People from the Past—and Present: Revisiting George Washington’s Barbados
TOPICS: Barbados, Editors in the Field, Editor’s Perspective, George Washington, Lawrence Washington
by Alicia K. Anderson, Research Editor
May 3, 2016
Last month, my colleagues Lynn Price and Edward G. Lengel and I had the amazing opportunity to visit Barbados, where George Washington traveled—and had the foresight to write about—more than two-and-a-half centuries ago.
We went, particularly, to trace people long dead and buried—the 18th-century friends of George and his brother Lawrence from their 1751–1752 trip. We combed through names in crumbling registers of births, marriages, and deaths at the Barbados National Archives and scanned faded names on tombstones in the cemeteries of several parish churches around the island, information only to be gathered on site.
Put together, these tidbits have begun to flesh out the people of George Washington’s day. For instance, the family of Gedney Clarke, whom Washington visited, lived at Belle Plantation in the parish of St. Michael’s. Clarke’s will revealed the locations of his various landholdings and the family members to whom he left those lands.
But it was the new friends we met in Barbados who really helped us see his diary afresh. We are indebted to several archivists and library staff at the National Archives and the Barbados Museum and Historical Society, who graciously offered up their resources for our study. We were thrilled to meet Sandra Corbin of the George Washington House and view her photos from a recent visit to Mount Vernon.
We would also like to thank Martin Miller of the George Washington House and Dr. Karl Watson of the University of the West Indies.
Mr. Miller, our greeter and guide at the Washington House, gave us an extensive tour of the house and grounds, answering a number of questions along the way. Why did they believe that George slept in the smaller, left-hand bedroom on the ground floor, and Lawrence, the larger room to the right? Which windows would have commanded the best breezes for Lawrence’s sick lungs and, for both curious brothers, the best views of the bustling seaport on Carlisle Bay? Was the low-hanging ceiling beam in the dining room original to the room, and one under which George may have had to duck? Mr. Miller’s rich insights and congenial manner made for a compelling, enjoyable experience.
We are also indebted to Mr. Miller for helping us connect with Dr. Karl Watson, who took the time to meet with us at the Washington House, discuss our research, and then personally drive us around the island in search of Washington’s haunts and other important historic sites. Dr. Watson, a Washington scholar and Barbados native, knows the island like the back of his hand, and he took us down one off-beaten track after another to show us the remains of the Gedney Clarke house at Belle Plantation, where George dined multiple times, as well as the Robert Warren home—now an investment services company—where he attended a meeting of the Beefsteak & Tripe Club.
According to Dr. Watson, the original St. Michael’s parish church where George worshipped was, in fact, located at the current St. Michael’s Anglican Cathedral, despite other accounts to the contrary. We also toured the Morgan Lewis Sugar Mill, the only functioning windmill remaining on Barbados, for which Dr. Watson gave a detailed historical narrative of the sugar industry. At that industry’s peak, he told us, there were upwards of 500 windmills on the island. Lastly, he attested to many of the unusual tropical fruits that George sampled in 1751, pointing out the most likely location from which George’s pineapples—his favorite fruit!—would have come.
Today, we are left with 86 well-worn pages of Washington’s Barbados diary. Sparse on detail, they give us a glimpse of the people and places George encountered on his long-ago visit. Thankfully, history has a way of living on in the people who strive so generously to tell it. Our appreciation to these new friends and the people of Barbados for such a welcoming and informative introduction to their island and its fascinating history.
~ I would like to thank Lynn Price for her contributions to this piece.
All photos by Alicia K. Anderson, unless otherwise noted.