Cleopatra’s Nose Theory argues that chance plays a big role in historical outcomes. The theory goes that had Cleopatra’s nose been bigger Mark Anthony wouldn’t have found her physical charms so irresistible, and the whole course of Western civilisation would have been different. Putting aside the inconvenient fact that Mark Anthony was at least equally attracted to Cleopatra’s intellectual charms, this is the ultimate historical ‘What if?’
While it may only merit a bit-part in the annals of history, the small Cumbrian town of Whitehaven is home to a less well known ‘What if?’
Had things been different, George Washington – Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army during the American War of Independence, one of the Founding Fathers and first President of the United States – might have been raised near Whitehaven and not in Virginia. Washington’s grandmother, Mildred, was from Virginia. When her first husband, Lawrence Washington, died she married George Gale, a tobacco trader from Whitehaven. Mildred moved to England with her new husband, dying in Whitehaven in 1701. She is buried in St. Nicholas’ Churchyard in the town centre.
Had Mildred brought her son, George’s father, Augustine Washington to England with her, the course of Washington’s life and, quite possibly, the course of the American War of Independence might have been different. A Cleopatra’s Nose Theory for modern Western civilisation. Mildred died following childbirth, she was buried alongside her baby daughter and a woman called Jane, Mildred’s African slave servant. It was illegal for an African to be buried in a British graveyard at the time; for Jane to be buried in the family plot alongside Mildred speaks volumes about their relationship.
The connections between this part of England and the United States are many, largely due to trade and emigration. There were particularly strong links with tobacco plantations in Virginia, and Whitehaven became the preeminent centre of imported tobacco. Many of the town’s wonderful Georgian buildings were built from the profits. Its no surprise that Washington’s family lived in Westmorland County, Virginia, named after the County of Westmoreland, England, close to where Whitehaven is situated. The town of Whitehaven, Maryland, was founded by George Gale, Mildred’s second husband.
Another connection with the American War of Independence is non-other than ‘father of the American navy’, John Paul Jones. Jones was Scottish but moved to Whitehaven as a boy, he began sailing from the port when he was thirteen. He regularly visited Virginia, where his brother had settled, sailing on various trade and slave ships. History has been favourable to Jones, but his reputation as a fighter for American Independence can’t erase his reputation as a violent ship’s captain. He once flogged a man so severely he died, another time he killed one of his crew in an argument.
Jones had serious disputes with the High Command in America and was dispatched to France. Sailing from here, acting more like a pirate than a war commander, in 1778 he attacked and attempted to sack his former home of Whitehaven. He planned to set fire to the ships in the port – over 200 vessels were moored there – and burn the town to the ground. His men came ashore and spiked the main harbour guns, but the attack was bungled from the start. He might still have been successful, but his crew went to a pub and got drunk. The townsfolk were alerted and Jones fled.
It’s hard to imagine today, but Whitehaven was a vital British port and a justifiable military target. Although its easy to believe there was something personal in Jones’ attack on the town. I’m glad he failed to burn the town, it would have destroyed some wonderful architecture. Today the attack is commemorated by a sculpture on the harbour. A sailor, defending the town, is firing a cannon towards the ocean where Jones’ ship would have been. The cannons are originals from 1778.
For a small town, Whitehaven has seen its share of historical incident. I wandered the streets as the winter sun set and darkness descended, and found myself in a small square where a plaque caught my attention. This recounted a bizarre incident. It transpires that Jonathan Swift, the legendary Irish satirist, lived in the town as an infant. A little more research into this uncovered a genuine mystery. His nurse essentially kidnapped him and came to Whitehaven where Swift lived in her care for three or four years.
Debate rages about the importance of this experience for Swift, but some biographers believe his masterpiece, Gulliver’s Travels, was influenced by witnessing the activity around Whitehaven harbour. The house Swift lived in still stands, and has exceptional views over the port. I imagine the young boy watching the activity around the port. Seeing ships coming and going to destinations all over the world, and exotic produce being unloaded on the docks, must have left a strong impression.
One biographer has even claimed that Swift was born in this house…another Cleopatra’s Nose Theory, perhaps?