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George Washington traveled widely in what would become the United States, but he left the North American mainland only once, when he sailed to Barbados with his half-brother Lawrence in 1751. The adventure left an indelible imprint on him.
By Jack D. Warren, Jr.
Lawrence Washington was suffering from tuberculosis and was advised to spend the winter in the tropics. His wife, Anne, could not go with him. The couple had already lost three infants and were not willing to risk their only surviving child on a long sea voyage. Nineteen-year-old George Washington, his half-brother, agreed to go, and the adventure left an indelible imprint on him.
His life, up to that moment, had been completely provincial. Until he was 16, his social experience was almost entirely confined to the Northern Neck of Virginia. At 19 he had never been farther than 200 miles from the place he was born. Except for crossing the Potomac River in Maryland once or twice, he has never been outside Virginia. his vision of the world, literally and figuratively, was severely limited. His trip to Barbados would offer him his first glimpse of a wider world.
The Washington brothers sailed about September 19, 1751. The precise date is not clear, because George Washington's Barbados diary-- the chief source of information about the trip-- is badly mutilated. The brothers apparently sailed on the Success, a small trading sloop. The voyage, the only long sea voyage of Washington's life, took more than six weeks on what George Washington called the "fickle & Merciliss Ocean" (a flight from Washington, D.C., to Barbados, now takes little more than six hours).
Although only fragments survive, a diary kept on the trip by George Washington gives hints of how the two Virginians passed their time, both on the ship and on the island. As they made their way to Barbados, Washington recorded the weather, details about sailing, and the fish they caught—or tried to catch. These included dolphin, pilot fish, shark, barracudas (tigerfish). Washington also occupied his time at sea learning the practical science of navigation-- skills that came easily to a surveyor.
Like everyone else on board, he was surprised when the crew unexpectedly sighted the east coast of Barbados at four o'clock on the morning of November 2, at a time when the captain's calculations placed the ship nearly 150 leagues to the east. George Washington reported that everyone was "greatly alarm'd with the cry of Land."
The fear was justified. The east coast of Barbados is rocky, bounded by coral reefs, and pounded by surf. The Washingtons were lucky that the crew saw the island in the night, or else Success might have been driven onto the reefs and destroyed. Success avoided these misfortunes, rounded the south end of Barbados, and anchored in Carlisle Bay later on November 2.
Barbados is a small coral island in the southeastern Caribbean. The island is roughly pear-shaped, 21 miles from north to south and 14 miles across at the widest point. But its historical importance is not proportional to its size. The English settled the island in 1627, just eight years after the Pilgrims landed in Plymouth. In the 1650s the colonists and enslaved workers began to cultivate sugar cane, which soon made the island's leading planters spectacularly-- even decadently-- rich. Barbados was one of Britain's most precious colonial possessions. Bridgetown-- where the Washingtons landed-- was one of the most populous cities in British American and the largest urban area George Washington had ever seen. Williamsburg, the largest town in Virginia, was a mere village by comparison.
Shortly after they arrived, the brothers received a note from Gedney Clarke, an uncle of Lawrence Washington's wife, inviting them to his house. They went, though George Washington confessed "some reluctance" on his part because Mrs. Clarke was confined with smallpox, a dreaded disease he had so far avoided. It proved to be a fateful decision. Within two weeks he was stricken with the disease.
In the meantime, he had an opportunity to explore an exotic and completely unfamiliar landscape. Guided by their new friends, the brothers rode into the country to find a house to rent. The contrast between Barbados and Virginia was striking. Barbados was smaller than most Virginia counties but was intensively cultivated. The island was also densely populated, "so everywhere furnished with inhabitants," a contemporary observed, "that it resembles a scattered village in the midst of a garden."
Washington confessed that he was "perfectly ravished" by the beauty of Barbados, and overwhelmed by "the beautiful prospects which on every side presented to our view the fields of Cain, Corn, Fruit Trees, &c in a delightful Green."
"We pitched on the house of Captn Croftan," Washington wrote. The house they rented was on a ridge northeast of Bridgetown, a mile from town. It was not, by the standards of mid-century Barbados, a great house. It was already over 30 years old. But the location was perfect-- "very pleasantly situated," Washington wrote, "the prospect is extensive by Land and pleasant by Sea as we command the prospect of Carlyle Bay & all the shipping in such manner that none can go in or out without being open to our view."
Crofton's house was the center of the Washington brothers' stay in Barbados, but most afternoons they rode back to Bridgetown to dine with one of their new friends. Gedney Clarke and James Carter, a relative of the Virginia Carters, welcomed the brothers into a level of colonial society George Washington had only glimpsed at the Fairfax's Belvoir estate. The young Washington dined frequently at Clarke's Bridgetown home, where he met colonial officials, judges, merchants, military officers, and planters. On one occasion Washington sat down to dinner with the governor of Tortola, a naval commodore, an army general, and others too numerous for him to list. Another day he was the dinner guest of the "Beefsteak and Tripe Club," a group of the island's leading gentlemen. Some of these gentlemen visited the brothers at Crofton's house and invited them to their homes.
Washington wrote that he was "Genteely receiv'd and agreeably entertain'd" wherever he went. He was impressed by what he described as the "Hospitality and Genteel behavior" shown to "every gentelman stranger by the gentleman Inhabitants" of Barbados. He clearly enjoyed being treated like a "geltelman stranger" rather than just Lawrence's tag-along younger brother. His visit to Barbados offered an important opportunity for the young Washington to validate his social aspirations and affirm his status as a proper colonial gentleman.
