Washington had a hard time reckoning time while he was on Barbados. Many of the dates he listed in his diary are off—and not even in a single predictable way as if he had miscounted by a day or two and pushed the error forwards. Instead, he was off by two days and sometimes four in November, and then one day off in December and so on. On top of that, we have to factor in the great change from the Julian calendar to the currently prevalent Gregorian one (with apologies to Ethiopia) in 1752 that pushed dates eleven days ahead. Washington was born on the 11th of February before the date change which makes us think of his birthday as the 22nd. Likewise, the dates in the diary also have to be pushed forward if were interested in commemoration for example.
One has to have a good reason to keep a close reckoning of the passing of time. The long term cycles—months and years for example—pass by slowly enough to be missed. They matter in agricultural settings, but primarily as seasons. The fact that today for example is the 14th and not the 17th will not cause to miss my planting or harvesting. The coming and goings of commerce give months and dates a bit more immediate consequence as certain expenses must needs be met at certain times or ship arrive and set sail (weather and tides permitting) at certain days. Confusing the 14th for the 17th in this case could cause me to miss a ship’s sailing. The actual days of the week though are rather more immediate and easier to keep a handle on. Even today, we can ask on a given Tuesday “what day of the month is it?” and not get the odd looks we might get if were to walk up to someone and say “what day of the week is it? For that reason it is easier to believe Washington when he said that he dined with the Clarke’s on a Wednesday even if his November 6th was really the 10th. It is hard to pin down just what caused this error. It may that he was jus wrong about his dates. It also may be that he filled in some details later (as we know is did on some parts) and just made errors along the way. It also may be that the whole “original” is a copy of a lost older original and things just got confused in the interim. In any event, it is clear that Washington’s sense of the calendar was a rather dynamic object.
There is another reason that made it easier to keep the days of the week in focus, and that reason is spiritual. The Sabbath marks a break with the routines of the week, and even when Washington did not attend St Michael’ s Anglican parish church in Bridgetown, the change in the larger community regime would have marked Sunday as distinct and made it easy to know just were one was day-wise for the rest of the week. The spiritual calendar is another reason as well an individual or a community might pay close attention to the passing of dates and months. The cycles of religious devotions that must happen at certain times require constant counting.
For these reasons I found it interesting that Washington wrote that he was “strongly attacked with the small pox” on Saturday, November 16, 1751. I believe him when he claimed the disease overtook him on a Saturday, but it was more likely the 20th than the 16th given his miscounting. That fateful Saturday would have had a totally different set of calendar and spiritual meanings for a community of Barbadians living only a mile or so from where Washington lay suffering.
The Jews of Barbados had their own calendar and reckoned it with great care. While experts in England were already discussing the merits of exchanging their Roman calendar for a newer Christian one, the Jews world wide were still using the same counting system they had for millennia. By that reckoning of time, Washington fell ill on the 2nd of Kislev, in the year 5512.
Treating the “Speckled Monster”
Even if Washington was having a hard time keeping his dates straight—the Jews were not. Restricted to something very much like a ghetto in Bridgetown and limited by law in their trading options, the community maintained the count of days and marked the significant ones as they came and went. As Washington lay ill, the “holy month” of Tishrei would have only recently ended and the Jews would have completed a holiday routine that begins with a new year, and ends with restarting the annual cycling of reading weekly sections of the Torah—the Five Books of Moses. In the middle of that was a fast day in which they would have tried to look all of their misdeeds in the face, accept upon themselves the guilt for having done them, and plead with God to postpone the well-deserved execution sentence for one more year. “Who in the upcoming year would die by water and who by fire, who by sword and who by illness” they had asked in solemn liturgical tones. There would have been no answer yet, but they could take comfort in the verse reminding them that that prayer, repentance, and charity lessen the harshness of heaven’s judgment. They also would sing three times a prayer that would exempt them from future vows when those vows were or a certain nature. This rather distinctive request was originally penned to provide a backdoor way out for Jews forced to accept Christianity at sword point or on pain of the flames—an experience all too familiar to the great grand parents of many of Bridgetown’s Jews. Coming out of that intense, absorbing, and emotionally roller coaster of a month, Bridgetown’s Jews were settling into a long period with no significant holidays—only the weekly reading of the Torah made the counting of spiritual time obvious on a day-to-day basis.
Map of Bridgetown showing the synagogue marked with a red star. Thanks to Colonialgyrabbit.com for the image.
The day Washington took ill was Shabbat, the 2nd of Kislev. That week the Torah Parsha (weekly reading from the Five Books) was Parshat Toldot—the sixth division of the first book which began with the creation of the world. During those weeks, the Jews of Bridgetown had been reading some of the most familiar stories in the Bible. Since the creation, God had flooded the earth and seen it repopulated with people. Avraham has met God and Sarah had a child despite her age. Avraham and his son Isaac showed what faith meant and also showed that God abhors human sacrifice. In Parshat Toldot we begin to see the growth of Isaac’s family—the people for whom he dug all of those wells. Early in Toldot there is a passage in which God tells Rivkah that she is going to have twins. The congregant singing out the weekly reading would have intoned the words for all in the Bridgetown synagogue to hear (my guess is that he would have sung it at about 10am), and they are as follows:
[Bereshit/Genesis 25:23] And God said to her, “Two nations are in your womb, and two kingdoms will separate from your innards, and one kingdom will become mightier than the other kingdom, and the elder will serve the younger.”
These are the words the Children of Isaac heard in synagogue that Shabbat morning in 1751/5512 as George Washington took ill only a mile or so from the constrained world they called home. The younger kingdom will become mightier than the other. What a line! I would not want to suggest that this was prophetic—maybe poetic is a better way to see it. No one could have connected that line in the Parsha with the nineteen-year old off-islander settling into what could easily have been a fatal illness, but time has allowed us to. I write this in a year in which the 2nd of Kislev was once again on Shabbat, and as in 1751/5512, Parshat Toldot was once again heard in synagogues the world over.
I need to think more about just what it means that Washington had his dates so wrong. But it helps to keep mind that there were others in that world carefully counting dates, and hours, and moon phases to make sure that times were reckoned correctly and that promises were kept and that words were sung in their appropriate times.