Pivotal Past: George Washington House Reveals Memories Of A President, Tales Of Slavery

Author  Dawn A. Davis

Did you know that George Washington, the first president of the United States, once lived in Barbados? Just 19 years old, he visited the eastern Caribbean island in 1751 and lived there for about two months. He accompanied his older half-brother Lawrence, who had contracted tuberculosis and was hoping for a cure from the sun and sea air. Lawrence would die a year later of his ailment upon his return home to Virginia. For George, the Barbados visit was the only trip outside the U.S. for the future president.

A Shackled PeopleNow a UNESCO protected property and World Heritage Site, George Washington House in Bridgetown, Barbados stands as a legacy and reminder of the deep connection between the island and the U.S. A tour of the two-storey structure, under the authority of the Barbados National Trust (BNT), gives visitors a peek inside the early life of one of the crafters of the U.S. Constitution who became known as the “Father of the Nation”. The house was built in the 1720s. Washington and his brother rented it for 15 pounds per month. It was a spacious great house with a view of the sea and sat adjacent to one of the island’s military forts, the Garrison.

RESTORATION

The outbuildings included a latrine and free-standing kitchen with brick oven and working hearth. Rainwater was filtered through large porous limestone jars to be used for drinking. The implement on the property is original to the house. 

The BNT has painstakingly restored the inside of the house to resemble what it might have looked like in 1751. The bedrooms, with four-poster beds and mosquito netting, is a symbol of how the elite lived in those days. Traveling valises, water pitchers and wine glasses, and writing implements reveal a certain luxury. So, did the decorative chamber pot under the bed.

The main meeting/living room featured a long wooden table and chairs for dinner guests. It is said that the Washington brothers often entertained friends here. A look at the ceiling revealed some portions of the original beams and the tongue and groove construction method used in the era.

WatsonDrSLAVERY

The second floor is perhaps the most significant because of the artifacts of slavery and the slave trade displayed there. The most gruesomely moving pieces in this museum are the neck brace and leg irons displayed on a mannequin figure of Olaudah Equaino, an African slave kidnapped from Guinea about 1755. A rope-tethered child hangs on to him.

Equaino was sold to a British Royal Navy officer, then to a sea captain, who took him to Barbados. He eventually purchased his freedom in 1766, went to London and became involved in the anti-slavery movement. He wrote an autobiography, titled “The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equaino or Gustavus Vassa”, which provided him with wealth. But his shackles remind visitors of the horrors of human bondage.

Some of the authentic artifacts were unearthed on the island and restored by historian Dr. Karl Watson. Pointing to a leg manacle he restored, Watson admitted that he tried the restraint, that was meant for habitual runaways on himself.

“And it actually fit,” he said. Watson also explained the contents of a display case that held tobacco, cowrie shells, and a smoking pipe. During excavation of a slave holding area, he and his team found what they believed to be a mass burial site. They studied the remains of a young female of West African origin, probably between age 20 and 23. She wore a pendant and within her individual space was a long white clay tobacco pipe, a large door key and shark’s teeth. He explained that these were grave goods, often buried with someone of great stature.

But it was what Watson’s said next that shocked.“In excavating, my trowel touched her skull and it rolled. And as it rolled, puffs of green smoke came out of her eyes and her nostrils,” he explained. “It was a terrifying moment. I screamed and all of us ran. We went and bought a bottle of white rum, came back and poured libation around it and asked the ancestors to forgive us for disturbing the grave.” George Washington House is not just a place where the first U.S. president lived, it holds memories of those who slaved and died for freedom.

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