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Beef, Liberty, and All Things Barbados

By Lynn Price, Assistant Editor
March 4, 2016

With George Washington’s Barbados Diary transcription complete, the next phase to accomplish is the all-important task of annotation. Placing the document into proper historical context is the backbone of documentary editing—a document on its own is only part of the story. Annotation is time-consuming, detail-oriented work that can require hours of research to compose one or two sentences. But perhaps more importantly, for this historian, it is incredibly entertaining.

Photo taken by a Washington Papers editor.

Photograph of a manuscript fragment from Washington’s Barbados diary.

Youthful George did not know it at the time, but his meticulously kept diary would become a challenging puzzle for future historians. Setting aside the physical wear and tear on the 265-year-old document (including entire pages lost), George’s penchant for using only last names spelled phonetically, vaguely noting locations, and saving space through abbreviations has made what does remain of the document anything but simple.

While the individuals mentioned in the diary are the most challenging to expound upon, they also offer some of the best insights into George and Lawrence’s world. The brothers spent a great deal of time in Barbados dining with the Clarke family, which was led by Gedney Clarke, a powerful merchant with strong ties to both Massachusetts and Barbados. Clarke’s status on the island allowed the Washingtons access to the powerful planter elite of Barbados. Their social ties, however, arose in Virginia with Gedney Clarke’s sister Deborah, who also happened to be the mother of Ann Fairfax, Lawrence’s wife. The brothers also briefly stayed at the house of Judge James Carter, an elite member of Barbados society as well as a relative of the well-known Virginia Carters.

Connecting with the powerful planters on the island opened doors for a young George to experience a stratum of society that he had yet to achieve in Virginia. For example, he was invited to several meetings of the Beefsteak and Tripe Club, a group of powerful men who met on Saturday evenings for a dinner of beefsteak, tripe, and a collection of local fruits—all in the name of “Beef and Liberty!” The club was styled after an 18th-century English club founded in London in 1735.

Image from Griffith Hughes, The Natural History of Barbados, 1750. Public domain image.

Image from Griffith Hughes, The Natural History of Barbados, 1750.

During his dinners with the elite of Barbados society, George was introduced to new fruits and vegetables that had not yet made it to the Virginia mainland. He mentioned the Reverend Griffith Hughes’ 1750 work—The Natural History of Barbados—as an excellent summary of all the island had to offer. He wrote after one dinner at a judge’s house that he encountered “the greatest Collection of Fruits I have yet seen set on the Table there was the Granadella the Sappadilla Pomgranate Sweet Orange Water Lemmon forbidden Fruit Apples Guava’s &ca &ca &ca,” later confessing that his very favorite was the pineapple.

George got to know the commanders of the two main fortifications—Charles Fort and James Fort—in Bridgetown and experienced the celebration of Gunpowder Plot Day, also known as Guy Fawkes Day, with fireworks. As was a general habit of George’s, he did not offer his own viewpoint of the celebrations and his enjoyment or lack thereof. However, 24 years later as commander in chief of the Continental Army, his 1775 General Orders forbade any such celebration of Guy Fawkes Day, specifically mentioning the French-Canadian Catholics supporting the colonies:

“The defence [sic] of the general Liberty of America: At such a juncture, and in such Circumstances, to be insulting their Religion, is so monstrous, as not to be suffered, or excused; indeed instead of offering the most remote insult, it is our duty to address public thanks to these our Brethren, as to them we are so much indebted for every late happy Success over the common Enemy in Canada.”1

Many such insights and stories exist, hidden inside the document known as George Washington’s Barbados Diary. Annotating it has been an adventure in 18th-century history, and it will certainly continue to be an enlightening process.

 

Notes

1. The Papers of George Washington Digital Edition, ed. Theodore J. Crackel. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, Rotunda, 2008. http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-02-02-0279.