This summer, the University of Virginia Press published George Washington’s Barbados Diary, an edition of the journal and ship log kept by Washington during his only trip abroad. Publication of the diary concludes more than two years of work conducted by assistant editors Lynn A. Price and Alicia K. Anderson. It is also the first complete edition of the obscure text in 126 years.
In anticipation of the upcoming edition of the diary George Washington kept during his trip to Barbados, I worked with editors Lynn A. Price and Alicia K. Anderson to create an interactive map of Washington’s voyage. The map not only illustrates the ship’s progress and landing but also describes the weather encountered and the food eaten during the journey. Such details are revealed by selecting from the various elements included on the map. Users can customize the display by toggling the selection of these elements on the legend or by zooming in and out on the map.
William Fairfax was the superintendent of Lord Fairfax’s estates in Virginia and a powerful landowner in his own right. He resided at Belvoir, only a few miles from Mount Vernon. Teenage George Washington frequented the house and found a patron and mentor in Fairfax. Why the invalid Lawrence decided to sail to Barbados in the fall of 1751, and George decided to accompany him, had much to do with the influence of William Fairfax. Fairfax was related by marriage to the eminent Clarke family on the island, with whom the Washington brothers would spend most of their time. It was Fairfax’s connection with Carlyle, however, that likely prompted when and how the Washingtons got to Barbados. He owned a ship, and she was about to set sail.
It may have started with a headache and a fever, or just a general feeling of malaise. It could have struck after a night’s rest, when his morning routine of rising from bed was painfully curtailed by a severe backache unlike any he’d experienced before. A chill running throughout his body—abnormal in the extreme heat of the tropical climate of Barbados—could have been the first signal that something wasn’t right. However the illness chose to first present itself, within a few days a rash appeared on his skin. Less than two days from their emergence, the eruptions grew and spread, covering his entire body.1 George Washington was only 19 years old. He was on an adventure in the West Indies, and he had smallpox.
It appears that, even at the tender age of 19, George Washington was ready to take on the world. He had been under the wing of his paternalistic brother Lawrence for years, and it was clear (from the latter’s health) that he would not be for much longer. George had journeyed to Barbados that autumn under his brother’s watchful eye and had even finished a course of study of navigation by shadowing the captain and crew of the outbound vessel (which still remains unidentified, despite prior claims). His travel diary offers an impressive glimpse into the voyage through a detailed sea log, complete with latitudes and longitudes determined by observation and dead reckoning. Interestingly, it is George’s very curiosity and insight into the art of navigation that reveal a closer tie between the brothers than previously assumed.
For me, history is the study of people, and I have “met” quite a few interesting folks while working on George Washington’s Barbados diary. Due to a lack of sources, most of these people will become vague acquaintances at best. However, one of those individuals has captured my imagination—Gedney Clarke.
Last month, my colleagues Lynn Price and Edward G. Lengel and I had the amazing opportunity to visit Barbados, where George Washington traveled—and had the foresight to write about—more than two-and-half centuries ago.
Perhaps the two most controversial aspects of modern Washington scholarship are the question of his Christian faith and the undeniable fact of his ownership of human beings. I would argue that these dilemmas are a double-edged sword, forged by the paradoxical relationship between the two institutions of religion and slavery (and specifically between Christian doctrine and the practice of 18th-century Anglicanism).
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.
Perhaps it’s not too much to say that editors live for those moments when all the pieces come together and the proverbial mental light bulb goes off. Not long ago when I was examining digital images of the Barbados diary one more time from my laptop at home (this intriguing diary exerts its pull even beyond office hours), I experienced just such an “aha!” moment. A detail long overlooked in the manuscript, so tiny it hardly merited notice, suddenly spoke volumes. But I’m getting ahead of myself.