TOPICS: Barbados, Project Updates
By Katie Blizzard, Communications Specialist
July 30, 2018
This July, George Washington’s Barbados Diary, 1751–52, edited by The Washington Papers’ Alicia K. Anderson and Lynn A. Price, was published by the University of Virginia Press. As a young man, George Washington kept a journal and ship’s log during his only trip abroad, to the Caribbean island of Barbados. He accompanied his older half brother Lawrence, who suffered from poor health, in the hopes the Barbados might cure him. The Barbados Diary is the first complete edition of the obscure text in 126 years and concludes more than two years of work conducted by Anderson and Price. Historian and archaeologist Philip Levy has called the Barbados Diary an “authoritative edition” that is “masterfully edited and annotated.”
The diary’s severely mutilated condition and lack of detail had discouraged previous scholars from most attempts at editing beyond a sparse transcription or photo reproduction. But, as Anderson explained, “Technological advances in preservation and imaging have given us the clearest picture of the diary to date. By making sense of the fragments and providing explanatory essays about the contents, we were able to bring out the meaning of the text and put it in clear view for all to see.”
Researching and writing the edition’s supplementary essays was much easier said than done. “Young George Washington frequently referred to individuals by their last names, often spelling the names phonetically,” Price described. “Researching people who were alive more than 250 years ago by their (possibly misspelled) last names only—in Barbadian, English, and American archives—was challenging detective work.”
Anderson and Price thus had to be creative and persistent in their efforts to uncover answers. Anderson, for example, used Washington’s financial records to trace his movements leading up to the voyage. She also “dusted off her high-school trigonometry” to determine the information missing from the daily coordinates of latitude and longitude maintained by Washington in his ship’s log.
When all else failed, the editors sought guidance from other scholars. Multiple consultations with maritime archaeologist Jason Lunze helped them “get a sense of the conditions aboard a mid-18th-century sailing vessel.” Anderson recalled finding one encounter to be particularly illuminating: “I’ll never forget the day we went out into our office parking lot and, using a long rope, traced out the circumference of a brigantine. What a compact vessel! Not only was deck space limited for the over-five-week voyage to Barbados, but beneath deck, the floors might be no more than four feet tall—a real strain on a 6’2” George Washington!”
As a result of all their hard work, Anderson and Price uncovered new details about the voyage and challenged previously held assumptions. They discovered that George and Lawrence began their journey well before the first date recorded in the diary: Sept. 28, 1751. The Washington brothers would have been halfway to Bermuda by that time. Through the use of naval shipping lists, they also found that the owner of the brigantine Success was Lawrence’s brother-in-law. Though former Washington Papers editors had theorized already that the brothers sailed on the Success, Anderson and Price’s revelation lent the assertion even more credibility.
With the edition now accessible to modern readers, both editors hope the public can use the volume to learn more about a young George Washington and his world as well as about the practice of documentary editing. “I’m excited that a relatively obscure part of George Washington’s life will be in the spotlight,” Price added. “We worked on this project for so long. It is the first volume for the new Washington Family Papers project, and to see it come to fruition in a beautiful book, accessible to a wide audience, is a satisfying conclusion.”
You can purchase a copy of George Washington’s Barbados Diary, 1751-52 from the University of Virginia Press here.