By Erica Johnson Edwards
Warning: This piece contains an image of torture/controlling devices for enslaved.
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.
Washington’s immunity to smallpox was part of Barbados’ contribution to the American Revolution. Soon after his arrival, Washington caught the virus. In his role as our guide for the day, Carter explained to us that this was vital for Washington’s leadership during the American Revolution. Not only had Washington gained immunity to the disease, but he also understood the severity of its symptoms as it ravaged the Continental Army in the 1770s. Therefore, Washington ordered the inoculation of all his troops in 1777. Mount Vernon’s interpretative website acknowledges how Washington gained immunity from the virus during his time in Barbados. The site explains, “If he had not suffered through smallpox in Barbados – and this acquired a lifetime immunity to further infection – he might have died from the illness during the Revolutionary War.” However, Carter reflected on a deeper transnational importance. As the Mount Vernon site notes, “Washington had not contracted smallpox as a child because the disease barely touched Virginia between 1732 and 1751.” Washington’s experience with smallpox in Barbados, not in the thirteen colonies, it was an immunity that saved the life of a revolutionary leader. It also saved the lives of others, and ultimately the revolutionary movement by calling for inoculations.
Washington’s military career is another way Barbados contributed to the American Revolution and Early Republic. The George Washington house includes access to part of the tunnels that once provided access to the British military garrison from the house. The tunnels are incredibly narrow, at times narrow enough that my shoulders rubbed along the walls. In some places, there are seashells mixed in with the plaster of the tunnel walls as well as evidence of prehistoric fossils. Carter told us that Washington accessed the garrison through the tunnels and intimately learned about British military operations in Barbados. He proposed that this contributed to how Washington led the Continental Army in defeating the British. This was striking because most histories of Washington’s military life start with 1753 and the Seven Years’ War in North America, and those accounts typically emphasize his lack of soldierly experience. However, being a soldier and a military leader requires both knowledge and experience. The Bajan narrative reveals how Washington gained some of his first experiential knowledge of the British military Washington in Barbados not the thirteen colonies. The Mount Vernon website also directly ties his military career to his visit to Barbados, explaining that “unlike most of the prominent colonial military officers of the 1750s, he sought a commission in the regular British military establishment – an ambition that was probably promoted, and undoubtedly stimulated, by his experiences in Barbados.”
With Americans making up the majority of tourists to Barbados – as evidenced by the acceptance of both American and Bajan currency on the island – it makes sense to open the house where he stayed during his visit to tourists. However, the historic interpretation presented there reveals some important disconnects in (trans)national memory. It is important to note that the connections Bajans make between Washington and Barbados are not framed as British imperial connections. They root these ties in culture and geography instead of politics. Perhaps, the connections Washington represents between Barbados and the thirteen colonies in the Age of Revolutions means even more to the Bajan collective memory today as they also declared their independence from England in on November 30, 1966 and became a republic on November 20, 2021. Although their dates of independence are centuries apart, the US and Barbados share a history as former British colonies. Yet, there are significant differences in their respective collective memories. Admittedly, Mount Vernon promotes a similar view of Washington, as scholars at both of Washington’s historic homes collaborated on their interpretations, including the introductory video at the site in Barbados. Yet, these connections are not highlighted in textbooks or on popular history websites. The American public chooses to remember Washington as an all-American hero, born and raised in Virginia, revolutionary leader, and the nation’s first president. This reflects what Michael Hattem shows in his recent book – how Americans intentionally began framing their history separate from their British colonial history as they gained independence and formed a republic. Yet, Bajans have a transnational memory of Washington. He may have been from Virginia, but his brief experiences in Barbados shaped – even ensured – his role in the American Revolution and the President of the United States of America.
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).
Title Image: A statue of George Washington from the George Washington House, Barbados. All photos courtesy of the author except for the photo of the tunnel, which is attributed to Mark Blackwell.
Ambrose, Stephen E. “Founding Fathers and Slaveholders.” Smithsonian Magazine (November 2022). https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/founding-fathers-and-slaveholders-72262393/
Beckles, Hilary. The First Black Slave Society: Britain’s “Barbarity Times” in Barbados, 1636-1876. Kingston: The University of West Indies Press, 2016.
