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Indian Peter - Victim of White Slavery

Peter Williamson's Revenge on his Captors

The practice of kidnapping, or stealing children from their parents, in the north of Scotland, from 1735 down to 1753, of period of 18 years inclusive, and selling them for slaves to the planters of Maryland, Virginia, &c. In North America, is too notorious to require any illustration here. Even some of the good magistrates and principal merchants of Aberdeen, in those days, had a hand in this most diabolical traffic; as may be seen from a book kept by Walter Cochran, town-clerk-depute of Aberdeen.  It is also well known to many people in this country, *with* what unheard-of reception, cruelty, and lawless oppression, one of those captives, namely, Peter Williamson, after having undergone the most cruel torments by the savage Indians, met *with* from these magistrates on his return from slavery, to his native land.  Instead of sympathising with his woes, welcoming (him) home with gladness, as a fellow-mortal, and giving him that redress *to* which the laws of his country warranted, and he (was) justly entitled; more cruel than the most barbarous savages, they stripped him of his all, i.e. the 100 or so Pamphlets, which the more generous, and more humane magistrates of York, had caused to be printed for him at their sole expense, as a means for his subsistence. 

These offending parts of these pamphlets the Bon Accord magistrates of 1758, publicly burned by the hands of the common hangman. Not even satisfied with this, he was imprisoned (sic), loaded with every opprobrious name of reproach, branded with the name of an imposter and liar; in short, every thing that was evil was laid to his charge, merely because he had told too much of the truth, and exposed too much of the knavery of these satanical commercialists, in his little book. Thank God, we are now free from those inhuman monsters of cruelty; those corrupt judges, and arbitrary and tyrannical magistrates, in this part of the country.  The lesson which all might have learned from the decision of that venerable and impartial body of noblemen and gentlemen, the College of Justice in Edinburgh, on this occasion, will, I hope, operate strongly on the minds of all those in power, not unjustly, nor lawlessly to oppose any one, however poor in circumstances, as they may meet with a friend to advocate their cause, as did the unfortunate Peter Williamson, when they least expected it.  Those who may be more desirous of knowing the nature and the extent of that kidnapping was once carried on in Aberdeen, by a set of the most unprincipled ruffians, dead to all the feelings of humanity, I shall give a short sketch of it in the identical words of one of the sufferers.

Indian Peter

"The trade of carrying off boys to the plantations in America, and selling them there as slaves, was carried on at Aberdeen, as far down as the year 1744, with amazing effrontery. It was not carried on in secret, or by stealth, but publicly, and by open violence. The whole neighbouring country were alarmed at it. They would not allow their children to go to Aberdeen, for fear of being kidnapped. When they kept (them) at home, emissaries were sent out by the merchants, who took them by violence from their parents, and carried them off. If a child was amissing, it was immediately suspected that he was kidnapped by the Aberdeen Merchants; and upon inquiry, that was often found to be the case; and so little pains were taken to conceal them, when in the possession of the merchants, that they were driven in flocks through the town, under the inspection of a keeper, who overawed them with a whip, like so many sheep carrying to the slaughter.  Not only were these flocks of unhappy children locked up in barns, and places of private confinement, but even the Tolbooth and public workhouses were made receptacles for them, and a town officer employed in keeping them. Parties of worthless fellows, like press-gangs, were hired to patrol the streets, and seize by force such boys as seemed proper subjects for the slave-trade. The practice was but too general. The names of no less than fifteen merchants, concerned in this trade, are mentioned in the proof: and when so many are singled out by the witnesses, it is hardly to be imagined it should be confined to these only, but that they must have omitted many, who were either principals or abettors and decoys in this infamous traffic. Some of the witness depone, that it was the general opinion that the magistrates themselves had a hand in it.  But what exceeds every proof, and is equal to an acknowledgment, is, that from a book of accounts, recovered on leading the proof, recording the expenses laid out on a cargo of these unfortunate objects, it appears, that no less than sixty-nine boys and girls were carried over to America along with me, all of whom suffered the same fate of being shipwrecked, and many of them sold as slaves. 

After such a demonstration of my veracity, and maltreatment I had formerly suffered, the reader, it is believed, cannot but reflect, with some degree of indignation, on the iniquitous sentence of the magistrates of Aberdeen, and commiserate the dismal situation to which I was reduced, in consequence of that tyrannical decision. Stripped at once of my all, and my only means of subsistence,- branded with the character of a vagrant and imposter, and stigmatized as such in the Aberdeen Journal, banished from the capital of the country wherein I was born, and left to the mercy of the wide world, loaded with all the infamy that malice could invent: What a deplorable situation is this! I could not help considering myself in a more wretched state, to be reduced to submit to such barbarities in a civilized country, and the place of my nativity, than when a captive among the savage Indians, who boast not of humanity!" - Peter Williamson

As early as 1668 ships were searched at Leith for people being shipped to America against their will. Elizabeth Linning was kidnapped and shipped to South Carolina on the Carolina Merchant in 1684. In 1739 more than 100 Ilanders from Skye were put aboard ship involuntarily for shipment to the colonies for sale as servants, however the ship grounded on the Irish coast and the forced emigrants escaped.  Evidence of this trade exists on both sides of the Atlantic, but the best recorded example is that of Peter Williamson.

