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In the middle decades of the nineteenth century, Jeremiah G. Hamilton was a well-known figure on Wall Street. And Hamilton was African American. Although his origins were lowly, possibly slave, he was reportedly the richest black man in the United States, possessing a fortune of two million, or in excess of two hundred and fifty million in today’s currency. In Prince of Darkness: The Untold Story of Jeremiah G. Hamilton, Wall Street's First Black Millionaire, a groundbreaking account, eminent historian Shane White reveals the larger-than-life story of a man who defied every convention of his time.
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About the Author
SHANE WHITE is the Challis Professor of History and an Australian Professorial Fellow in the History Department at the University of Sydney specializing in African-American history. He has authored or co-authored several books, including Playing the Numbers, and collaborated in the construction of the website Digital Harlem. Each project has won at least one important prize for excellence from institutions as varied as the American Historical Association and the American Library Association. He lives in Sydney, Australia.
Read an Excerpt
Prince of Darkness
The Untold Story of Jeremiah G. Hamilton, Wall Street's First Black Millionaire
By Shane White
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2015 Shane White
All rights reserved.
Jeremiah Hamilton's story is a New York one, but the first act opens some 1,530 miles to the south. On February 27, 1828, the brig Ann Eliza Jane, with the twenty-year-old Hamilton on board, slipped past Fort Islet and anchored quietly in Port-au-Prince Harbor. The sleek vessel, with two square-rigged masts and flying the American flag, had taken just over a fortnight to sail down from New York. Two days later, the dockworkers began unloading her cargo of provisions, completing the job on March 3. Such a sight was common enough — there was a profit to be made in the provisioning trade, and New York and New England merchants were not shy when it came to making money. In 1825, 374 American vessels had sailed to the Haitian capital, carrying 39,199 tons of beef, hams, dried codfish, flour, soap, naval stores, tobacco and the like. A little over a decade before the Ann Eliza Jane arrived in Port-au-Prince, Paul Cuffee, the great African American sea captain and merchant of New Bedford, Massachusetts, had doubled his investment of $5,000 on a single business venture to Haiti by selling fish, oil and shingles in the tropical port and then buying coffee and sugar to take back on the return voyage.
At first glance, such details appear to illustrate little more than normal trade between countries, but almost nothing involving the fledgling black republic of Haiti was normal. The country was an oddity, a pariah among the slaveholding societies of the New World. Its tumultuous history over the previous third of a century had inaugurated a new era of freedom in the Americas, and that very past — indeed, Haiti's continued existence as a nation — disconcerted governments with Caribbean interests. In the late eighteenth century Saint-Domingue, as Haiti was then known, was the most profitable colony on the planet, exporting more sugar than Jamaica, Cuba and Brazil combined and growing half of the world's supply of coffee. Although the French possession was only about the size of Massachusetts, it generated more money for France than did all thirteen American colonies for England. Its colonists extracted immense wealth from the blood and sweat of the roughly half a million slaves they compelled to work their land in a system of plantation slavery as brutal and exploitative as any created in the New World. Saint-Domingue was a charnel house where every year between 5 and 10 percent of the slave population died and had to be replaced. In 1790 alone, more than 40,000 fresh African slaves were unloaded from the slave ships, put on the block and sold. As the country's leading modern historian noted pithily: "It was cheaper to let slaves die and buy more from Africa, so that is what the planters did."
The Haitian Revolution, sparked by a slave revolt in 1791, fueled by the burning of the city of Cap François on June 20, 1793, and stoked by the egalitarian rhetoric of the French Revolution, turned on its head this ordered and hierarchical world. Over the ensuing dozen years, the slaves and free people of color defeated the French, shucked off their rule, and abolished the institution of slavery. In 1804 they founded the independent nation of Haiti. It is hard to overestimate the impact that the Haitian Revolution's shockwaves had as they reverberated around the Atlantic world, inspiring slaves everywhere and horrifying those who profited from their enslavement. The violent overthrow of slavery, let alone the spectacle of former slaves organizing themselves into a nation, was something entirely new and profoundly unsettling for the accepted view of the way societies should function. As a writer in the London Times acknowledged, "a Black State in the Western Archipelago is utterly incompatible with the system of all European colonization." Unsurprisingly, France, Spain, Great Britain and the United States — hardly coincidentally, all slaveholding powers — refused to recognize the new nation, but, as one historian has written, they "took no concerted measures to rid the world of the anomaly of a free, black nation." Their own rivalries, being played out on European and American battlefields, allowed Haiti some much-needed respite, for the country's early years were characterized by considerable internal upheaval as well.
