The “Epitome of Navigation”: How Lawrence Washington Steered His Brother George

TOPICS: Barbados, George Washington, Lawrence Washington, Short Biography

by Alicia K. Anderson, Research Editor
May 27, 2016

Composite image created with Microsoft PowerPoint templates by Alicia K. Anderson. The original portraits of Lawrence (left) and George Washington (right) are courtesy of the Mount Vernon Ladies' Association.
Composite image created with Microsoft PowerPoint templates by Alicia K. Anderson. The original portraits of Lawrence (left) and George Washington (right) are courtesy of the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association.

Lawrence, George Washington’s elder half-brother by their father’s first marriage, stayed in Barbados that December of 1751. His condition, presumably tuberculosis, was none improved from their seven-week stay on the island, and he was determined to get better—if not in Barbados, then in Bermuda.1 George, his travel companion, had to get home. A new year’s surveying season was about to begin.2 He also had an important acquaintance to meet: the newly arrived governor of Virginia, Robert Dinwiddie, who, within the year (just months following Lawrence’s death in July 1752), would appoint George adjutant for the colony’s southern district with the rank of major.3

It appears that, even at the tender age of 19, George Washington was ready to take on the world. He had been under the wing of his paternalistic brother Lawrence for years, and it was clear (from the latter’s health) that he would not be for much longer. George had journeyed to Barbados that autumn under his brother’s watchful eye and had even finished a course of study of navigation by shadowing the captain and crew of the outbound vessel (which still remains unidentified, despite prior claims). His travel diary offers an impressive glimpse into the voyage through a detailed sea log, complete with latitudes and longitudes determined by observation and dead reckoning. Interestingly, it is George’s very curiosity and insight into the art of navigation that reveal a closer tie between the brothers than previously assumed. Even on the return voyage, as George tested his wings solo, the influence of the brother 14 years his senior was still present. At least, this is my inference from a tiny detail found among the diary’s concluding pages.

The return trip started only three days before Christmas. One can sense George’s nostalgia for the brother he left behind even amidst the holiday festivities, which included, on the day itself, a specially prepared Irish goose and a round of toasts “to our absent friends.” On Christmas Eve, George describes the sailing scene with the familiarity of a seasoned traveler: in a detailed aside, he notes that the day’s “Fresh gale” that “hurried” them past the Leewards was, “in this part of the World,” known as a “fiery Breeze.”4 Here we stop for a moment. Whenever he gets the chance, it seems, George tries to test out the vocabulary suited to his present situation. Even “Fresh gale” is carefully selected, chosen from a range of terms for wind velocity common among sailors. “Fiery Breeze,” however, is a term unique to the weather conditions of the West Indies. Where might George have picked it up, if not from his companions aboard?

Lawrence is a strong possibility. He knew all about “fiery breezes.” He had served aboard ship in the West Indies during the Battle of Cartagena in 1741. His leader in that campaign, Vice Admiral Edward Vernon (after whom Lawrence reverentially renamed his Potomac estate),5 used the phrase liberally in his account of those memorable months. For the record, “fiery sea-breezes”—coastal storms that blow from the east and southeast, worsened by the strong trade-winds and currents of the summer months—are usually followed by dead calms, a dangerous combination for vessels on a long voyage. In June 1741, just after the British defeat at Cartagena, Vernon complained of the “great Interruption” caused by “the fiery-breeze Season,” which kept the fleet from returning to England.6 That Lawrence had been aboard ship during one particularly nagging “season” of fiery breezes suggests the strong possibility that George had heard of them on account of his brother.

In fact, Lawrence’s previous naval experience in the West Indies was likely the impetus behind young George’s desire to pursue a career at sea in the first place, an inclination that did not last long, alas. His mother detested the idea. She wrote to her brother in England for more convincing proof of her distaste. Lawrence, in the meantime, seems to have been at odds with his stepmother. Reading between the lines of a letter Washington family neighbor Robert Jackson had written to Lawrence in 1746, it sounds like Lawrence had been encouraging George in such an endeavor: Jackson describes Mary Ball Washington’s complaints about her boy’s aspirations as “trifling objections.” “Mrs. Washington will not keep up to her first resolution,” Jackson wrote; “I find that one word against [George’s going to sea] has more weight than ten for it.”7 The men seemed to have a consensus; only the lady was at odds. As young George drifted between his mother’s home at Ferry Farm and the more luxurious estate of his brother, preferring the freedom and social prestige of the latter, particularly his association with the influential Fairfax family at Belvoir, we see a widening gap between the influences of mother and half-brother. Ultimately, however, George heeded Mary and never became a sailor. One wonders if Lawrence had bought into the idea too.

