Washington Might Have Been British Admiral

Seasickness Turned Him Away From Any Thought of Career in Royal Navy—Fate of This Country Would Have Been Different If He Had Never Taken That Voyage to Barbados

Blue water, the siren that claimed the devotion of many a boy during the 18th century in America, very nearly captured the heart and talents of George Washington. If it had, the Thirteen Colonies would not have had the great General who did more than any other one man to win the Revolution, and the United States would not have had the great statesman who piloted the infant nation through the shoal waters of its first eight years. Instead, the British Merchant Marine would have had the services of a great sea-captain and the British Navy, possibly, would have had another great Admiral on her roll of honor—for the qualities that made Washington great on land probably would have carried him equally far on the sea, as well.

Washington, however, turned his back on the sea and became a farmer who, accepting a commission in the Virginia militia, began the military career which was to make him America's greatest hero.

Twice previously, however, he almost put the dust of farming from his feet. The first time, when the King's Commission as a midshipman was in his pocket, his mother persuaded him to stay at home. The second, sea-sick on a voyage home from the West Indies, as his diary related, he definitely abandoned the sea of his own will.

Easy Road to Wealth

This was all the more remarkable because for generations, the Washingtons had followed the sea as well as tilled the soil. Indeed, as a younger son with no expectations of inheritance, the sea—then the easy road to wealth and position—was the only way opened to George by his family.

The founder of the Washington family in Virginia, John Washington, left England a virtual exile. The Washingtons had been stout supporters of King Charles against Cromwell and found the home country a little too warm for them. So, John, in company with his brother, Andrew, took to the sea. John, as mate of a British merchant ship, ended his sea-faring with a voyage in which his ship transported 100 indentured servants to Virginia. These poor creatures, men, women and children, often innocent of any crime but poverty, were swept out of English jails and almshouses and sent to a new life in America. In return for their eventual freedom, they were sold for a period of time to planters in America. These planters purchased their services for several years—until manhood for children and for from three to seven years for adults.

As a fee for this voyage, John Washington was granted some 5000 acres of land in Virginia. Part of this land included the future estate of Mount Vernon.

John's grandson, Augustine, continued to follow the sea. In the early 1700s, the Colonies were taking to the sea. British merchants, who owned and operated ships as well as buying and selling, gouged the Colonists both coming and going.

America was in the grip of a vicious cycle. There was a vast surplus of produce here which kept prices down. There was a hungry market abroad. But the English ships were the only bridge from plantation to market—and thus the more settlers in America, the more produce accumulated and, because of the English merchants' monopoly on transportation, the lower prices were forced.

Built Their Own Ships

To break this, the Colonists built their own ships. Tiny cockleshells they were to our eyes. But they sailed. The Colonials manned and officered these ships themselves. And they prospered. The English merchants protested to Parliament and Parliament passed regulatory laws to clip the wings of the Colonials. But England was 3000 miles away and no Colonial paid any attention to laws which interfered with Colonial prosperity. Indeed, because of the laws, the Colonials, made more and more profits by ignoring import and export duties.

Augustine Washington combined the usual procedure of most Colonial sea-captains in the South. During the Spring and Summer, he remained at home, planting his acres and raising a fat crop of tobacco. Then, with his own cargo provided, and with similar cargoes from neighbors, he would load a ship, he or his neighbors owned jointly, and sail away to the West Indies, to Spain, to France—to anywhere but England where import duties awaited.

Augustine Washington died in middle life, leaving two sons by his first wife. Lawrence and Augustine, and several children by his second wife, the eldest of whom was George Washington.

Lawrence being the eldest, inherited the bulk of the family 5000 acres, including Mt. Vernon. George, being 14 years younger, was more or less regarded by Lawrence as a personal charge. In addition, Lawrence felt a deep affection for his half-brother.

Educated for Navy

Lawrence, when younger, had served in the British Navy, taking a share in the capture of Porto Bello and the bombardment of Cartagena with Admiral Vernon, when that doughty sea dog raided the West Indies during the war with Spain. This had given him a taste for the Royal Navy and, although he was comfortably seated on Mt. Vernon with a lovely wife, he continued to maintain connections with the Navy. Very often, whenever ships of the Navy visited Virginia, he would entertain the officers and George was always introduced and pumped with enthusiasm for the delights of the quarter deck in the Royal Navy. William Fairfax, a neighbor of Lawrence Washington, and a shipmate in Admiral Vernon's fleet, was also interested in promoting George Washington into the Navy.

Accordingly, Lawrence Washington undertook to educate George for a Navy life and when George was 14, Lawrence Washington and William Fairfax obtained a commission as midshipman for him. The consent of George's mother was obtained, as was legally necessary, and, full of fire and enthusiasm. George sent his sea-chest aboard a frigate lying just below Mt. Vernon.

The night before he was to sail however, George's mother had a change of heart and persuaded George to resign. Lawrence was very bitter for a time but continued to prepare George for a sea-faring life. If the opportunity to join the Navy was lost, the Colonial merchant marine was open and a place on board one of the Virginia tobacco ships could easily be obtained.

So George was plunged into a study of mathematics so he could master the mysteries of navigation. As a result, he became a surveyor and worked for Lord Fairfax for several years.

But Lawrence Washington had not given over his ambition for the sea for his young half-brother and the affection between Lawrence and George was so strong there is no question but what Lawrence would have had his way. Always interested in the fair sex, George was brutally jilted by a young woman at the last moment and from then on he had no luck at all with his wooing of several of the belles of the Tidewater. So, he was undoubtedly willing to sail away, when the time came, with scant regrets. Besides, already very ambitious, he had no prospects at home whatever.

At this juncture, in September 1751, Lawrence became ill with what seems to have been tuberculosis. The doctors advised a Winter in the West Indies would help him so he sailed to Barbodoes taking George with him.

Enjoyed South

George Washington's diary is filled with the pleasures of the trip south. It seems to have been very calm and uneventful, although he complained of worms in the food. In Barbadoes, where Lawrence took a house, the first few weeks passed most pleasantly in a gay round of social pleasures—all of which George dutifully, if stiffly, records in his diary. But George was stricken with smallpox. Lawrence nursed him through the attack, but George acquired pock-marks which remained with him ever after.

Lawrence became progressively worse by the time December came on and, wanting his wife, he sent George home after her. George set sail on Dec. 22 and, although the voyage can now be made in a week he did not arrive home until Feb. 1, 1752. The trip was very stormy and George suffered greatly from seasickness. In addition, someone on the ship stole his purse.

With a feeling of vast relief George set foot on solid land after 40 days of tossing about, saying that never again would he set foot on an ocean-going boat.

Letters from Barbadoes soon arrived and Lawrence sent news he was coming home to die. And die he did. Mt. Vernon was left to Lawrence's wife for life and to George subsequently. Anne Washington, Lawrence's wife, was a gay and blithe young widow and soon married again, one of the Stratford Lees. She had no use for Mt. Vernon then and gladly signed away her rights to George for an annual quit-rent of 82 pounds and 10 shillings, Virginia currency.

Thus George, only 20 years old, found himself master of a rich plantation. Forgetting the sea, he soon became a major in the militia, married, went to war with the French and so continued into the Presidency.

But his dislike of the sea remained. Though he was the first President to tour the nation, endlessly traveling up and down the seacoast to cement good will for the new nation in the troublesome times, he never availed himself of the quick and comfortable passage of coasting ships. Instead he rolled and bounced and jolted in his coach over roads which, as he said of the Boston Post Road, the time he came from New York to Boston, were "mostly great stones."

William Clark, Daily Boston Globe, Feb 16, 1941, p. C2