George Washington led the fledgling forces of the American revolution as it’s commander in chief during the American War of Independence, spearheading America’s fight to shake off British rule. Despite his role in the fight for that freedom, Washington, like many of his contemporaries, was himself a slave owner. It is estimated that during his lifetime George Washington kept around 300 slaves on his plantation, Mount Vernon. One of these slaves, a man called Harry, would make history in his own way. This is his story.
Born in Gambia around 1740, the man who would later be known as Harry was captured and taken to the American colonies via slave trade routes. In 1763 he was purchased by George Washington to work in the Great Dismal Swamp of south-eastern Virginia and north-eastern North Carolina. After toiling there for many years Harry was transferred to George Washington’s home, the plantation of Mount Vernon, where he worked in the stables. In 1771 Harry fled the estate and sought refuge in New York but later returned to his master.
By 1775 the political situation in the 13 colonies had become increasingly unstable for the British, as the American colonists were now arming themselves to fight for independence. In an attempt to disarm the colonial militias the British marched out of Boston in force to destroy their weapon stores, and although it is not clear who fired the first shot the American revolution started on the 19th of April, 1775, with the battles of Concord and Lexington. As the fighting escalated across the colonies the British found themselves needing manpower. Their troops were spread out – either across the Atlantic at home in Britain, or fighting in Canada and other locations across the globe. The army knew they had to recruit locally and Governor Lord Dunmore devised a plan – it was not too far-fetched for the period but was considered a bit extreme by many. Dunmore started creating regiments of escaped slaves, who in return for their service to the crown would be granted freedom. It is worth noting that the American troops also had many black soldiers serving amongst their ranks with the same promise of earning freedom.
In 1776 Harry Washington escaped Mount Vernon to join the Virginia Ethiopian regiment set up by Lord Dunmore. Although Harry enlisted in the Ethiopians, he was placed in a non-combat support unit called the Black Pioneers, whose role consisted of carrying fortifications on British forts in the Massachusetts area. During his time with the Black Pioneers Harry served with distinction despite his position in a mere support unit, and eventually reached the rank of sergeant. At the close of the war Harry, along with thousands of other escaped slaves, was evacuated to Nova Scotia as Lord Dunmore was determined to make good on his promise of freedom for those who had served. Sadly however, many others who had served with both the American and British armies had been returned to a life of slavery.
During his time in British service, Harry had been enlisted as ‘Harry Washington’. He spent the rest of his life carrying the name Washington, and during his evacuation to Nova Scotia was listed as “Harry, former slave of George Washington” in “The Book of Negroes”, a log detailing the names of 1336 men, 914 women, and 750 children who had been evacuated from New York.
Despite gaining their freedom in Nova Scotia, times were hard for the former slaves. The land they were assigned was difficult to cultivate, meaning they struggled to make a living. Many of those who had been evacuated were white loyalists – men who automatically received the better farmland. Many of them were themselves former slave owners and weren’t too keen on sharing land with former slaves.
During this time Harry married a woman named Jenny, another freed slave, and they planned their
future together. Discontent in Nova Scotia they decided to emigrate to the New British colony in Sierra-Leone which was set up to accommodate former slaves. Here Harry hoped start a farm of his own using advanced scientific techniques that he had learnt during his time in Mount Vernon.
Successful in his efforts, Harry lived this life until 1800, when (partially thanks to the revolutionary/Napoleonic wars raging in Europe) Britain yet again found itself in desperate need of cash to fund it’s war effort. Taxes were increased to all subjects, especially to large companies involved in colonialism. In order to fund these new taxes, the companies in turn taxed their colonists.
The Sierra Leone Company found itself facing down a rebellion of disgruntled former slaves who were now being heavily taxed for their land, which still belonged to the Company. Harry Washington was among those protesting the soaring taxes, and joined a rebellion to set up a rival government and system of laws. The rebellion nailed their laws to the administrator’s door, but the Sierra Leone Company responded by dispatching a Corps of Maroons, recently arrived from Jamaica, to deal with the rebels. The rebellion was swiftly put down, with many of the rebels exiled to Bullom Shore in Sierra-Leone – far enough away to not be troublesome, yet close enough to keep an eye on.
During his exile Harry Washington stepped up as a leader and set up a new settlement along with others, but sadly he died of disease that same year.
Harry Washington may not have left a well-known mark on history, but he played a role in many crucial periods. His own life story was a convoluted one – born a free man in Gambia, captured and transported to slavery in America, only to gain his freedom fighting in the very army that opposed the forces of his famous slave-master, before finally leading a rebellion against another form of tyranny – financial oppression through taxation