History among the hibiscus on the gentle isle of Nevis
Charlestown, Nevis, West Indies — Just the flowers would have been enough for me - the bougainvillea, morning glories, and hibiscus that narrowed the roads and crawled about the disused sugar mills. Or the people: open-handed, friendly, upright, strangely innocent. What I didn't expect from the little West Indian island of Nevis was a history lesson. Or two. Or three.
This tropical green speck only 35 square miles in area gets a lot of mileage from two historic moments. Alexander Hamilton was born here, and about 20 years later Lord Horatio Nelson was married here. Either event might have been forgotten, allowed to fade away like the sugar-producing business that had once made Nevis (pronounced KNEE-vis) the Queen of the Caribees, but for the efforts of some industrious outsiders and proud Nevisians.
Lord Nelson, brought back to the public consciousness with a recent television series, has been a household name on Nevis for fewer years than one would expect. The great British naval hero, conqueror of the French, Spanish, and Danish fleets, spent two years in the Leeward Islands in command of the Boreas and was married in 1787 to Frances Nisbet, daughter of the island president, at Montpelier Estate, now a comfortable hotel. This might have remained a mere footnote without the historic sleuthing of a Philadelphia lawyer named Robert D. Abrahams.
Mr. Abrahams, a winter resident on Nevis for the last 23 years, has created a small but impressive Nelson museum on the grounds of his lovely windswept estate , Morning Star, on the slopes of Mt. Nevis. It wasn't out of personal gain or deep admiration for his subject that the steely haired Mr. Abrahams launched the search for Nelson memorabilia. The museum is free (open from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. and 4 p.m. to 5 p.m. daily), and as the candid curator himself told me one perfect sun-washed afternoon at Morning Star: ''I greatly admire Nelson's genius , but I can't say as much for his character. He was like a Montgomery or a MacArthur - all military - which I suppose he had to be.''
When Mr. Abrahams, a keen history student, and his wife started visiting Nevis, there were only a few hints of Nelson's two-year period in the Leewards. In a roadside church at Fig Tree, just down the road from Morning Star, is a wedding register with a stained page dated March 11, 1787, recording the Nelson-Nisbet marriage. And at nearby Montpelier two stone columns (and a plaque) are all that remain of the wedding house.
Mrs. Abrahams uncovered the Nelson objects on a series of business trips to England - etchings; Toby jugs; medals; a tiny round framed picture (''the only portrait Nelson ever sat for'') showing the large nose and somber countenance; and a letter he wrote with his left hand (the right had been wounded) from Palermo in 1799, asking for British troops to save Rome from the French. The collection fills a sunny little frame and stone house Mr. Abrahams also uses as a dining room and kitchen (his living room is in another small building; a bedroom is built into the restored mill).
''What many people don't know,'' said Mr. Abrahams, ''is that Nelson was sued by the local planters, because he refused to allow American ships to carry their cargoes in and out. He could only come ashore on Sundays, when he couldn't be served with a summons.''
Robert Abrahams threw himself into another historical project 11 years ago, restoring the Jewish Cemetery on the edge of Charlestown. He put up a retaining wall and a plaque, and he rescued 18 gravestones from ruination, all to keep alive the memory of Sephardic Jews who came to Nevis from Brazil in the 17th century and introduced the technology of sugar production to the Leewards. ''Our gardeners,'' said Mr. Abrahams, ''go down to the cemetery every other week to cut the grass.''
Alexander Hamilton's memory is not so well preserved as Lord Nelson's, but there are new efforts afoot. When you arrive in Charlestown harbor by ferry from neighboring St. Christopher, you confront a large sign on the customs shed reading: ''Welcome to Nevis. Birthplace of Alexander Hamilton.'' On one end of town is a shell of a house in which Hamilton was born in either 1755 or 1757. The future father of the American monetary system, born to a Creole woman and a Scotsman, spent five years on Nevis before being taken to St. Croix and then on to the Colonies at the age of 15.
But the history lessons keep coming, right up to the end. In a taxi to the airport one Sunday morning, the elderly driver pointed to the Hamilton house and observed that the great man's birthday is celebrated each Jan. 11 on Nevis. Later he pulled up in a coconut grove to show me the remains of Nelson Springs, where the naval hero had watered his ships almost 200 years ago. This elderly and dignified font of historic knowledge identified himself as William Challenger, a Nevisian senator in charge of the island's road, water, and sanitation systems. When was the last time you got a history lesson from a moonlighting senator in a taxicab on the way to the airport? Only on Nevis.
Nevis, named by Columbus, who called it Nieves (meaning snow) for the white-topped Sierra Nevada in Spain, is a one-time British colony that received semi-independent associated-state status along with St. Christopher and Anguilla in 1967.
You can fly into the tiny Nevis airport from St. Christopher, 10 minutes away , or via Antigua. There are also daily ferries from St. Christopher. Nevis is in the Leeward Islands, about halfway between the US Virgin Islands and Guadeloupe.