Just back from ten days of cruising around the Caribbean with my two sisters, soaking up sun and all the history and local culture we could manage. As always, I kept an eye out for teachers and students, and I learned a little about what constitutes public education—and how that differs from French West Indies to British Virgin Islands to U.S. Virgin Islands, and to those islands that are now independent entities. Discipline seemed fairly strict everywhere, and we saw lots of uniformed as well as high-spirited kids. The people with whom we spoke were all public school educated (“You have to pay to go to private schools,” which are mostly Catholic). And for college, some students go to France or Britain or the U.S., though there are many universities—and especially several highly ranked medical schools—in the Islands.
My favorite island remains Dominica, which is lush, green, and pristine, thanks to the fact that sugar cane couldn’t thrive there in the steeply mountainous and rocky terrain. Once there, a guide took a small group of us on an indescribably tortuous track some miles into the mountains to visit the Bois Cotlette “estate.” It was a total ruins when it was bought some five or six years ago by an American who was looking to leave the hedge fund business in search of a sustainable life. With his wife and four children, he has now restored one of the original buildings which he uses as a welcome hall for visitors, though it was originally a large sleeping room for workers on the estate. He also has built a cabin for his family and, with the help of an historian and archaeologist, excavated parts of the other buildings. He is learning not only what they looked like and were made of but also what their functions were. So far, the estate is sustainable in terms of water and energy (solar), and they grow
much of their food as well as crops like cocoa and coffee. The children have been home- and online-schooled, though the 18-year-old heads off for college in the U.S. next fall and the 16-year-old will finish school in Miami. The whole family however, seems committed to building a sustainable lifestyle on this gorgeous and relatively unspoiled island. Another high point for me was visiting the birthplace of Alexander Hamilton on Nevis, sister island to St. Kitts. The tiny house is now a tiny museum in honor of Hamilton: I loved looking at the old photos and posters and news stories and reading about his boyhood before he moved to St. Croix. According to the museum, Hamilton wasn’t allowed to attend the local public school, since he was “illegitimate,” but he seems to have received some education at a Jewish school. I picked up a pamphlet about Hamilton, with a rip-roaring essay by Evelyn Henville, director of the Nevis Historical and Conservation Society—“Alexander Hamilton for National Hero!” Henville’s enthusiasm for the first secretary of the U.S. treasury is infectious. She asks “How does a boy born on little Nevis end up on the U.S. $10 bill? And answers with ten reasons, from “He learned the importance of work” and “He learned about slavery and he learned about liberty,” to “He learned about smuggling, tax evasion, and truth” and “He learned to think.”
Having seen the megahit musical “Hamilton” this last fall and now reading the Chernow biography that inspired it, as Lin-Manuel Miranda says, by “changing my life” forever, I was especially keen to visit this spot and to think about the role of Hamilton and so many other immigrants whose lives and works have shaped these United States of America. Miranda speaks eloquently to this issue in his musical as well as in talks and writings. In a recent New York Times op ed piece, Miranda speaks of his own upbringing in Puerto Rico and calls on Congress to act in response to the huge economic crisis there—as it would if that crisis were a little closer, both figuratively and literally, to Washington D.C.
As I write this post, demagogic Presidential candidates are calling for building walls, for excluding immigrants, for surveilling citizens of the Muslim Faith. Alexander Hamilton would have been horrified—and ashamed—of these attempts and he would have spoken out in opposition, as many are doing right now. So Hamilton’s commitment to freedom and equality for all lives on, though it is certainly embattled. Alexander Hamilton for national hero!