Professor Henry FraserArchitecural Historian / Heritage Consultant
Chairman, Sentinel Committee, Barbados National Trust
Writer, TV Presenter, National Orator & Motivational Speaker
Professor Emertius, Medicine and Clinical Pharmacology.
Immediate Past Dean, Faculty of Medical Sciences.
University of the West Indies, Cave Hill Campus, Barbados.

 



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THINGS THAT MATTER: George Washington House

Henry S Fraser

“George Washington not only slept here …. He woke up here!” (Penny Hynam, Director of the Restoration)

"It was a pivotal moment for him …. His resolve to get ahead began here." (Jack Warren Jr., Editor of "The Papers of George Washington".)

“He was greater than any of us believed he was.” (Douglas Freeman, biographer of Washington)

George Washington House, formerly Bush Hill House, is one of the extraordinary historic sites in Barbados, that is much more than a museum celebrating the USA’s first President and God-like hero of heroes.

This column continues the thread of last week’s Letter from America and The Barbados Carolina connection, as well as the series on the museums of Barbados, which began with the Cricket Legends Museum.

Many people have asked why Barbados should have restored the house where George Washington lived, and made it into a Five Star Historic Site, when he’s not a Bajan hero, but an American hero. This question, in all its innocence, betrays a slightly parochial outlook, as well as a lack of general knowledge of the long and strong relationship between Barbados and the USA.

Actually, even without any awareness of the historical, cultural, economic and family ties between Barbados and “big brother”, there can hardly be a Bajan without a father, mother, sibling, auntie or best friend in the USA. People like to call Brooklyn is our “other” constituency, and how Bajan politicians like to make big announcements up there! And if I confess up, I’ve had an uncle and two aunts, a fairy Godmother and a whole “riffle” of cousins in the USA since a hundred years ago! And I know that goes for most of us, with relatives emigrating since the post-Panama era, and in even more in the last fifty years – in fact it’s reported that more than 50,000 Americans claim Barbadian citizenship or immediate descent, with almost 20,000 having emigrated in the post-Independence decade.

And emigration goes way back, almost 350 years, to the colonisation of the Carolinas and settlement of Charlestown (now Charleston) by the Anglo-Barbadian odyssey in 1670 – forming “a colony of a colony”. This transplant of Barbadian society and culture, inspired by Sir John Colleton, had enormous implications for both countries over the next 100 years. Some 30,000 left for America in the 17th century, at least another 20,000 in the 18th century, and many more in the last century.



The other hugely significant connection was the Washington visit in 1751. For those unfamiliar with this, George Washington’s older half-brother, Lawrence, had severe tuberculosis and was advised to seek a healthier climate – Barbados. Young George, a country bumpkin surveyor of 19, brought him here for a stay of almost two months. He dined with the rich and great, and was impressed with the fortifications and militia in Barbados. He ‘found’ himself, and set his sights on a military role, joining the militia at home, and rising so rapidly that he became Commander of the Revolutionary Army. The rest is history, but it’s fair to say that if he’d not had what I like to call the “mild Bajan version” of small pox, treated by Dr. Lanahan and recovered, he may not have survived the ravages of small pox on his army in the war, and American history may have been very different!

Of course, the connections between our countries are numerous, rich and significant. The Draytons, Middletons, Gibbes and Heywoods to the Carolinas, the Lees, the black leaders such as Prince Hall, the many later academics, doctors and scientists, politicians like Shirley Chisolm and others, are legion. The book The Barbados American Connection, by American journalist May Lumsden, is a rich source of such facts.

And hence the importance of George Washington House. The several places where he slept in the USA are all sacrosanct – virtually places of worship for Americans, for whom Washington was a God-like hero! The Heyward-Washington House in Charleston is a VERY important house museum, after a week spent there. His seven weeks in Barbados must make the George Washington House seven times more important!

The house itself was probably built in 1715, and owned in 1751 by Captain Richard Crofton. In a map of 1780s it’s shown as a ruin, but was obviously repaired and occupied by Charles Shipley (later Sir), the Engineer who drew the Garrison plans and built Shot Hall, now the Yacht Club, for the naval commander. For many years the house on the corner of Chelsea Road was postulated to be the “Washington House”, but identification of Bush Hill House was established by the work first of archivist Michael Chandler and then Peter Campbell, who brought the National Trust the final proof in 1989, when I was President of the Trust.

The then American Ambassador, Philip Hughes, urged us to somehow acquire it and develop it, as a place of pilgrimage for every American visitor. It took years and Government determination to persuade the Light and Power Company to part with it, but it finally did, and Penny Hynam led the restoration, the research and the development of a FIVE STAR House Museum, not only telling the story of Washington, but incorporating many elements of the Barbados American Connection, the story of sugar and slavery and the Garrison. But there is no substitute for a visit to this fabulous house, to see the brilliant film, directed by Penny Hynam, tour the house and displays, and step back in time. I could write a book about this splendid place, but in fact there is a most beautiful little book “The Story of a Restoration”, by Sarah Venable, for sale at the house. Go see, enjoy, and take your friends.


Henry Fraser Historic Houses Of Barbados Book CoverHistoric Houses of Barbados
Written by Henry Fraser & Ronnie Huges.
Available at all book leading book stores in Barbados.


Henry Fraser Treasures Of Barbados Book CoverTreasures of Barbados
Written by Sir George Alleyne and edited by Henry Fraser.
Available at the UWI Bookshop the publishers.


Henry Fraser Chattle House Book CoverBarbados Chattel Houses
Written by Henry Fraser and Bob Kiss.
Available at all leading book stores.


Henry Fraser A-Z Barbados Book CoverA-Z of Barbados Heritage
Written by Sean Carrington, Henry Fraser, John Gilmore and Addington Forde.
Available at Days Bookstore Barbados and Amazon.com


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