George Washington in Barbados?Roundup
tags: slavery, American Revolution, George Washington, Barbados, Caribbean history
Erica Johnson Edwards is Associate Professor of History at Francis Marion University. She is the author of Philanthropy and Race in the Haitian Revolution, part of the Cambridge Imperial and Post-Colonial Studies Series (Palgrave Macmillan, 2018).
In November 2022, I accompanied three colleagues on a trip to the University of the West Indies at Cave Hill, Barbados to explore a possible study abroad partnership. As a part of the visit, Head of the Department of History and Philosophy Dr. Henderson Carter took us on a day-long tour of historic sites on the island. One of our brief stops was at the George Washington house. According to the US National Archives’ “Founders Online,” some historians once suggested that the house standing there now was not the house the Washingtons stayed in during his visit in the 1750s because it does not align with the architecture of the period and hurricanes hit the area hard in 1780 and 1831. However, it has been a tourist site associated with George Washington since the early 1900s. Further, historians worked in the 1990s to confirm the house’s location, culminating in a visit by Bill and Hillary Clinton in 1997. The Bajan narrative highlights how Barbados left an impression on a young Washington, in his physical body through exposure and survival from smallpox and some of his military knowledge used later in the war for independence. The following article outlines the connected and comparative histories the George Washington house deals with in relation to the history of Washington’s experiences in two slave societies, the transnational history of disease and inoculation in the American Revolution, and knowledge of the British military.
Although we did not tour the full grounds during our stop with Carter, we – as Americans – were struck by the appreciation he expressed for Washington as well as the Bajan interpretation of historical events. We decided to return to the site for a full tour the next day. We watched an informative video presentation before beginning the tour of the grounds accompanied by an audio-guide. The video included transnational commentary by scholars from Barbados and the United States. In light of Americans’ recent grappling with our Founding Fathers as enslavers, this site is impressive for its honest and balanced presentation of Washington without any villainizing or heroizing – though there is a sense of local pride at points. For instance, one area of interpretative text reads, “Barbados was the only country in the world visited by the man who would become the first President of the United States, George Washington” (see image below). Further, Barbados’ main visitor’s website emphasizes this as a reason why Americans should visit. Yet, the website also highlights reasons people from Barbados should visit. Overall, the historic site underscores Washington’s transnational history and the thirteen colonies’ and United States’ relationships with Barbados. This piece aims to show the unique narrative of George Washington’s legacy in Barbados through photojournalism.
The museum’s narrative mirrors discussions among professional historians in the US on why Caribbean history matters. In exploring the exhibits, I was reminded of a roundtable I took part in during the summer of 2019. Rob Taber had organized the roundtable “Integrating the Caribbean into Early American Republic Classrooms” for the Society for Historians of the Early Republic. An audience member – a history professor – asked us why they should care about the Caribbean. Of course, as Caribbeanists, we know just how integrated and interconnected the histories of the Americas and the Atlantic World is. This historic site demonstrates how Bajans also know about this broader colonial history, and Americans (and Americanists) still have a long way to go in overcoming our affinity for a narrative of exceptionalism.
Washington was nineteen years-old when he went to Barbados with his half-brother Lawrence in 1751. There is a museum inside the bright yellow house where they resided during their stay in Barbados. The first floor is set up to show what his life would have been like when there, with staged bedrooms and a large dining room. While there are exhibits upstairs showing dining ware and other daily items from the eighteenth century, most of the second-floor content is about the trade of enslaved people and enslavement. One display case includes items used to restrain enslaved peoples during the trade, such as reproductions of a coiled-neck collar and an original manacle and chain (each found in Barbados). An exhibit highlights the similarities and differences between Barbados and Virginia, where Washington and his wife enslaved people at Mount Vernon. One section reads, “In Virginia, up until the late 1700s, there were fewer slaves than masters. In Barbados, the opposite prevailed, with four slaves to every one white inhabitant, resulting in much harder methods of subjugation and discipline by Barbadian slave owners.” This comparative element between Barbados and Virginia is intriguing, as scholars are more likely to study Barbados relative to South Carolina, because colonists from Barbados were among the earliest settlers in South Carolina. However, Washington’s connection to both places offers a lens through which historians can view enslavement in Barbados and Virginia.