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Revolution in the Caribbean through the Eyes of Alexander Hamilton

Resistance inflames the rallying cry of revolution, and Alexander Hamilton was often the rousing voice above the crowd. Hamilton’s genius and seditious rhetoric is newly extolled due to the hit musical Hamilton. With hip-hop raps on the American Revolution blaring from earphones, two TU professors took notice and created a unique learning opportunity.

In Spring of 2018, Alicia Odewale assistant professor of anthropology and Kristen Oertel, professor of history are offering an interdisciplinary class, “The Roots of Hamilton: “Relics of Resistance in the Black Atlantic World.” Because Hamilton lived in St. Croix as a boy before migrating to America for a formal education, “Hamilton naturally came up because this one man can encapsulate the Caribbean and American world together during the time of revolution,” Odewale said.

Not only will students study archaeological and historical texts in the classroom, but also they will travel to St. Croix to visit the Hamilton’s boyhood home and see different sites of enslavement and freedom in the Caribbean. The class starts with a brief biography of Alexander Hamilton, but the professors will add the context of daily enslaved life in the Caribbean and the United States. “We will compare and contrast the different ways in which slaves and masters interacted and the ways slaves resisted their masters’ desire to control them,” Oertel said.

While working on her dissertation, Odewale excavated a site of enslavement in St. Croix from the time of Danish control. Instead of a southern plantation, this group of enslaved men and women were forced to live in an urban setting. TU students will tour the site as the professors explain the background and artifacts. “Placing students in that kind of environment where they wouldn’t normally think of enslavement but to feel and touch and look at the objects that were recovered from the ground, that’s something that students don’t normally get to see,” Odewale explained.  Just as the settings for slavery were diverse, so was resistance. There were “many different forms of resistance, not just mass rebellion but more everyday activities like poisoning, setting fire to fields, breaking machinery, running away and establishing whole settlements called Maroon communities,” Odewale explained. There was no typical slave experience.

As students travel beyond the pages of a book, they can run their hands over the tools from their past. It is significant for students to know “how a physical object can connect to someone’s life, behavior, understanding and culture,” Odewale said. This course is especially significant since this year marks the centennial of transfer day, which is when the United States purchased the Danish West Indies, which changed their name to the United States Virgin Islands. Odewale hopes to stress the students’ connection to the Caribbean territories, particularly in relation to citizenship rights.

The intersection between Hamilton’s life and revolutionary events continue due to his formal education in New York at King’s College. By reading Gateway to Freedom by Eric Foner, the class will research the development of the Underground Railroad in New York City. Frequently, students are surprised that before the American Revolution, slavery was thriving in all thirteen colonies, and the last slave was freed in the state of New York in 1827. “Slavery was reinforced by the white power structure in New York City,” Oertel said. The students will “look at the effects of that institution which shaped political, social and cultural life for African Americans.”

By merging history and archaeology, the class is a bit revolutionary itself. “It’s historic to have two female professors team teaching in two different disciplines and working together seamlessly on this idea of resistance,” Odewale said.

Examining the historical roots of racism provides a deeper understanding of today’s racial tension. “We’re still dealing with questions of who deserves full citizenship and who is considered a human being with political rights and social rights,” Oertel said. Americans grapple with the same questions that kept Hamilton’s quill aflutter.