government Road, a Jewish cemetery dating from the 1600s is dotted with a cluster of 19 flat, rectangular tombstones. Nearby stand the ruins of what many historians believe was once the biggest synagogue in the Caribbean.
When Hamilton was a boy in the mid-1700s, one-fourth of Nevis’ population was Jewish, descendants of Sephardic Jews who had fled the Inquisition. It’s thought that this synagogue was the place where young Hamilton was educated; the local school run by the Anglican Church reportedly refused to educate him.
On Low Street, St. Paul’s Anglican church rises imposingly, its pathway adorned with golden allamandas flowers. Next door sits the church’s school, topped with a double gabled roof. Established between 1680 and 1700, this was the church school that likely banned Hamilton from entering.
Strolling through the elegantly landscaped church complex, I imagine the rejection and insecurity that Hamilton must have felt. One could assume these were the feelings that pushed him to succeed and help establish a more open society in the newly formed U.S.
Just outside of Charlestown, perched on a hill from which neighboring St. Kitts is visible, the extensive ruins of the Hamilton estate beckon.
I gape at the towering stone windmill and the sprawling foundation for the great house crumbling amid lush vegetation.
This 18th-century sugar plantation was owned by his father’s family long after Alexander left Nevis at 8 years of age. He moved with his family to St. Croix, but his father abandoned the family and returned to St. Kitts.
Taking in the panorama of the island’s rolling hills with the estate framing them, it’s easy to imagine how Nevis might have inspired Alexander Hamilton to help create a new country.
Take a Break
Don’t miss the legendary Killer Bee rum cocktail and grilled lobster at Sunshine’s Beach Bar and Grill.
For elegant three-course gourmet dining and views, try the Great House at the Nisbet Plantation.
Bask under the Caribbean sun surrounded by verdant landscape while sampling Thai cuisine at Oasis in the Garden, located in the Botanical Gardens of Nevis.
For an authentic taste of laid-back Nevis style, check out Oualie Beach Resort, an ecofriendly enclave of gingerbread cottages and secluded beaches.
For a more upscale stay, Four Seasons Resort Nevis supplies everything from a golf course to beach side spa treatments.