By the 1820s, Haiti had become a symbol of the consequences of emancipation for both supporters and opponents of ending slavery in the United States. On the one hand, some antislavery supporters, most especially the growing free African American populations living in New York, Philadelphia, Boston, and elsewhere in the North, invested almost-utopian hopes in the hemisphere's other, and black, republic, and many dreamed of moving there. During the mid-1820s the Haitian government subsidized the cost of the passage to the Caribbean nation for some 6,000 African Americans, and the total number emigrating may have been as high as twice that figure. To be sure, few stayed in Haiti for long, but, nevertheless, the fact that so many willingly abandoned one republic for the other eloquently revealed much about black expectations of, and aspirations for, racial justice in the first half of the nineteenth century. The example of the Haitian Revolution mattered to African Americans, and they showed how it did so in often-surprising ways. Some twenty years later, near the middle of the century, John Benwell, an English traveler, visited the impressively large house of a former slave in Charleston. The sumptuous décor included many "good oil paintings," nearly all family portraits of one sort or another, but the "most prominent in position" was a likeness of Toussaint Louverture, the Saint-Dominguan revolutionary leader who also had started life as a slave. For many African Americans, the very idea of Haiti offered inspiration, the reassuring possibility of an alternative society based on equality and in which blacks were expected to become leading citizens. On the other hand, for many more white Americans, Haiti epitomized the dangers of emancipation, demonstrating conclusively that interfering with slavery would lead to a bloodbath and chaos. The security of the United States, and particularly the safety of southern white slaveholders, required isolating the contagion of liberty and dissipating the specter of slave revolt. Needless to say, of these two groups, the latter was more important politically.
Consequently, the United States maintained a policy of refusing to recognize Haiti even as American merchants, or at least northern ones, pursued trade opportunities there. And the former colony, no longer tied to a European power, did present an opportunity. Although Haiti was nowhere near as wealthy or productive as Saint-Domingue once had been, the Caribbean nation was still some way from becoming the byword for poverty and underdevelopment that it would be in the twentieth century. With freedom, plantation-style agriculture gave way to mixed farming — understandably, the inhabitants refused to be exploited in the same fashion as when they were enslaved — but Haitians still needed American goods and produced agricultural surpluses, particularly coffee, to trade. What made Haiti even more valuable was that it was one of very few locations in the Caribbean where Americans could do business unhindered by the restrictions imposed by the mercantilist policies of European powers. Americans, for example, were unable to trade legally with British West Indian ports until after an agreement was signed with Great Britain in 1830. Southern merchants may have shunned Port-au-Prince in an attempt to pretend that a black republic did not exist, but for those in the North, Haiti was becoming a significant commercial interest.
And yet, for all the potential profit to be made from Haiti, participating in the lucrative provisioning trade was merely the cover story for the Ann Eliza Jane's voyage; the expedition's real, and illegal, purpose involved the self-enclosed and provincial world of Port-au-Prince itself. Haiti's capital had a population of about 35,000, and by the 1820s it no longer impressed European eyes. James Franklin, a British traveler writing in 1828, thought that for a stranger approaching from the sea, the city "has an odd appearance, exhibiting nothing but dilapidation and decay." As far as Franklin and other visitors were concerned, such deterioration resulted inevitably from the inhabitants' temerity in overthrowing European rule and ending slavery. Although Port-au-Prince had "stood unrivalled in the point of elegance and splendour in the time of the French," the Revolution had transformed everything, and now "it is only remarkable for ruins and every species of filth and uncleanliness." When Charles Mackenzie, the British Consul General and a black man, arrived in 1826, he deprecated the wooden buildings, seldom more than two stories tall, and thought the city had "a paltry appearance." The few public edifices he characterized as "insignificant in appearance," and almost all of them were linked with "some scene of bloodshed" from the Revolution, associations that Mackenzie found "quite sickening." Summing up, James Franklin remarked: "Upon the whole nothing can be said in favour of the city of Port au Prince."
Not every onlooker viewed the city with the same disapproval as these dyspeptic Englishmen nostalgic for Empire's civilizing touch. On board the Ann Eliza Jane Jeremiah Hamilton waited, impatient to get ashore. He was fluent in French as well as English, had short woolly black hair and looked little more than a kid, really. In New York whites categorized him as black — or, more likely, given what most thought of as his pretensions, as a "nigger" — but in Haiti, where racial descriptors were more nuanced than the simple binary "black" or "white," he was a mulatto, or, in one local merchant's description, a "dark mulatto." Even though Port-au-Prince had become something of a backwater, this voyage was young Hamilton's break, his chance to begin making it big in the big time.
Every morning Hamilton disembarked from the Ann Eliza Jane and set off into the city. Tropical rains had made the no-longer-maintained roads a morass, impassable to carriages, forcing him to shoulder his way through the locals on foot. The canvas awnings jutting out from building facades shaded crowds of men and women who, to outsiders, invariably seemed idle: Charles Mackenzie, after perambulating the city, suspected disdainfully that "there is no part of the world where more time is literally 'whiled away' than in Haiti." We know little of how or where Hamilton spent his hours ashore — although probably he tried to make it look like he too was whiling away his time, waiting for his ship to leave. Always fastidious about his appearance, the black visitor found a washerwoman to launder his clothes; at least once a day he visited the counting house of Squire and Alvaret, Port-au-Prince merchants, and every evening he returned to the vessel. We do know, however, his purpose in spending his days wandering through the city — Hamilton, to use the trade's argot, was shoving very large quantities of spurious or counterfeit Haitian coin.