In 1743, the ten-year-old boy left his home in Aboyne bound for Aberdeen to see his aunt. This brief visit turned into an eventful 15-year nightmare. In Aberdeen Peter fell into the hands of a gang organised by certain of the Burgh's Magistrates, merchants and shipmasters who were kidnapping children and shipping them to America where they were being sold as indentured servants. To emigrate as a servant was normal practice at the time for those who could not afford the passage and instead agreed to work without pay for several years. However these children did not volunteer and were presumably pressured to sign such contracts.

In July 1743 the ship Planter left Aberdeen bound for Virginia, with 69 kidnapped children on board. After an 11-week voyage, the ship was wrecked on a sandbank off southern New Jersey. The passengers were rescued and taken to Philadelphia where they were sold to merchants, farmers and tradesmen.  Young Peter was bought by a Perth-born man named Hugh Wilson, who himself had been kidnapped and shipped to America some years earlier. Peter worked for Wilson for several years and upon the landowner's death was free to leave.  Williamson was 21 when he married and settled on a farm in Berks County, frontier north of Philadelphia. However he was not allowed to settle in peace, as the next year, 1754, the French and Indian War arose in which they attempted to drive the British from the colonies.

Williamson's wife was visiting her relatives when the Delaware Indians attacked the family farm. Williamson was captured and taken away. Other colonists were not so fortunate, as many were tortured or killed. He wrote at length in his book of French and Indian Cruelty and of his experiences with the Native Americans with whom he lived for several months until his escape in 1755. Returning to the British settlements, he found that his wife had died. He then joined the colonial militia, which together with the British regulars were trying to resist the incursions of the French and Indians. Williamson was again out of luck, as he was captured by the French at Oswego, in what is now New York state.

In 1756 Williamson and others were repatriated and shipped on board the French vessel Le Renomme to England. The following year, in York, he published the story of his adventures that exposed the trade in children carried out in Aberdeen. Not surprisingly, in 1758 when he arrived in Aberdeen, hoping to sell his books, Williamson wasn't made welcome by the authorities who included the magistrates and merchants behind the kidnapping.  Williamson was soon brought before the burgh court where he was found guilty of libel, fined ten shillings and imprisoned, while his books were burnt. On his release from the tollbooth, he prudently left for Edinburgh. There he was advised to take his case to the Court of Session.

Williamson's book had by then appeared in a number of editions and public sympathy was now in his favour. At the same time witnesses to the illicit virtual slave trade in Aberdeen were willing to substantiate the man's claims. One of the most damning pieces of evidence was the account book of Baillie William Fordyce and Co, which detailed the expenses involved in shipping children to America on board the Planter in 1743 and which specifically mentioned Williamson.  In court the defendants admitted that the kidnappings had occurred but claimed they were providing a social service by transporting children when times were hard and food was scarce. Despite such claims, on 2 February 1762, the defendants were found guilty and ordered to pay £100 to Williamson for damages and expenses, a considerable sum in these days. 

Williamson, having no desire to return to Aberdeen, settled in Edinburgh. There he became known as "Indian Peter", as he sometimes chose to walk the city streets colourfully dressed as a Delaware Indian.  The damages he received as a result of the judgement were invested in a coffee house just off the city's High Street. Being an entrepreneur, he also developed Edinburgh’s first "penny post". The knowledge he gained from this in turn led to him to publish the city’s first Street Directory in 1773. Peter managed his penny post so successfully that the General Post Office found it necessary to buy him up, and he lived on the resultant pension for the rest ofhis life.

A penny post had been established in Edinburgh by Indian Peter Williamson, who also kept a little tavern in the Parliament House, celebrated by Robert Fergusson in "Then Rising of the Session ":
This vacance is a heavy doom
On Indian Peter's coffie-room,
For a' his china pigs are toom ;
Nor do we see
In wine the soukar biskets soom,
As light's a flee."

Williamson married Jean Wilson, a maker of loose gowns, in 1771, and the couple had nine children, but this second marriage ended in an acrimonious divorce after 18 years.  Peter Williamson died in Edinburgh in 1799 and was buried in the moccasins, fringed leggings, blanket and feathered head-dress of a Delaware Indian.  David Dobson - history graduate of St Andrews and Aberdeen 


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Last modified: 01/09/2013