Tour Of The Caribbean - George Washington at Barbados
( Originally Published 1925 )
GEORGE WASHINGTON visited Barbados in 1751, when he was a lad of nineteen. He came over from Virginia with his brother Lawrence, who had developed a lung trouble, for which he was advised to try the West Indies. The journey across the Gulf of Mexico and along the Caribbean Sea occupied them a little more than a month. The two brothers stayed at a house overlooking Carlisle Bay, about a mile from Bridgetown, and owned by a Captain Crofton, the commandant of Fort James.
They had not been in the island more than fourteen days when George was laid low with the smallpox. The attack was not severe, but he bore the marks of the disease upon his face to the end of his days.
It was at Barbados that George Washington, for the first time in his life, visited a theatre. It pleased him. The play he saw acted was the austere tragedy of " George Barnwell." This drama was supposed to be of a very improving nature, and especially suited to young men. It pointed a moral boisterously and with as much directness as is employed in driving a pile into the solid earth. George Barnwell was an idle apprentice who, after robbing his master, passed through the various Hogarthian stages of vice, and finally committed murder, for which crime he was hanged. His last moments were peculiarly embittered by the reflection that his sweetheart was to be hanged at the same time, he having—as an item of his wickedness—led her astray.
During his sojourn in the island George Washington enjoyed the hospitality of the " Beefsteak and Tripe Club." He was introduced to this exclusive company by the judge of the High Court of Barbados. The members of the club met every Saturday at one or other of their respective houses. Over the beefsteaks and the tripe the future statesman made the acquaintance of " the first people of the place." There seems to have been no meanness about the members of the club, and no stint in the matter of food or drink. George Washington, indeed, went away rather distressed by the spendthrift habits of his hosts, and by their luxuriant mode of living. A heavy dinner of beefsteaks, tripe and rum, held at three of the clock on a tropical afternoon, was a luxury for which the simple Virginian had little taste.
Barbados has welcomed many other illustrious persons besides George Washington. Nelson was for a period stationed in Carlisle Bay. His stay there was very irksome, for he was at the time in love with the pretty widow at Nevis. He chafed because he was kept so far away from her presence, and exclaims wearily in his letters, " Upwards of a month from Nevis ! "—as if a month were a lifetime. He blamed the little colony for holding him from the arms of his Fanny, and took a sarcastic pleasure in heading some of his love letters " Barbarous Island."
Not a few of the natives of Barbados have attained to various positions of eminence, but among those who can only claim to have become notable, prominence must be given to Major Stede Bonnet. The major was among " the first people of the place." He was a gentleman by birth who had had the advantage of a liberal education. He was rich—being, indeed, " the master of a plentiful fortune." Naturally, he was much respected in the island, where he enjoyed all the privileges of a prominent citizen. Although the records are silent upon the subject, it is conceivable that he was one of the pillars of the little church at Bridgetown.
Some time in the year 1716 Major Stede Bonnet began to act strangely. He incontinently purchased a sloop, fitted her with ten guns at his own expense, and engaged a crew of no less than seventy men. This was very surprising to his friends as the gallant officer had no knowledge of the sea, while yachting was not then an accepted diversion for people of quality. It was hardly to be supposed that a gentleman occupying the major's position would condescend to engage in commerce, and still more curious was it that, at this particular moment, England did not chance to be at war.
To all inquiries as to his intent the major merely answered " Wait" The mystery of the sloop was not lessened when the shipwrights began to paint her new name under the stern. Everybody went down to the careenage to spell it out, letter by letter, as it developed. The name was the Revenge.
By the time that the members of the Beefsteak and Tripe Club were talking of nothing else but the major and his vessel, the Revenge slipped out of Carlisle Bay, one very dark night, and disappeared into space. The sloop became the theme of the quay-side. Barbados had much to say about vanishing ships, while sympathetic neighbours who called upon the forlorn Mrs. Stede Bonnet had more questions to ask that lady than she was disposed to reply to. The more astute females of Bridgetown whispered that Mrs. Stede Bonnet had something on her mind. She had.
In a few months the awful truth reached the island. Major Stede Bonnet, the wealthy landowner, the respected and polished soldier, had become a pirate. The Revenge was cruising off America, taking prizes right and left. She had become the terror of New York and Philadelphia, for the major had the boldness to make Gardner's Islet, off Long Island, his occasional headquarters.
"This humour of going a-pyrating," writes Johnson in his " History of the Pyrates," "it was believed proceeded from a disorder of the mind, which is said to have been occasioned by some discomforts to be found in the married state." Things were beginning to be explained. The respectable matrons of Barbados gathered up their skirts and fell away from Mrs. Stede Bonnet when they met her in the streets of Bridgetown. They could not drink a dish of tea with a pirate's wife ! They could hardly be constrained to sit in church under the same roof as the associate of corsairs. There were many friends of bygone days who now owned that " they had never quite liked her," that they had always thought " there was something curious about her." Those among them who were of the sect of the Pharisees audibly thanked God that they had not driven their husbands " to go a-pyrating." There is no doubt but that the home of the Bonnets was broken up for ever. The major's grievances must have been very deep to have led him to give to his ship such a name as the Revenge.
In the meantime the soldier-pirate was not happy. He fell in with one Edward Teach, who is allowed by all connoisseurs to have been the greatest scoundrel who ever flourished in the buccaneering profession. Mr. Teach not only took the poor major into partner-ship against his will, but practically absorbed him, ship, crew and all. He concluded the distasteful alliance by robbing him of the more substantial of his possessions. This, as the Stede Bonnet biographer asserts, " made him melancholy."
The melancholia would appear to have marred the major's efficiency as a practical pirate, for he was captured off Carolina in 1718. He was taken ashore, but managed to escape in a canoe. So highly was he valued, however, that 70l. was offered for his arrest. He was finally seized on Swillivant's Island on the sixth day of November in the year named. He was tried at Charles-ton four days later, was sentenced to death and promptly hanged at a prominent place called White Point. It was Judge Trot who passed sentence on him, and it seems clear that this gentleman added great unrest to the major's last hours, for before disposing of the culprit he treated him to an address of such length that it occupies six closely crammed pages of print. In this discourse the learned judge improved the occasion by quoting very liberally from the Scriptures, and by giving fluent advice as to the leading of the Higher Life, of which same advice the major was to be so shortly prevented from availing himself. In this harangue, which is said to have been most impressive, Judge Trot made no allusion to that "disorder of the mind," or to those " discomforts in the married state" which led the major to seek refuge in the distractions of buccaneering, and which may have been advanced in some palliation of his offence.