When it came to counterfeiting, the United States was at the cutting edge, a world leader — one scholar of the subject aptly titled his study A Nation of Counterfeiters. Some seven decades ago now, St. Clair McKelway, the New Yorker writer, opined wryly that "the idea of money is older than the idea of counterfeit money, but older, perhaps, by no more than a few minutes." Coming first perhaps still held some residual meaning for antebellum Americans, but forged notes were so common that they had good cause for wondering whether the "real thing" was really more important than the fake. What made it all so much more complicated was that American currency was not issued by a central authority: in 1830, there were 321 separate banks disgorging a blizzard of paper currency. At any one time in the decades leading up to the Civil War, somewhere between 10 and 40 percent of the American notes in circulation were bogus, and historians nowadays incline toward the higher figure. Encountering counterfeit money in everyday transactions simply became an expected part of American life. Meeting a new demand, entrepreneurs created a plethora of counterfeit detectors: there were at least seventy-two different titles published in the antebellum era, the best-known of which was the twice-weekly Thompson's Bank Note Reporter, with a circulation of some 100,000 in 1855. Allan Pinkerton, of detective agency fame, recalled, "It was a popular remark among men of business at that time, that they preferred a good counterfeit on a solid bank to any genuine bill upon the 'shyster' institutions," and the evidence from newspapers and court cases suggests that he had a point. Certainly, most Americans followed the early-nineteenth-century merchant John Neal's advice that "if you buy the devil, the sooner you sell him, the better" and did their level best to unload whatever counterfeit bills had ended up in their own pocketbooks. Antebellum America was a time and place that could have coined the phrase "caveat emptor." The New World wrinkle on the familiar Old World adage, though, was that Americans had to be wary not only of the goods being purchased, but also of the money used in the transaction.
If Americans were the experts in the field, the fragile Haitian economy was particularly vulnerable to counterfeiting. The government had debased and alloyed the country's coin, or, in other words, lowered its silver content, until, as one American writer commented, "the coins which pass in that country for 20 cents, might be made here for less than three cents." On top of this, in 1825 the French had coerced the Haitian government into agreeing to hand over a massive indemnity of 150 million francs to compensate for losses incurred during the Revolution. Paying the French government (or, in reality, the French bank that had lent, at high interest and with ruinous charges, the 30 million francs needed for the initial installment) sucked dry the Haitian treasury, as repayments had to be made in francs, not the watered-down local currency. France ruthlessly strong-armed Haiti into the category of a debtor nation, and the country became, as one scholar has written, "an unlucky pioneer of the woes of postcolonial economic dependence." Day by day foreign powers were strangling the Haitian economy. In late 1827 and 1828 rumors were rife of a regular conduit from New York dumping "a great deal of spurious coin" and "counterfeit bills to an immense amount" in Port-au-Prince. And there was always the nagging suspicion, too, that these outside interests — be they the French government or American counterfeiters — were almost as motivated by the damage that their activities wreaked on the Haitian financial system as by the actual money they made. Certainly, Haitian authorities had long viewed counterfeiting as most likely driven by outsiders and as a criminal infringement of their sovereignty. Article 95 of a law decreed on August 4, 1817, made it clear that "whoever shall have counterfeited or altered money of legal currency in Hayti, or participated in the emission of said counterfeit, or altered money, or to their introduction on the Haytien territory, shall be punished with death." Jeremiah Hamilton's big opportunity entailed rolling dice with the executioner.
Counterfeiters had been unloading bogus notes in Haiti for a while, but forging the country's coin seems to have been a more recent development. A consortium of prominent New York merchants — unfortunately never named — put up the money for Hamilton's venture. Rumors of a conspiracy had first surfaced in the fall of 1827, when word came back to New York of a man, also unnamed, making inquiries in Canada looking for someone "to assist in coining Haytien money." There were plenty of counterfeiters in the United States, but generally they forged banknotes — Americans had pioneered in making paper currency the essential form of money, contrasting markedly with the situation in Britain, where coin fulfilled this function. In the 1820s, Cogniac Street, a dirt road winding out of a town called Dunham just across the Canadian border, was the counterfeiting capital, the place where you could find the most skilled forgers. Almost everyone living in the settlement was involved in some way in manufacturing spurious money, and, for the most part, the legal authorities left the counterfeiters alone. With seeming impunity, they made their deliveries of packages of forged notes to New York and elsewhere in the United States. Although the terms "koniacker" or "coneyacker" have long since disappeared from the language, in the first half of the nineteenth century they were commonly accepted slang for a counterfeiter. The chances are that the counterfeit coin stowed away on the Ann Eliza Jane had been minted on Cogniac Street and then transported down to New York City.
Excerpted from Prince of Darkness by Shane White. Copyright © 2015 Shane White. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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Table of Contents
1. Haiti, 1828
2. Moving to New York
3. The Great Fire, 1835
5. Jim Crow New York
6. Real Estate
8. Starting Over
9. The Trial
10. Wall Street
11. Living with Jim Crow
12. Making Money
13. To the Draft Riots
Epilogue: A Lion in Winter