Harry Washington: The Slave Who Escaped George Washington’s Plantation, Fought for the British, and Eventually Settled in Africa

Harry Washington was an African who was enslaved by none other than George Washington, the future first President of the United States. However, Harry’s story transcends the chains of slavery, as he not only fought for his own liberation but also played an important role in the early days of African diaspora settlements.

Harry Washington: The Slave Who Escaped George Washington’s Plantation, Fought for the British, and Eventually Settled in Africa
Illustration by Dale Watson

Born in 1740 in Gambia, Harry’s early years were shrouded in the shadows of slavery. Captured as a war captive, he was shipped to Virginia, where he was purchased in 1763 to be part of future president George Washington’s workforce in the Great Dismal Swamp of southeastern Virginia and northeastern North Carolina.

Upon arriving at Washington’s Virginia plantation, Harry’s name was changed to reflect his new owner, which was a common practice during transatlantic slavery. This practice stripped enslaved Africans of their own identities, forcing them to adopt the names of their owners and reinforcing the idea that they were property rather than individuals with their own identities. Harry’s original name, like those of countless others, was lost to history, replaced by the surname of his owner.

Enslaved on one of George Washington’s plantation, Washington initially assigned Harry to work in the Great Dismal Swamp, but after two years Washington relocated him to his Mount Vernon estate. It was there, in 1771, that Harry made a daring escape, though short-lived, as he was quickly captured and returned to Mount Vernon, where he remained enslaved until a new opportunity for freedom emerged with the onset of the American Revolution. In 1776, seizing the chaos of the Revolution, Harry fled to join the Virginia Ethiopian Regiment, a military unit comprised of former slaves established by Royal Governor Lord Dunmore during the war.

Embracing the call to arms, Harry found himself on a new battlefield, fighting for a cause that promised emancipation. Joining the ranks of the Loyalist Black Pioneers, attached to a British artillery unit, he became part of the British forces stationed in New York City, under the command of Governor Lord Dunmore.

As the dust of war settled, Harry stood among the thousands of Black Loyalists evacuated from New York by the British, seeking refuge and freedom anew.

Settling in Nova Scotia, Canada, Harry embarked on a journey of rebuilding his life alongside his wife, Jenny, another freed slave. However, the call for his homeland echoed strongly within Harry, leading him to join the exodus of Black Loyalists migrating to Sierra Leone, West Africa.

Arriving in Sierra Leone in 1792, Harry envisioned a future rooted in agricultural endeavors, drawing upon the farming techniques he had learned during his time at Mount Vernon. Alongside fellow settlers, many of whom were African Americans seeking liberty, Harry played an important role in establishing a new colony, bringing echoes of their American heritage to the shores of Africa.

However, the path to freedom was fraught with challenges. The Sierra Leone Company, governing the colony on behalf of the British government, imposed taxes and regulations that tested the settlers’ resolve. In 1800, Harry found himself at the forefront of a rebellion against British rule and excessive taxation, advocating for the rights of the oppressed. The rebels formed a provisional government and wrote a set of laws, which they nailed to the office door of a company administrator.

In response, the Sierra Leone Company deployed a corps of recently arrived black Jamaican maroons against the rebels. In the trials that ensued after the rebellion’s defeat, Harry was among those sentenced to banishment to Bullom Shore, where he became one of the leaders of a new settlement but eventually succumbed to disease.

Harry Washington’s legacy lives on through his descendants, who, along with other African Americans, form a portion of the Sierra Leone Creole people.

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