Updated: Tuesday, September 19, 2017, 9:35 AM
For the several hundred years before hurricanes in North American waters were named after women and then men as well, they were often labeled by the name of the saint’s day on which they fell or just called, monotonously, “The Great Hurricane” of a specified year.
There was “Hurricane Santa Rosa of 1730” for example, “Hurricane San Leoncio of 1738” and “The Hurricane of 1768” that destroyed some 4,000 houses in Havana and killed a thousand people.
But Hurricane Maria, which was closing in on the islands of the Caribbean Tuesday morning, inevitably brings to mind a storm which has acquired a truly unique nickname: “The Alexander Hamilton Hurricane of 1772,” as Bahamian meteorologist and historian Wayne Neely called it in his book The Greatest and Deadliest Hurricanes of the Caribbean and the Americas.
It barreled through the Leeward Islands of St. Thomas, Puerto Rico and St. Croix on August 31, 1772, described in a local paper as “the most dreadful Hurricane known in the memory of man . . . the whole frame of nature seemed unhinged and tottering to its fall . . . terrifying even the just, for who could stand undisturbed amid the ruins of a falling world . . .”
Can you top that CNN?
It blew Hamilton to America’s shores, figuratively speaking, and altered history. The experience merited a soulful song in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical, which is coming here for the Kimmel Center's Broadway Philadelphia 2017-1018 season:
“When I was seventeen,” it goes, “a hurricane destroyed my town.
“I didn’t drown
“I couldn’t seem to die
“I wrote my way out.”
How exactly did Hamilton write his way out?
He was a 17-year-old living in St. Croix and working as a clerk. When the hurricane passed, he wrote a letter to his father, a “melodramatic description” of the storm, as Hamilton biographer Ron Chernow wrote, which he managed to publish in the Royal Danish American Gazette on Oct. 3, 1772, attracting the attention of the island’s elite.
As Chernow describes it:
“Hamilton did not know it, but he had just written his way out of poverty. … His hurricane letter generated such a sensation – even the island’s governor inquired after the young author’s identity – that a subscription fund was taken up by local businessmen to send this promising youth to North America to be educated.”
The rest is history and, of course, the musical.
Throughout the letter Hamilton fretted over the difficulties of describing the storm, at one point calling the piece “an imperfect account of one of the most dreadful Hurricanes that memory or any records whatever can trace” and later stating that it is “impossible for me to describe or you to form any idea of it.” Again later, Hamilton wrote, “I am afraid, Sir, you will think this description more the effort of imagination than a true picture of realities.”
His haunting portrayal of nature’s fury was beautiful. For example:
“The roaring of the sea and wind, fiery meteors flying about it in the air, the prodigious glare of almost perpetual lightning, the crash of the falling houses, and the ear-piercing shrieks of the distressed, were sufficient to strike astonishment into Angels. A great part of the buildings throughout the Island are levelled to the ground, almost all the rest very much shattered; several persons killed and numbers utterly ruined; whole families running about the streets, unknowing where to find a place of shelter; the sick exposed to the keeness of water and air without a bed to lie upon, or a dry covering to their bodies; and our harbours entirely bare. In a word, misery, in all its most hideous shapes, spread over the whole face of the country.”
But the description of howling winds and relentless rains was not what made the writing so powerful.
Instead, as Chernow wrote, the letter “was notable for the way Hamilton viewed the hurricane as a divine rebuke to human vanity and pomposity,” a cross, he wrote, “between a tragic soliloquy and a fire-and-brimstone sermon . . .”
In the letter, Hamilton traced his emotions throughout the storm, his fear of death “rushing on in triumph veiled in a mantle of tenfold darkness. His unrelenting scythe, pointed, and ready for the stroke.”
Eventually, he began to consider how he, and all of humanity, may have angered God.
“Where now, oh! vile worm, is all thy boasted fortitude and resolution?” Hamilton described his terror. “What is become of thine arrogance and self sufficiency? Why dost thou tremble and stand aghast? How humble, how helpless, how contemptible you now appear.
“Oh! impotent presumptuous fool! how durst thou offend that Omnipotence, whose nod alone were sufficient to quell the destruction that hovers over thee, or crush thee into atoms?” he wrote. “See thy wretched helpless state, and learn to know thyself. Learn to know thy best support. Despise thyself, and adore thy God.”
Eventually, Hamilton seemed to follow his own advice. The letter found him looking back on the storm, admitting that his anger toward the God he worshiped came from a place of fear.
“Our imagination represented him as an incensed master, executing vengeance on the crimes of his servants,” he wrote. “The father and benefactor were forgot, and in that view, a consciousness of our guilt filled us with despair.”
“But see, the Lord relents,” Hamilton concluded. “He hears our prayer. The Lightning ceases. The winds are appeased. The warring elements are reconciled and all things promise peace. The darkness is dispell’d and drooping nature revives at the approaching dawn. Look back Oh! my soul, look back and tremble. Rejoice at thy deliverance, and humble thyself in the presence of thy deliverer.”
Hamilton originally wrote the letter to his father, but as the Royal Danish American Gazette stated at the time, it fell into the hands of Hugh Knox, a Presbyterian minister and sometime journalist living in St. Croix, who spread it around until it was finally published.
And with that, as the Hamilton character sings in the Broadway musical, “I wrote my way out” and “I looked up and the town had it’s eyes on me.”
And before long, the world had its eyes on Alexander Hamilton.
The Washington Post’s April Bethea contributed to this report.