But he dusted off his sailing ambitions at least once. When finally given the opportunity to sail—to Barbados—he certainly made the most of the experience. George’s interest in sailing and navigation continued throughout his life, as many later acquisitions to his library attest. It is most likely that Lawrence nurtured this interest from an early age, but what of the skill that George displays in his diary toward navigational reckoning: did Lawrence also influence his education on that subject? We now have a clue that he did. After complications from his illness took Lawrence’s life in July 1752, George was involved in the assessment of his brother’s property at Mount Vernon, the settlement and future inheritance of which took several years.8 In 1753, the 21-year-old penned a list of personnel and effects—a list still in existence at Mount Vernon’s Fred W. Smith Library for the Study of George Washington—starting with slaves and proceeding to livestock and a room-by-room inventory of even the smallest objects. Among them are sail needles, a pocket compass, and a silver watch, possible testaments to Lawrence’s life at sea. George concludes the document with a long list of books, most of the titles abbreviated and hence not easy to identify.

Having looked at the list multiple times, I had concluded that none was likely to have had any bearing on George’s navigational education. Recently looking at it one more time, I proved myself wrong. This time, “Atkinsons Epitome” stood out like a sore thumb. In the intervening months, I had consulted that very tome for my own edification on naval matters. Now I had the link, no matter how small, to suggest that Lawrence had a much more likely influence on George’s study of navigation. James Atkinson’s The Epitome of the Art of Navigation, which appeared in myriad editions throughout the first half of the eighteenth century, may very well have been a book consulted by the young George in the fall of 1751. Or Lawrence, having studied it himself for his earlier cruise in the West Indies, may have related its methods to the boy. The fact that in 1753, it still belonged to the estate of Lawrence Washington and was valued along with it suggests that it was still more Lawrence’s book than George’s. Nonetheless, George may have at one point been quite familiar with its contents.

These are simply glimpses into the past. They are suggestive of a possible narrative, but they are not hard evidence. Still, it cannot be denied that Lawrence Washington had a significant influence on George. If it were not for his brother’s deathly illness and his desire to seek healing abroad, George may never have sojourned in Barbados, and as a result, may never have rubbed elbows with the island’s planter elite and observed its impressive military infrastructure.9 While there, he contracted smallpox, which—ironically—would save his life during the Revolution. Indirectly, Lawrence steered his brother into the social and military circles that would characterize the general’s later life. It is intriguing, at least, to ponder the more direct ways that Lawrence influenced his brother—the very words and books that might have colored their conversations during weeks of close quarters at sea.

But for Lawrence, we might never have met the navigator in George Washington—the one who not only could guide a ship but also would eventually lead a nation.

You can read more about Alicia K. Anderson’s trip to Barbados here.


1. Sparks, Writings, 2:422–23.
2. He had a job lined up as early at 18 Feb. 1752. See William Fairfax to GW of that date: DLC:GW.
3. Va. Gaz., 21 Nov. 1751; Diaries, 1:34, 118.
4. See GW’s Barbados diary, entries of 24 and 25 Dec. [1751]: DLC:GW.
5. Diaries, 1:24.
6. Original Paprrs [sic] Relating to the Expedition to Carthagena (2nd ed.; London, 1744), 147–48.
7. Diaries, 1:4.
8. Ibid., 1:34, 118, 247n.
9. Lawrence’s father-in-law, Colonel William Fairfax, had held a royal appointment in the Bahamas and was related by marriage to the influential Clarke family in Barbados, perhaps one of the main reasons Lawrence decided to go to that specific island for healing: Diaries, 1:3. For the Clarke connection, see my colleague Lynn Price’s recent blog post for Washington’s Quill, “The Rise and Fall of a Barbados Merchant.”

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