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.”

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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.”

Longtime island visitors sometimes grouse that Barbados has lost much of its Caribbean-ness. It’s become too modern, they say, too traffic-choked, and, in short, has committed the sin of becoming too prosperous. The main highway near Bridgetown is cluttered with auto dealerships, squat office buildings, and boxy gas stations, and the low coastal hills are dotted with red-tile-roofed mini-estates corralled in tidy subdivisions. Pricey resorts occupy prime beachfront along the western coast, where beachgoers are shielded from the northeasterly trade winds by geography and from outside untidiness by guards and gatehouses.

Yet the island still has considerable innate beauty. Much of the interior is filled with improbably green sugarcane fields, which look like heroically overgrown lawns. And the eastern side still has an open wildness to it, largely undeveloped and raked by the winds.

Prosperity is not a new phenomenon here. Tiny Barbados—about one-seventh the size of Rhode Island—was at one time arguably the wealthiest and most sophisticated society in the hemisphere. Great fortunes had been built on sugar and slavery in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and the sugar barons spared little expense in splicing the cultural DNA of England onto their densely populated island.

The Washington brothers arrived on Barbados in November 1751 and were welcomed by Major Gedney Clarke, with whom they were acquainted through family connections. They visited the Clarke home “with some reluctance,” George wrote in his journal, because the household had recently been beset by smallpox. His instincts were sound: two weeks later, he “was strongly attacked” by the pox, which kept him housebound for nearly a month and gave him his famously pockmarked complexion. Historians speculate that it gave him something more: a lifelong immunity, which proved handy when the disease ravaged his troops during the Revolutionary War.

The brothers eventually rented a house from one Captain Croftan, the commander of a nearby fort. They paid fifteen pounds a month “exclusive of Liquors & washing,” though not without some grumbling. Records have surfaced indicating that Croftan had earlier rented the house for ten pounds a month, thus giving Washington the distinction of being possibly the first American tourist hosed by an islander.

Other details about Washington’s stay on Barbados are sketchy. He was never chatty in his journal, and he made no entries at all during the month he was sick. What’s more, some of the journal pages have rotted away, and others were lost when the nineteenth-century historian and Harvard President Jared Sparks sliced them up in order to give friends and autograph hunters souvenirs of Washington’s handwriting.

So little was known of Washington’s visit to Barbados that for decades people who wanted to see where he slept were directed to the wrong place. A house across from the yacht club had been misidentified by amateur historians in 1912, and the mistake persisted until recently, in part because the house was featured on a Barbados stamp, and in part because the owner had grown fond of the plaque and proved churlish about taking it down.

Most serious historians, however, believed all along that the authentic Washington house was the one next door to the present-day horse track. But it wasn’t until 1989 that researchers happened upon documents that proved it beyond dispute. The house was placed in the care of the Barbados National Trust in the late 1990s, and since then the structure and grounds have been subject to exhaustive investigations. During my first visit, two years ago, the building looked like a roast turkey the day after Thanksgiving; it had been torn apart by architectural historians trying to figure out the original floor plan. (No small task: the house underwent major changes in the 1830s and 1870s, and more recently served as accommodations for employees of the local power company.) The exterior is being restored to its appearance c. 1870, when the second floor was added. Inside, the first floor will be sparely furnished to look as it did during Washington’s visit, albeit with higher ceilings. The second floor will feature exhibits on eighteenth-century Barbados and the island’s ties with the northern colonies. “It’s a fabulous detective project,” Hynam said.

As is figuring out how Barbados influenced Washington’s character. “It must have had a profound effect on a nineteen-year-old with a bright, inquiring mind,” Hynam said. While in Barbados, Washington attended his first professional London play (George Barnwell, a Tragedy). He had the chance to observe advanced agricultural techniques employed on an intensely cultivated island. He studied military fortifications of a type he’d never seen before. He noted the vast gap between the wealthy and the poor, and the absence of a middle class. He saw the effects of a colonial system that had, as in Virginia, left many planters mired in debt to the mother country. And he attended dinners with prominent islanders, where he no doubt heard what happened to the Stuarts who rose up against the king in 1745 (the luckier ones were exiled to Barbados). It was among his most personal encounters with the Anglocentric high society he would later rebel against.

The island, which was once commonly referred to as “Little England,” flew the British flag without interruption between 1627 and 1966. A statue of Lord Nelson stands in the former Trafalgar Square (renamed National Heroes Square in 1999). American travelers to Barbados today can walk in Washington’s footsteps and marvel at a culture that is both familiar and exotic.

I stayed at Cobblers Cove, a former sugar planter’s beach house recast as an elegant small resort. The guest rooms have wicker chairs, languorous ceiling fans, and Edwardian-era prints of tropical plants; guests may feel as though they’ve walked into one of those British Campaign spreads in a Pottery Barn catalog. Impish green monkeys of the sort seen on retro colonial-empire upholstery played outside on the grounds, at times crashing onto the roof with the delicacy of a misplayed medicine ball.

The hotel was populated chiefly by British tourists (none of whom, evidently, had received the memo about sandals and black socks). At breakfast on a terrace overlooking the ocean, toast arrived upright in a tidy stainless-steel rack, accompanied by shot-glass-sized containers of marmalade. In the afternoons, tea and what appeared to be crumpets were set out near a patio.

The island’s Anglo antiquity is as much a draw as its palm-fringed beaches and upscale restaurants. Like Washington, I spent my days examining forts and sugarcane fields, which are dotted with the stumps of old stone windmills. I dropped in at several venerable estates, including Sunbury Plantation House, which dates back more than three centuries and stands with a grave dignity amid a shady thicket. It’s now a museum with a courtyard restaurant; the cellar and second-floor bedrooms have been given over to artifacts with neatly handwritten labels, including “pond grass scraper” and “Victorian knickers.”

More impressive still is St. Nicholas Abbey, a regal Jacobean mansion built about 1650, with Dutch gables and coral stone finials. Reached through an allée of mahogany trees, it has the feel of a fugitive estate from a Jane Austen novel, muffled in an ancient silence interrupted from time to time by the insane screech of the guinea fowl that roam the grounds with a haughty and proprietary air. The birds sometimes charge at visitors, forcing them to take evasive measures involving brisk, awkward steps.

Which brings to mind cricket. Islanders are daft about the sport. You can see it played informally on various grounds around the island, or catch periodic matches at the Kensington Oval. (The World Cup finals will be held here next year.) I know as much about cricket as I do about crumpets. Washington had the London theater to make him feel like a slack-jawed rube from the provinces; I had cricket.

No matches were scheduled during my stay, but I watched children being coached on a neighborhood pitch, and later stopped by the Centre for Cricket Excellence’s Walk of Fame on the campus of the University of the West Indies, just outside Bridgetown. I took the time to admire a list of every West Indian batsman who’d scored a “century,” and every bowler who’d effected five or more “dismissals.” (A century, I was later informed, is a score of 100 points by an individual player, and a dismissal is something like an out in baseball.)

Here was foreign travel at its best: when you find yourself in a fugue state, where people speak a familiar language, yet all you hear is intoxicating jibberish. This was, I believe with about 95 percent certainty, the state in which George Washington spent at least part of his sojourn abroad.

Wayne Curtis is the author of And a Bottle of Rum: A History of the New World in 10 Cocktails, to be published in July.
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Wayne Curtis is an Atlantic contributing editor.

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