Travels May 2006

The Father of the Pina Colada?

Visitors to Barbados can see where George Washington slept—really
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"It’s a totally educated guess,” said Penelope Hynam, “but we can surmise reasonably, and be about ninety-five percent certain, that this was George Washington’s bedroom.”

Also see:

Travel Advisory
What to see and do in Barbados.

The room in question is in the corner of the George Washington House, a rectangular yellow building on a low bluff between a horse track and a forested gulley just outside of Bridgetown, Barbados. Hynam, the director of the house, pointed out some of the original beams, from 1719, and noted that Washington’s presumed bedroom ceiling would have been not much over six feet high when he lodged here, in late 1751. Washington stood some six foot three. “George didn’t say anything about ducking, but I’m sure he had to,” she said.

It’s a peculiar image: the statuesque Washington stooping through a low-ceilinged house in the Caribbean. Washington always had about him an aura of upright, alabaster formality—the historian Joseph Ellis has called him “the original marble man”—and one tends to visualize him rigidly crossing the Delaware through ice floes or striding among beleaguered troops during the long winter at Valley Forge. It’s jarring to imagine him at ease among palm trees and on sunny beaches with tropical drinks. (Washington separately mentioned both rum and pineapple in his journal, but regrettably there is no record of his ever combining the two, let alone adding coconut milk.)

Washington was one of the most widely traveled of colonial Americans when it came to his own country. Yet for all his errand-running up and down the Eastern Seaboard and across the Appalachians, he never ventured to Great Britain or Europe, as did Adams, Jefferson, and Franklin. His trip to Barbados, at age nineteen, was the only time he ever left American soil. He was accompanying his tubercular half brother, Lawrence, who was sent to the tropics on the advice of a doctor. The future president’s two-month stay on the island was basically his junior year abroad, an eye-opening trip that would influence his later outlook on politics and life.

“Historians throughout American history have ignored this journey,” said Hynam, who is overseeing the restoration of the house and the creation within it of a museum, slated to open in January 2007. “Almost any biography of George Washington gives it maybe a paragraph or two. Which is incredible—they really haven’t used their minds on this one.”

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Wayne Curtis is an Atlantic contributing editor.

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