By RICH GRANT
Everyone knows George Washington was first in war and first in peace … but first in picking Caribbean vacations? George only left the continental United States once in his lifetime, and that was to sail to the Caribbean island of Barbados.
The then-19-year-old George went with his ailing half-brother Lawrence in the hopes that the warm winter climate would improve Lawrence’s health. Young George was enthralled with everything he saw.
And you will be too. You can have dinner in the house where George stayed for seven weeks, explore old forts, see one of the working windmills he so admired, and taste rum from the world’s oldest rum distillery – a place that was already decades old by the time George arrived in 1751.
What happened to George Washington on Barbados just might have helped the United States win the Revolution and change the world. How? Well, you can discover that and more in these five reasons to follow George to Barbados.
Reason 1: At the time of George’s visit in 1751, Barbados was the richest speck of land on Earth.
Barbados is a flat, pear-shaped island at the far eastern end of the Caribbean. It is only 21 miles long by 14 miles wide. And yet, in the mid-17th century, Barbados had a population of 75,000 – larger than all 13 colonies combined.
Even at the time of George’s visit in 1751, Bridgetown, the capital of Barbados, was larger and richer than Manhattan. With hundreds of ships in the harbor, it made Williamsburg, the capital of Virginia, look like a village.
The source of all this wealth was sugar. Although sugar had existed for centuries, in early times it was used primarily by the very wealthy to sweeten meat. The introduction to Britain of coffee in 1650, chocolate in 1657 and tea in 1660 created a new passion for sugar. European sugar consumption quadrupled between 1650 and 1700, and then doubled again in the next 25 years.
And Barbados was perfect for growing sugar. Unlike most of the Caribbean islands, which are volcanic and mountainous, Barbados was a coral island sitting on top of an underground aquifer that provided ample water. Without rivers, energy was a challenge, but Barbados became one of the first energy self-sufficient places on the planet with 500 windmills (second only to Holland) to crush sugar cane and to pump up water.
Today, only one operating windmill remains on the island, but it’s a beauty — and one of only two operating sugar windmills in the world. The Moran Lewis Windmill crushed sugar cane until 1946 and has been restored with equipment dating back to the 18th and 19th centuries. From December to April, they “fire up” the machinery and crush cane, allowing visitors to taste fresh sugarcane juice. (It’s as sickeningly sweet as you would imagine.)
Exhibits in the windmill explain the process of how sugarcane juice was refined to crystal sugar, leaving an industrial waste that was messy and next to useless called molasses. It was useless, that is, until someone discovered how to turn molasses into rum.
Reason 2: Rum was invented in Barbados.
The oldest references to rum, and certainly the oldest licensed distillery in the world, date to Barbados. One story, told on the “Characters of Barbados” history walking tour of Bridgetown, is that rum was invented in a long disappeared tavern run by a Mr. Rumboole, hence the name. The tavern’s location was, appropriately, directly in front of the 21th century Bridgetown Police Department.
What is known is that the sticky, sweet substance of molasses was considered industrial waste and tossed into the ocean as trash until somewhere in the mid-1600s, when someone discovered how to let molasses ferment with natural yeast, then boil the “wash” in a one-pipe still, that, because alcohol boils at a lower temperature than water, allowed a special, clear liquid to drip out and be collected.
At first this liquid was called “kill-devil,” possibly because it was invented by the devil, or possibly because if you drank enough of it, it could kill you. The word “rum” probably came from the end of the Latin word for sugar, saccharum, or maybe from the old English word, rumbullion, which meant the type of commotion and fistfights that would break out in a tavern serving the drink. At any rate, rum was about to change the world.
This “industrial waste” of sugar suddenly became even more valuable than sugar and doubled the money to be made. The first licensed distiller of rum in the world (and, in fact, the oldest continually operating producer of any spirit), is Mount Gay Barbados Rum, established in 1703, with stills that are still going strong.
At the visitor center you learn the whole rum story while enjoying several different experiences, which can include the fine art of making rum cocktails, sampling different types of rum or pairing rum with Bajan local foods like flying fish and cou cou (made from corn meal and okra) or breadfruit. Prices run from $50 for a basic rum tasting to $130 for the all-you-can-drink rum punch and food special, which includes transportation (always important in Barbados, where they drive on the other side of the road, British style).
