Untold Story

The extraordinary story of Harry, George Washington’s slave

By Olivier Marbot

Posted on April 5, 2023 05:10

Screenshot 2023-03-31 at 15.40.06 Mural depicting George Washington with a slave at the site of the future Capitol in Washington. © Rod Lamkey/CNP/NEWSCOM/SIPA
Mural depicting George Washington with a slave at the site of the future Capitol in Washington. © Rod Lamkey/CNP/NEWSCOM/SIPA

In his latest book, French economist Thierry Paulais traces the life of Harry, a slave who lived at an extraordinary time: during the American War of Independence and the first debates regarding the abolition of the slave trade.

“Harry Washington” was born in the 1740s in West Africa, probably in the Gambia River region. It is assumed that he was captured in the early 1760s to be sold into slavery and sent to America. It is believed that he was taken on board an English ship which may have taken him directly to Alexandria on the Potomac River.

This makes “Harry” a “saltwater slave”, i.e. a slave transported directly from Africa to America, as opposed to the many slaves that traders first deposited in the Caribbean’s “sugar islands” before selling them to owners on the continent.

“Biographical essay”

One of the only facts that historical records can definitively confirm is that “Harry” was bought from Potomac planters by one of their neighbours in 1763. This neighbour – who was a farmer and slave owner – was none other than George Washington, the first president (1789-1797) and one of the mythical founding fathers of the United States of America.

This is why the hero of Thierry Paulais’ book bears the name “Washington”, which is obviously no more his birth name than “Harry” was his African first name.

Fascinated by the character’s extraordinary life, the author of the book clearly explains that he wanted to write what he describes as a “biographical essay”.

It is impossible to write a complete biography, due to the lack of reliable historical sources. However, we do know the main episodes of “Harry’s” life, which took place during a particularly rich and turbulent historical period.

“Harry” was captured in Senegambia (modern day The Gambia and Senegal), crossed the Atlantic, sold and resold as a slave, and worked on plantations. He escaped several times, was recaptured and then fought for the British – who promised freedom to slaves who joined their ranks – in the American War of Independence.

Now a free man, “Harry” was sheltered with some of his fellow Black Loyalists in Nova Scotia, near Canada, before being sent back to Africa as one of the “settlers” tasked with helping create a new independent and free state supported by several British abolitionist groups: Sierra Leone. He was eventually betrayed by these British ‘allies’, a story Paulais has already told in a previous book.

The notion of the Atlantic World

Since he cannot really follow the character, the author carefully and precisely describes the historical context in which he was immersed.

Paulais details how the constraints of the navy influenced the route of the ships involved in the slave trade and the absolute horror of the ocean crossings, deciphering the game played by the various European powers but also by the privateers and pirates who swarmed between Africa and America.

Instead of talking about the “slave trade” or the “triangular trade”, Paulais insists on the notion of the “Atlantic World”, which he considers particularly helpful in understanding the context, even if it remains little known in Europe.

“It is an idea born in the United States and linked to globalisation,” he says. “It is very present, for example, in the writings of W.E.B. Du Bois, and particularly in The Souls of Black Folk (1903), the idea is to evoke the cultural dimension of relations between the two Atlantic shores. It also relates to the concept of ‘double consciousness’, i.e. the fact that African-Americans have the feeling of being divided between two cultures, which makes them a specific population, whose heritage is different, for example, from that of the Caribbean’s inhabitants. This can also be linked to the more recent trend of so-called Afro-pessimism, which unfortunately concludes that this past is so heavy that we will never overcome it.”

The story of Harry’s journey – which coincides historically with the first debates regarding the abolition of slavery in Europe, the French Revolution and the emergence of the concept of human rights – also crudely highlights the cynicism of the Europeans and Americans.

The English promised freedom to the slaves who fought on their side, but this was primarily because they desperately needed men and also wanted to undermine the economies of their rebellious New World colonies.

The Americans, on the other hand, rose up in the name of freedom and were well aware of the paradox between the principles they claimed and the practice of slavery; but when the idea of abolishing it was broached, it was rejected by an overwhelming majority.

“The Americans considered offering freedom to some slaves,” says Paulais, “but on the other hand the very idea of ‘free Black people’ frightened them. It was a bad example for the slaves, there was the fear of miscegenation, about which Jefferson wrote some very violent things. Basically, as soon as a slave was captured, they were no longer a person but an asset, an investment, and this investment had to be protected. The slaveholders had no doubt about that, they were truly convinced of their right.”

George Washington, a cynical businessman

This marked such a significant departure from the ideals held by the most enlightened minds of the time that it inspired the French general La Fayette, who had come to fight alongside the American rebels, to make a disillusioned and little-known statement: “I would never have drawn my sword for the cause of America if I had known that, in doing so, I was founding a country based on slavery.”

Paulais’ book is also very severe in its critique of the founding fathers of the United States, and Washington, Harry’s owner, is no exception.

“Personally, I think he was rather a bad guy,” says the author. “He was a cynic, a businessman, a cheapskate… But interestingly enough, this is not really mentioned in the United States. Of course people know that he owned slaves, but they don’t talk about it. I don’t even think the Black Lives Matter movement has ever proposed taking down his statues, changing the name of the capital… Washington remains generally untouchable.”

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Although the other Washington, “Harry”, managed to escape his fate as a slave, his story did not have a happy ending. This was simply not possible at the time.

Even after he returned to Africa, he continued to bear his former master’s name. According to Paulais, this sums up quite well the deep traces left by slavery on American culture: “This is also why these questions remain so present in the minds of African-Americans. They know that even today they bear the names of the slaveholders who exploited their ancestors. This was why Malcolm Little decided to change his name to ‘Malcolm X’. This kind of stigma remains for centuries and there’s no way out. Some people thought that this story would pass, so to speak, with time… We now realise that this is not the case.”

Harry Washington et le Monde Atlantique – L’extraordinaire Histoire d’un Esclave de George Washington (Harry Washington and the Atlantic World – The Extraordinary Story of George Washington’s Slave), by Thierry Paulais, Le Cavalier Editions, 2023

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