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The trip also offered him his first opportunity to discuss the affairs of Britain's far-flung empire with men from another colony, whose interests and concerns were different from his own. It must have been a heady experience. His horizons-- previously limited to the Northern Neck of Virginia-- suddenly widened to imperial dimensions.
Washington did not have to ride far from Crofton's house to see some of the most impressive fortifications in British America. Barbados was one of the most heavily fortified colonies in the British Empire. Examining the island's defenses, Washington concluded that Barbados was actually "one intire fortification."
He visited Charles Fort on Needham's Point, guarding the entrance to Carlisle Bay, and dined repeatedly with the commander. He notes that Charles Fort was "pretty strongly fortifyed and mounts about 36 Gunes within the fortification" in addition to "2 facine Batterys" beyond the walls. Wherever he went along the west coast he found that the islanders "have large Intrenchments cast up wherever its possible for an enemy to Land."
These were the first forts the future American general ever saw, and they are still there to be seen today. The crumbling stone ramparts of Charles Fort still stand on a quiet point overlooking the Carlisle Bay. Dozens of cannon barrels-- some of which look old enough to have been in service when Washington was there-- lie in the surf at the base of the wall, their muzzles now filled with sea urchins.
George Washington's encounter with the British military establishment in Barbados seems to have had a crucial impact on his aspirations. Before his trip, Washington has little acquaintance with military men or military matters. After returning to Virginia, he dedicated himself to advancement in the military more completely than any of his Virginia contemporaries. And unlike most of the prominent colonial militia officers of the 1750s, he sought a commission in the regular British military establishment-- an ambition that was probably prompted, and undoubtedly stimulated, by his experience in Barbados.
George Washington's fascination with the fortifications of the island may have led him toward a military career, but while in Barbados he faced an enemy as dangerous as any he would face on the battlefield: smallpox. On November 17, Washington, in his own words, "Was strongly attacked with the small Pox."
Smallpox was one of the most dreaded diseases of the 18th century. A viral illness, it causes high fever, severe headaches, vomiting, pains in the loins and back, and the eruptions that gave the disease its name. Smallpox was extraordinarily virulent; individuals exposed to the virus, which passes by contact, were almost certain to be infected. One attack usually conferred immunity to future infection. Smallpox was endemic in the Caribbean, but it was actually fairly uncommon in Virginia. George Washington had not contracted smallpox as a child because the disease barely touched Virginia between 1732 and 1751.
For the duration of the illness, Washington was confined to Crofton's house. If he had not suffered through smallpox in Barbados-- and thus acquired a lifetime immunity to further infection-- he might have died from the illness during the Revolutionary War. The disease swept through his army repeatedly.
George Washington recovered soon enough, but Lawrence did not improve. Lawrence had probably intended to remain in Barbados for several months, but he complained in a letter home that the "climate has not afforded the relief I expected from it, so that I have almost determined to try the Bermudas." He decided to go on without George Washington, who sailed for Virginia at the end of December.
Like many other travellers, George Washington probably brought back a few souvenirs of his time in Barbados. Among the items that descended in the families of George and Martha Washington were two pieces of coral: a very large piece of fan coral (Gorgonia Ventalina) and a smaller example of staghorn or “tubular coral” (Acropora Cervicornis).
A “sawfish tooth,” purchased by Thomas Hammond for $4.00 at a private sale among the Washington heirs following Martha Washington’s death, may well have been another item stashed away in Washington’s sea chest on the homeward voyage from that fateful trip.
The voyage was miserable. The novelty of sea travel was gone, the weather was bad, and George Washington was alone. His sea chest was robbed during the voyage, but the culprit was never discovered. His ship, Industry, was tossed constantly by the storms. He was seasick.
Industry docked in Yorktown on January 27, 1752. Washington paused in Williamsburg-- which he now sarcastically dubbed "the great metropolis." Governor Robert Dinwiddie, who had formerly served in the Caribbean and was anxious for news from Barbados, welcomed him for dinner at the Governor's Palace. The next day George Washington rode for Mount Vernon.
He had been away for just three months, but in subtle ways, his life had changed. He had endured one of the most serious illnesses of his life. He had been treated as an equal by the best families. He had spent evenings in conversations with high-ranking officers in the British military and had seen at first-hand some of the most extensive fortifications in British America-- an experience that undoubtedly stimulated his interest in a military career. And returning home, he had been welcomed by the governor of Virginia himself, who regarded him as a young "person of distinction".
George Washington's visit to Barbados proved to be a turning point in his life-- a dividing line between his intensely provincial and ordinary youth and a young adulthood marked by extraordinary energy and ambition, in which he began the ascent that would make him the transcendent hero of American history.
George Washington – first American president, commander of the Continental Army, president of the Constitutional Convention, and gentleman planter. These were the roles in which Washington exemplified character and leadership.Learn more about the remarkable life of George Washington
This article was compiled from the works of Jack D. Warren, Jr. (Society of the Cincinnati © 2002) and Mary Thompson (Mount Vernon Ladies' Association).
Jack D. Warren, Jr. is the executive director of the Society of the Cincinnati and served as chief historical advisor on George Washington for the preservation and restoration of the George Washington House in Barbados.