A less expensive way to experience rum is to visit a rum house. There are more than 1,800 rum houses in Barbados. Most are simple, small homes, with a counter selling bottles of rum in all sizes, and a small lounge with chairs and tables. You buy a bottle of rum, and then drink it – chatting with locals, playing dominos and enjoying the weather. Although rum houses are primarily for locals, the ones we visited welcomed strangers and made us feel at home. There’s only packaged snacks with maybe an occasional island specialty such as a fish, ham or pork “cutter” sandwich, but no cocktails in this no-frills approach, which is a fun way to interact with locals.
Reason 3: You can have dinner with George in the home where he lived.
George Washington idolized his half-brother Lawrence, who was 14 years older than him. When Lawrence contracted consumption (now known as tuberculosis) in 1751, it was felt the warm climate of Barbados would help him, so he and George sailed on a six-week adventure to the remote island. George kept a diary and was “perfectly ravished” by the beauty of Barbados and overwhelmed by “the beautiful prospects which on every side presented to our view the fields of cane, corn, fruit trees, etc. in a delightful green.”
George and his brother rented a house near Bridgetown. By what amounts to a historical miracle, the house, built in 1717, still stands. Today, it is a museum where you walk back into the 18th century. And what a walk it is! The compound surrounding the house is a beautiful park of flowers and palm trees. There are the ruins of a windmill, which pumped up water for the house and also fed a separate “bath house,” where, as amazing 18th century luxury, George could enjoy a full bath.
As you enter the home, George’s room (furnished with antiques from plantations and authentic reproductions from Williamsburg) is strangely next to the front door. You have to remember, as you tour the house and the upstairs museum that, at the time of his visit, George was just an unknown 19-year-old, although an adventurous one, who as a frontier surveyor had already crossed icy rivers and watched an Indian war dance. Several important things happened to George while in this house. He got to meet important British military officials, tour some of the world’s best fortifications, attend a theater for the first time, and dine and dance with some of the richest people in the British Empire.
He also caught smallpox. At the time, smallpox was unknown in Virginia, but it was to later kill more soldiers in the American Revolution than bullets. George caught the lesser type of the disease, cowpox, and survived, and was therefore immune from catching it again. He learned in Barbados how the British Army used inoculations with cowpox (which only killed 1 percent of the people who caught it) to prevent their armies from catching the deadlier version of smallpox that could kill up to 50 to 70 percent of those infected.
Later, during the Revolution, Washington was so impressed with the benefits of inoculation that, against the orders of Congress (who feared having the whole army incapacitated at one time), he went ahead and ordered inoculation, saving his army from disastrous losses.
Most fun of all at the Washington House, every Monday evening from February through April, you can have dinner with George. Dr. Karl Watson, the most respected authority on the George Washington’s trip to Barbados, portrays Washington as an older man reminiscing about his youth on the island. Twenty-nine guests enter the house, lit outside by flaming torches and inside only by candles, and are seated around a long table.
While violin and cello music plays in the background, actors in powdered wigs and maid’s costumes portray the servants and slaves who would have attended such a grand dinner.
The authentic bill of fare includes split pea and eddo soup, dolphin (actually mahi mahi fish) and yam pie with plantains, lamb stew, pineapple and rumbullion’d bread & butter pudding. “George,” in full costume and wig, recounts many adventures from his life, particularly those related to Barbados. Everyone stays in character, a selection of wines are poured along with the historic cocktail of Barbados, corn‘n’oil, (Black Strap Barbados rum and Falernum). It is a simply marvelous experience, and you soon learn that Watson is not only a renowned historian, but also a great recontour and actor. The cost is $136 per person for dinner and wine.
Reason 4: You can tour and even stay near forts and garrisons visited by George Washington.
Because of its wealth and importance, Barbados was one of the most heavily fortified places on the planet, with 42 forts armed with 463 cannons. George got to tour it all, and from this point forward in his life, he decided to become a military man. His brother Lawrence, sadly, passed away shortly after returning to Virginia, but after his brother’s death, George was given command of one quarter of the Virginia militia and 23 years later, the Continental Congress gave him command of all American troops.