Hall, John W. “An Irregular Reconsideration of George Washington and the American Military Tradition.” Journal of Military History vol. 78, no. 3 (July 2014): 961-993.
Higginbotham, Don, ed. George Washington Reconsidered. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2001.
Renan, Ernest. “What is a Nation?” trans. and ann. Martin Thom, in Nation and Narration, ed. Homi K. Bhabha, 8-22. New York: Routledge, 2013.
Schwartz, Barry. “Social Change and Collective Memory: The Democratization of George Washington.” American Sociological Review vol. 56, no. 2 (April 1991): 221-236.
Watson, Robert. George Washington’s Final Battle: The Epic Struggle to Build a Capital City and a Nation. Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 2021.
 See “Barbados Saves Home Where George Washington Slept,” CNN World, July 3, 2001, http://edition.cnn.com/2001/WORLD/americas/07/03/barbados.tourism.reut/.
 People holding a passport from Barbados are formally called Barbadian. However, on the island and throughout the Caribbean, people often call those from Barbados Bajan. Bajan is a term for the people, their culture, and their language dating back to the era of enslavement.
 For more on the Washington’s as enslavers, see for example, Erica Armstrong Dunbar, Never Been Caught: The Washingtons’ Relentless Pursuit of their Runaway Slave, Ona Judge (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2017); Mary V. Thompson, “The Only Unavoidable Subject of Regret”: George Washington, Slavery, and the Enslaved Community at Mount Vernon (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2019); and Bruce A. Ragsdale, Washington at the Plow: The Founding Farmer and the Question of Slavery (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2021).
 Dan Liebowitz, “Smallpox Vaccination: An Early Start of Modern Medicine in America,” Journal of Community Hospital Internal Medicine Perspectives vol. 7, no. 61-63 (2017), 61-61.
 See for example Paul K. Longmore, The Invention of George Washington (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1999) and Don Higginbotham, “Washington and the Colonial Military Tradition,” in George Washington Reconsidered, edited by Don Higginbotham, 38- 66 (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2001).
 Eric J. Hobsbawm emphasizes how politicians can create a national identity through myths, particularly by highlighting a common past. Eric J. Hobsbawm, Nations and Nationalism since 1780: Programme, Myth and Reality (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990).
 See for example https://www.history.com/topics/us-presidents/george-washington.
 See Past and Prologue: Politics and Memory in the American Revolution (Yale University Press, 2020).
4 thoughts on “George Washington in Barbados?”
Prof. Johnson Edwards,
As Project Director for the George Washington House I read your article on George Washington in Barbados with great interest and found it to be most perceptive. There is one area that I would like to discuss with you. Do tell me if there is an email address that I can contact you directly. You have my contact information below.
Please email me at email@example.com.
Dear Professor Edwards:
I want to congratulate you on an excellent article on the George Washington House in Barbardos. I was the first curator of the site and researched the history of the structure and the accompanying exhibits. I need to point out one error in your article, concerning the Garrison. Barbados was a heavily fortified island holding of the British Empire but that protection was scattered around many forts generally manned by local militias, not British regulars. Our research indicates the Empire did not decide to fortify Barbados with a professional military force until around 1780 during the American Revolution. France has recently formally entered the conflict on the US side and were making a play for the valuable Caribbean island in British possession. A British force was landed near Bridgetown and encamped nearby to what became the Garrison next to St. Anne’s fort. The tunnels, which we did not know existed when doing our research in 2005 were not constructed until after 1780. Washington visited Barbados in 1752 long before the establishment of the Garrison as a military base. The Washington house was a one story structure, a drawing of which is in the Barbados Museum’s possession was a rental property owned by a local doctor. The house was renovated with an addition of a second story as an Officer’s house and used as such for most of the 19th century.
Washington learned about the military visiting the several forts in Barbados. Many of these fortresses are in ruins but there is still evidence of them throughout the island.
Thank you for this clarification. Please note that I was recounting that narrative I heard on my visit.