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Indian Peter Jamestown Virginia - Massacre of 1622 Black Slavers

Aberdeen's White Slave Trade

The old inhabitants of Aberdeen and its neighbourhood were really as rough as their soil. Judged by their records, they must have been dreadfully haunted by witches and sorcerers down to a comparatively recent period; witch-burning having been common in the town until the end of the 16th century. We find that, in one year, no fewer than 23 women and one man were burnt; the Dean of Guild Records containing the detailed accounts of the "loads of peattis, tar barrellis," and other combustibles used in burning them. The Lairds of the Garioch, a district in the immediate neighbourhood, seem to have been still more terrible than the witches, being accustomed to enter the place and make an onslaught upon the citizens, according as local rage and thirst for spoil might incline them. On one of such occasions, 80 of the inhabitants were killed and wounded.   

Down even to the middle of last century the Aberdonian notions of personal liberty seem to have been very restricted; for between 1740 and 1746 we find that persons of both sexes were kidnapped, put on board ships, and despatched to the American plantations, where they were sold for slaves. Strangest of all, the men who carried on this slave trade were local dignitaries, one of them being a town's Baillie, another the Town-Clerk depute. Those kidnapped "were openly driven in flocks through the town, like herds of sheep, under the care of a keeper armed with a whip."  So open was the traffic that the public workhouse was used for their reception until the ships sailed, and when that was filled, the Tolbooth or common prison was made use of. The vessels which sailed from the harbour for America in 1743 contained no fewer than sixty-nine persons; and it is supposed that, in the 6 years during which the Aberdeen Slave Trade was at its height, about six hundred were transported for sale, very few of whom ever returned.  This slave traffic was doubtless stimulated by the foreign ships beginning to frequent the port.

The Establishment has created the misnomer of “indentured servitude” to explain away and minimize the fact of White slavery. But bound Whites in early Americacalled themselves slaves. Nine-tenths of the White slavery in America was conducted without indentures of any kind but according to the so-called “custom of the country,” as it was known, which was lifetime slavery administered by the White slave merchants themselves.

Before British Slavers travelled to Africa’s western coast to buy Black Slaves from African chieftains, they sold their own White working class kindred (”the surplus poor” as they were known) from the streets and towns into slavery. Tens of thousands of these White slaves were kidnapped children. In fact the very origin of the word kidnapped is 'kid-nabbed', the stealing of White children for enslavement.  According to the English Dictionary of the Underworld, under the heading kidnapper is the following definition: “A stealer of human beings, esp. of children; originally for exportation to the plantations of North America.

Let it be said, in many cases Blacks in slavery had it better than poor Whites in the antebellum South. This is why there was such strong resistance to the Confederacy in the poverty-stricken areas of the mountain south, such as Winston County in Alabama and the Beech mountains of North Carolina. Those poor Whites could not imagine why any White labourer would want to die for the slave-owning plutocracy that more often than not, gave better care and attention to their Black servants than they did to the free white labour they scorned as "trash."

The Kidnappers

White Slaves pre-dated black slaves in America. As early as the Jamestown experiment, Britain emptied its jails of prisoners, sending them to America and Australia. Black slaves came later.  There were some 50,000 white slaves working on America's tobacco plantations in the 15th century,  Many of these were released after they served their time of servitude. As soon as a white slave arrived in America, he was placed on the auction block -- probably in irons -- and wealthy farmers bid on them just as you would bid on a piece of merchandise.  Most of those white slaves, once emancipated, moved to the southern states and made up a large part of what we now consider as "Red Necks"

They sold their own White working class kindred ("the surplus poor" as they were known) from the streets and towns, into slavery. Tens of thousands of these White slaves were kidnapped children. In fact the very origin of the word kidnapped is kid-nabbed, the stealing of White children for enslavement.

Settlement of Jamestown in Virginia, 1607The organised emigration of poor children dates back to a least 1619, when the London Common Council despatched 100 vagrant children to join the first permanent English settlement in North America, Jamestown in Virginia. A further party was sent in 1620, and more followed in 1622 to join the reinforcements sent following the Indian Massacre of the settlers in Virginia. From the mid-1600s, the demand for labour in Britain's colonies led to the illegal emigration of hundreds of children through their "spiriting", or kidnapping, a practice particularly associated with Scotland. This ended in 1757 after a number of Aberdeen businessmen and magistrates were exposed for their involvement in the trade.

The brief but bloody reign of Oliver Cromwell following the English Civil War gave birth to an era of brutal oppression and exploitation of the subject Irish population. From 1652 until 1659 alone, it is estimated that well over 50,000 men, women, and children of Irish descent were forcibly transported to British Imperial Colonies in Barbados and Virginia to serve as slave labour in the plantation economy.  Other prisoners of war, as well as political dissenters, taken from conquered regions of England, Wales, and Scotland were also sent into permanent exile as slaves to Barbados.  This essentially enabled Cromwell to purge the subject population of any perceived opposing elements, as well as to provide a lucrative source of profit through their sale to plantation owners.  The extent to which White prisoners were transported to Barbados was so great, that by 1701, out of the roughly 25,000 slaves present on the island’s plantations, about 21,700 of them were of European descent.

So flagrant was the practice that people in the countryside about Aberdeen avoided bringing children into the city for fear they might be stolen; and so widespread was the collusion of merchants, shippers, suppliers and even magistrates that the man who exposed it was forced to recant and run out of town.”