After the British lost the Revolution, they didn’t want to take any chances on losing the Caribbean too, so in 1789, near the George Washington House, they built the Garrison, which was to become the center of British defense in the Western Hemisphere for 100 years. The complex survives today and has been named a UNESCO World Heritage Site as the most intact and authentic military garrison in the British Empire. Recently, quite by accident, almost two miles of underground tunnels were discovered, including a tunnel that leads to the Washington house. On tours, you can descend to the dark, and somewhat creepy and narrow, tunnels, that were originally used for drainage, but then became ways of moving troops safely underground in case of an attack.
More fun on tours every Thursday morning is to take the Garrison tour and walk the cannon-studded ramparts of Fort Ann. There’s a museum in the fort’s walls with a unique collection of 16th century cannons. The tour of the operating military base includes a visit to the officer’s mess, where Queen Elizabeth once had dinner. You end with a rum punch at the officer’s bar, once frequented by Prince Harry.
Coinciding with the tours at noon on Thursdays, there is a free changing of the guard ceremony led by the Sentries & Corps of Drums of Barbados. It’s a hoot. The soldiers (both retired and still-active soldiers of Barbados) wear Zouave uniforms selected by Queen Victoria in 1856, based on uniforms she had admired in France. With the drums beating and shouted commands, it’s colorful and fun, and the troops pose for pictures after the ceremony.
You can’t stay in Garrison, but the beautiful Hilton Barbados Resort is within a cannon shot of Fort Ann, and actually built on top of the ruins of old Fort Charlotte. A cannon battery from Fort Charlotte has been restored. Today it only stands guard over the hotel’s swimming pool, but it certainly offers one of the best sunset views on the island.
While other Caribbean islands were fought over, captured and beset by pirates, Barbados never changed hands. It was a part of the British Empire from 1627 until 1966, when it gained independence. Today, the island of 288,000 people, which broke with the British crown in 2021, remains part of the Commonwealth of Nations, a voluntary organization of 54 former British colonies that the Queen has sought to uphold throughout her reign. Ironically, Barbados is the only colony in history that was so rich, it sent out an expedition and formed its own colony to supply the island with food.
The colony created by Barbados is today Charleston, South Carolina, which bears many similarities to its founding island. Some 10 million U.S. citizens can trace ancestors back to Barbados, including people like Davy Crockett and General George Meade, who defeated Robert E. Lee at Gettysburg. Simon Cowell and Andrew Lloyd Webber both have homes on the island, and the national hero, Rhianna, has just been named a tourism ambassador for Barbados. The street she grew up on has been rechristened “Rhianna Drive.”
Reason 5: Like George Washington, you can visit the beaches, natural beauty and historic plantations of this pleasant green island, that even today is called “Little England.”
George had an opportunity to see much of Barbados by horseback and wrote in his own style and spelling in his diary: “There is several risings in this island, one above another so that scarcely any part is deprived of a beautiful prospect both of Sea & Land and what is contrary to the observation in other countrys is that each rising is better than the one below.”
He got that right. No place in Barbados is more than 20 minutes from the sea, and all of it is beautiful. The east coast is wild and rugged and dotted with huge rocks like those at Bathsheba; the west coast is posh and tranquil with clear, calm water for snorkeling at resorts that line sandy beaches rimmed with palm trees. The southeast is owned by The Crane Resort, which has one of the island’s prettiest beaches, as well as cliff walks and a pounding surf, all in a jungle-like paradise where most of the rooms have their own private swimming pools.
While in Barbados, George became friends with members of the Beefsteak and Tripe Club, an 18th century social club whose motto was “Beef & Liberty.” Through them, George received many invitations to dine at large plantations. To get an idea of these plantations, visit St. Nicholas Abbey.
Although George didn’t visit this one, the house, built in 1658 (one of only three Jacobean buildings left in the Western Hemisphere,) was already 93-years-old by the time he and his brother came to Barbados. And it had an infamous history. The owner, Coronel Benjamin Berringer, was most likely murdered by his partner, Sir John Yeaman, who then married the young widow Mary Berringer. Be that as it may, it is now spectacular, with lush colored gardens, a distillery that still makes rum, a terrace café with island views, and an historic narrow gauge railroad. It was also owned for 200 years by the Cumberbach family, of whom actor Benedict Cumberbach is a direct descendant.
A walk through the garden gives you some idea of the wealth and power that was produced in Barbados and the awe that young George Washington, coming from the frontier of Virginia, must have felt. You’ll feel it too. Barbados is more than beaches. It is one of the most historic and fascinating little places on the planet.