Holmes: America's Caribbean connection
NEVIS, West Indies - Back in the 18th century, this little island was known as "the Queen of the Caribbees" and it was quite a bustling place. Sugar cane fields stretched from the beaches halfway up Nevis Peak. The streets of Charlestown teemed with merchants and sailors. On plantations around the island, the cane was cooked into sugar, molasses and rum, which was exported throughout the New World.
But through the long glass of history, Nevis' most important export wasn't sugar. It was a single boy, born in poverty and shame to an unwed couple in Charlestown, who left the West Indies as a teenager to attend school in New York. His name was Alexander Hamilton, and chances are you've got a picture of him in your wallet today.
Sugar wasn't the only industry fueling Nevis' prosperity. A block from Hamilton's house was the market where 7,000 slaves were bought and sold during the island's heyday. From the auction block, they were taken to plantations nearby and around the Caribbean.
Historians can only speculate about what young Hamilton learned on Nevis. An exhibit on Hamilton's life that opened last week on the site considered his birthplace closes with this conclusion:
"As an immigrant and an outsider, Alexander Hamilton saw the importance of a strong central government. As a close observer of slavery, he became an abolitionist. As a child of mercantile interests, he saw the need for a diverse economy and a strong currency. All these things were shaped by his Caribbean upbringing, which helped form his later beliefs, and contributed mightily to the formation of America today."
Young Hamilton grew up to be the top aide to George Washington, a plantation owner called to war. He fought political battles with another plantation owner, Thomas Jefferson, whose agrarian vision clashed with Hamilton's push for manufacturing and trade. He teamed up with another scion of Virginia, James Madison, to write the Constitution and win its passage. In his writings, his legislation and his actions as the first Secretary of the Treasury, he helped create the economic system that made his adopted land the richest and most powerful nation in history.
But history passed by his native island. The slave trade was abolished. The bottom fell out of the sugar market as beets replaced cane and growers in places like Cuba and Florida undercut Nevis and the other small islands. Nevisians switched to cotton for awhile, but that didn't pay off either.
By the 20th century, young Nevisians, like Hamilton before them, were seeking their fortunes elsewhere. They moved to nearby islands like St. Kitts, Antigua, St. Croix, and Montserrat, and those a little farther away, including Puerto Rico and Jamaica. They moved to Great Britain - Nevis was a British colony until 1967 - and the United States.
Nevis still has bright sunshine and soft breezes when it's winter up here. It has sandy beaches and crystal clear waters. So it has turned, but slowly, to the only economic development strategy available: Tourism.
Nevis is decades behind other Caribbean tourist destinations. Charlestown is short on parking, sidewalks and souvenir shops. Eco-tourism is the rage, but Nevis has done little to improve access to the lush rainforest on Nevis Peak.
Nevis' airport can handle puddle-jumpers but not commercial jets. Its harbor isn't deep enough to be a port-of-call for larger cruise ships.
That's just fine with the people charting Nevis' economic direction. Cruise passengers who invade a port for a few hours typically don't leave much money behind. Why go out for gourmet fare on the island when you've got another buffet already paid for onboard?
Besides, Nevis is small, with just 11,000 residents. Too many tourists would overwhelm it and damage its appeal. So its government - officially, it is part of the Federation of St. Kitts and Nevis, but it has its own premier - carefully regulates growth. A New Hampshire couple now operating a bed-and-breakfast told me they had to go through a long application process exploring their economic impact on the island before being allowed to build.
On Nevis, no building can be taller than the tallest palm tree on the property. No chain store or multinational restaurant is allowed. That helps the island maintain its undiscovered, foreign feel. So do the goats, who have the run of the island. So do the silk monkeys, who are as common and troublesome as deer here in the Northeast.
Ten years ago, Four Seasons opened the island's only five-star resort. It draws enough of the beautiful people that authorities warn tourists on the beach nearby to keep their cameras pointed at the water. They don't want any paparazzi bothering Tom Cruise or Oprah Winfrey. The official emphasis now is on building million-dollar villas, not budget hotels.
The vision for Nevis, Helen Kidd, former head of the Nevis Tourism Authority told me, doesn't call for lots of new visitors. They'd rather have fewer visitors with more money to spend. Makes sense.
So the old sugar plantations have found new life as stylish inns. They still need workers, but with different skills. Nevisian schools are now teaching young people how upscale people expect to be treated.
That's not as easy as it sounds. Nevisians are fairly well-educated, but the average income is just $2,222. They are friendly and they are proud, Kidd said, partly because most own their own homes.
There are Nevisian entrepreneurs, mostly those educated abroad, but many of the businesses are run by British and American expatriates. Their workers, descendants of the slaves brought here in Hamilton's day, are returning to the plantations as waitresses, landscapers and housekeepers.
"Aren't you just creating a servant class?" a reporter asked Kidd. She didn't answer, for there is no easy answer. When all you've got is sun and sea, who can you draw but tourists? When you've only got one viable industry, opportunities for workers will always be limited.
Real opportunity comes from a free nation with a diverse economy, where people can invent, make, sell and trade things of value not just to their neighbors but around the world. That's something that old Nevisian, Alexander Hamilton, learned more than 300 years ago.
Rick Holmes, opinion editor for the MetroWest Daily News, can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. Check out his blog at Holmes & Co: http://blogs.townonline.com/holmesandco.