Friday, September 1, 2017

Account of a Hurricane

Alexander Hamilton (1757–1804)
From The Essential Hamilton: Letters & Other Writings

“View in Antigua: Effects produced upon the House at Clark's Hill by the Hurricane in 1772,” watercolor and body color over pen and ink on laid paper by English artist Thomas Hearne (1744–1817).
Alexander Hamilton first came to public attention at the age of seventeen. His father had abandoned the family when Alexander was ten, and his mother died four years later. He was effectively an orphan, working as a clerk for a mercantile firm on the island of Saint Croix at the end of August 1772, when a major hurricane, one of the strongest of the century, roared through the Caribbean. Nearly every ship at harbor was swept aground, some as far as 100 yards inland, and giant boulders and rockslides came crashing down from the surrounding hills. An account written later in the year details the damage to each of the islands. In St. Croix, “every house almost at Christianstadt [the island’s capital city], and all the plantations and negro-houses levelled. Only three houses left standing at Frederickstadt, and numbers of people killed.” After striking the islands, the storm then continued its path of destruction along the Florida panhandle, the Alabama coast, and New Orleans. Some meteorologists have categorized this catastrophe, with its extraordinary storm surge, as a tsunamic hurricane.

A week later Hugh Knox, a Presbyterian minister who had immigrated to Saint Croix earlier that year, delivered a sermon to the island’s frazzled population. After the service Alexander, profoundly impressed by Knox’s oration, went home and wrote a letter to the father he had not seen for nearly seven years. “Hamilton did not know it, but he had just written his way out of poverty,” remarks biographer Ron Chernow. The young man apparently showed the letter to Knox, who doubled as a journalist and occasional editor for The Royal Danish American Gazette, a newspaper established two years earlier and distributed widely throughout the West Indies. On October 3, Hamilton’s letter was published in the paper with a headnote:
The following letter was written the week after the late Hurricane, by a Youth of this Island, to his Father; the copy of it fell by accident into the hands of a gentleman [Knox], who, being pleased with it himself, shewed it to others to whom it gave equal satisfaction, and who all agreed that it might not prove unentertaining to the Publick. The Author’s modesty in long refusing to submit it to Publick view, is the reason of its making its appearance so late as it now does.
The letter caused a sensation and, led by Knox, local businessmen established a fund to send Hamilton to the North American mainland to attend school. Within weeks the teenager was sailing to Boston—and four years later he was standing at George Washington’s side as a lieutenant-colonel in the Continental Army.

Note: The general referred to in the last paragraph of Hamilton’s letter is Ulrich Wilhelm Roepstorff, the Danish governor general of Saint Croix.

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I take up my pen just to give you an imperfect account of one of the most dreadful Hurricanes that memory or any records whatever can trace, which happened here on the 31st ultimo at night. . . . If you don't see the full selection below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

This selection may be photocopied and distributed for classroom or educational use.