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A Quest for Freedom

Harry Washington had his owner's surname — and fought for his own independence

by Paul Aron

Harry Washington was among the names in the Book of Negroes, a document that listed the 3,000 black Loyalists who fought for the British during the Revolutionary War.

Harry Washington was among the names in the Book of Negroes, a document that listed the 3,000 black Loyalists who fought for the British during the Revolutionary War.

We know George Washington's views of African Americans and slavery evolved.

When he took command of the Continental Army, Washington was appalled to find blacks and whites serving side by side. Arming blacks scared all slaveowners, including the general, who owned many: In 1774, Washington owned 135 people, and the number increased during the war. But with recruitment a major problem, Washington realized he needed any soldiers he could get, and he eventually allowed blacks to enlist. At Yorktown, black Patriots played a key role in the American victory.

By the time Washington wrote his will in 1799, his views had shifted to the point that he freed all the slaves held under his name and included provisions for feeding and clothing the elderly and educating the young among them. This did not place Washington in the forefront of the abolitionist movement, but it distinguished him from most other slaveholding Founders. As his biographer Ron Chernow wrote, by freeing slaves Washington "brought the American experience that much closer to the ideals of the American Revolution."

We know much less about Harry Washington, the enslaved man who shared his owner's surname and cared for George's horses at Mount Vernon.
Yet Harry's quest for freedom is remarkable, both for the ways it paralleled and for the ways it challenged George's.

Harry Washington was born in Africa around 1740 and was sold into slavery somewhere near the Gambia River. After George bought him, he put Harry to work draining the Great Dismal Swamp, where George hoped to create a rice plantation. In 1771, Harry ran away but was captured.
The Revolution offered Harry another chance for freedom. Faced in November 1775 with a growing rebellion in Virginia, the Colony's royal governor, Lord Dunmore, offered freedom to any slave willing to join the British forces.

Dunmore's emancipation proclamation made the greatest fears of the Patriots a reality. It underlined the fact that many of those loudly demanding freedom were slaveholders, whose slaves might soon be armed against them.

George's cousin Lund Washington, who oversaw the work at Mount Vernon, reported that "there is not a man of them, but would leave us, if they believed they could make their escape." Lund added in explanation: "Liberty is sweet."

In the summer of 1776, soon after Congress had voted for independence, one of Dunmore's ships sailed up the Potomac River to Mount Vernon. More than a dozen of George's slaves took the opportunity to join the British, and Harry was among them.

Harry joined a group known as the Black Pioneers, went to New York with Dunmore at the end of 1776 and became a corporal in the Royal Artillery Department. The Black Pioneers moved south to fight various battles in the Carolina low country. When British Gen. Charles Cornwallis decided to move his troops into Virginia, he left behind in Charleston, S.C., a small garrison, including Harry.

This was fortunate for Harry. In Virginia, Washington's troops besieged Cornwallis at Yorktown. With supplies running out, some former slaves who had joined or accompanied Cornwallis' army were ordered out of the British camp. Others were captured by the Americans and returned to their former owners. And some left Yorktown with the British.

Cornwallis' surrender at Yorktown essentially ended the Revolutionary War, leaving Harry stranded. When the British evacuated Charleston in December 1782, many escaped slaves clung to the sides of the ships or tried to paddle alongside in small boats. Harry was again fortunate — he boarded a British warship as a British soldier.

Harry landed in New York City, which was still under British control while the two sides negotiated a peace treaty in Paris. The treaty, which
was ratified in 1783, stated the British would withdraw all forces "without… carrying away any Negroes, or other property of the American inhabitants." Slaveowners and their agents soon began arriving in New York to reclaim their property. George was about 70 miles up the Hudson River, preparing to negotiate the British departure from New York and well aware that "several of my own [slaves] are with the enemy."

Yet again Harry was fortunate, this time because the negotiator on the British side was Sir Guy Carleton, who commanded the remaining British forces in America. On May 6, Carleton met with George. Notes from the meeting indicate that Washington pressed Carleton for "the delivery of all Negroes and other property." Carleton informed General Washington that British troops were already evacuating New York and that "upwards of 6,000 persons… had embarked and sailed and that in this embarkation a number of Negroes were comprised." Washington was indignant, noting the treaty included "what appeared to him an express stipulation to the contrary." Carleton argued the treaty applied only to Negroes who were currently American property and not to those the British had freed.

Carleton's interpretation of the treaty's intent was questionable, but his ultimate argument was moral and not legal. "Delivering up the Negroes to their former masters," he told Washington, "would be delivering them up some possibly to execution and others to severe punishment." This, in Carleton's opinion, would be "dishonorable."

In subsequent letters, Washington pressed for the return of escaped slaves and Carleton continued to resist. Meanwhile, blacks continued to board British ships bound for England, Jamaica, the Bahamas and Nova Scotia. The British kept a record of all blacks who departed, in part so slaveowners could be compensated. This was known as the Book of Negroes. The listing of those who departed for Nova Scotia aboard L'Abondance on July 31, 1783, included "Harry Washington, 43, [fine] fellow. [Formerly the property] of General Washington; left him 7 [years ago]."

By the year of George's will and death, Harry had been free for 23 years. Nova Scotia, however, did not turn out to be the Promised Land. Deals for land promised by the British were delayed, and supplies were slow to arrive. The rocky coast and many of its white inhabitants were inhospitable, and many blacks lived in tents despite the cold.

Harry fared better than many, acquiring two lots, a house and 40 acres. Nonetheless, in 1792, he joined more than a thousand other Nova Scotia settlers in a further exodus, this time back across the Atlantic. In Sierra Leone, on the west coast of Africa, they joined a small colony of former slaves. The outpost was perhaps 500 miles from where Harry had been sold into slavery. Harry bought a farm east of Freetown and grew such crops as coffee, pepper, ginger, rice, cassava and yams. A company sponsored the Sierra Leone settlement and managed it under the auspices of the British government. When the company demanded a payment from Harry and other landowners, the colonists responded much as George and his counterparts had to the demand to pay British taxes: They sent a petition to King George, and they rallied behind their own elected officials. The company sent a new governor, Thomas Ludham, who was white, and refused to recognize the authority of any of the elected black legislators or judges.

In 1800, some of the colonists declared independence. Harry, like George before him, joined the rebels. But the British quelled this rebellion. Some of the rebels were hanged. Others, including Harry, were banished from the colony. At the age of 60, Harry Washington crossed the Sierra Leone River into exile. When and where he died are unknown, but it was as a free man.