White slaves transported to the colonies suffered a staggering loss of life in the 17th and 18th century. During the voyage to America it was customary to keep the White slaves below deck for the entire nine to twelve week journey. A White slave would be confined to a hole not more than sixteen feet long, chained with 50 other men to a board, with padlocked collars around their necks. The weeks of confinement below deck in the ship’s stifling hold often resulted in outbreaks of contagious disease which would sweep through the “cargo” of White “freight” chained in the bowels of the ship. Ships carrying WHITE slaves to America often lost half their slaves to death.

The indignation stirred by the iniquitous participation of some of their municipal rulers in that "kidnapping" for the "American Plantations" which terrorised the city of Aberdeen between 1740 and 1746: a crime not less terrible because in that season of famine and dire distress, certain parents were actually induced to sell their own children for this purpose!  More than 600 of these miserable conscripts were carried off from Aberdeen Port, and "indentured" for terms of years to masters who might whip them as they pleased, and who might punish every attempt to escape by an added year of slavery.  There was little secrecy about the matter, save as to the pecuniary connection between it and the men in power.  The house where these poor victims were detained till they could be deported, till recently could still pointed out on the "Green," near the stair leading up to Union Street.  The sufferers belonged to the poor and ignorant class, and felt themselves wholly in the power of those above them.  One writer says, any "who endeavoured to procure the restoration of their children were menaced with imprisonment and banishment, and were so terrified at these impotent threats that they abandoned their attempts. . . . When a father, who had been robbed of his son, instituted an action for redress before the Lords of Session, no officer in Aberdeen could be prevailed on to cite the parties to appear in Court."

They Were White and They Were Slaves: The Untold History of the Enslavement of Whites in Early AmericaAbout 1740, some individuals in Aberdeen engaged in the nefarious trade of kidnapping such young men as they could entice or compel, to go to the plantations in Virginia, and though many were thus decoyed or forced away from their friends, it continued for a good many years little regarded, and a house in the Green is spoken of as having been used for confining those who were refractory until they could be shipped off. Several of the principal citizens appear to have been concerned in this villainy, and it was not until one of their victims, Peter Williamson, unexpectedly re-appeared in Aberdeen in 1758, (for the measures taken to prevent their return, or communicating with their friends, were in general successful,) that any check was given to it.   His compromising story proved unacceptable to the local authorities. He had written a pamphlet, giving an account of the manner in which he had been kidnapped, and of the hardships he had sustained, and this he sold in Aberdeen on his return. For this claim, then considered libel, he was summoned before the Baillies, and was fined 10s., ordered to beg the pardon of the Magistrates, and thereafter to be banished from the town, and the obnoxious parts of his book were torn out and burnt at the cross by the hangman.  Peter Williamson afterwards went to Edinburgh, where, meeting with some benevolent persons to espouse his cause, he raised an action against the magistrates, which was terminated by these worthies being sentenced to pay him £100, with all the expenses of the suit.

White Slavery 1   White Slavery 2    White Slavery 3   White Slavery 4

Peter Williamson, a native of Aberdeen, sold for a slave in Pennsylvania, "a rough, ragged, humble-headed, long, stowie, clever boy," who, reaching York, published an account of the infamous traffic, in a pamphlet which excited extraordinary interest at the time, and met with a rapid and extensive circulation.  His exposure of kid-nabbing gave very great offence to the Aberdeen Magistrates, who dragged him before their tribunal as having "published a scurrilous and infamous libel on the Corporation," and he was sentenced to be imprisoned until he should sign a denial of the truth of his statements. He brought an action against the Corporation for their proceedings, and obtained a verdict and damages; and he further proceeded against Baillie Fordyce (one of his kidnappers, and others, from whom he obtained £200 damages, with costs. The system was thus effectually put a stop to.

The Barn - Holding House

"Press gangs in the hire of local merchants roamed the streets, seizing 'by force such boys as seemed proper subjects for the slave trade.' Children were driven in flocks through the town and confined for shipment in barns...So flagrant was the practice that people in the countryside about Aberdeen avoided bringing children into the City for fear they might be stolen; and so widespread was the collusion of merchants, shippers, suppliers and even magistrates that the man who exposed it Peter Williamson was forced to recant and then run out of town."

A stone-built house on the Green, sometimes  referred to as a ‘barn’ was, by repute, associated with one of the darkest phases in Aberdeen’s history.   Its location perhaps at the bottom of of Aedies Wynd now the location of steep steps up towards the Back Wynd with which it originally linked..

In the early to mid 18th century a number of merchants and magistrates in Aberdeen kidnapped  upwards of several hundred children from the city and shire and sold them off as indentured servants in the American Colonies. Britain’s American colonies were desperate for labour and merchants, in various parts of Scotland and further afield, used this as a cynical means to supply that labour and to make money.  Once kidnapped, the children were held in a variety of different locations around Aberdeen, including the Tolbooth Prison (now a museum), a factory on the beach and this house in the Green

Ships left Aberdeen for America infrequently and so the children had to be stored somewhere.   Walter Cochran, town clerk depute, kept records showing how much money was spent in holding and shipping these children compared with what was made from selling them (normally at £16 per head). It was said that the merchants employed a piper to play  outside the Barnhouse to drown out the noise of the shrieking and crying children.  The most famous of these unfortunate children was Peter Williamson, known as Indian Peter. He later returned to Britain where he adopted the dress of native Americans and wrote a book about his life: a tireless self publicist he was arrested in Aberdeen in June 1758 and tried for libel, for which he was found guilty.  The hangman burned the offending pages of his book (those which claimed that some of the merchants and magistrates of the town were deeply implicated in this process) at the Mercat Cross. He countersued the magistrates of Aberdeen at the Court of Session in Edinburgh, who found in his favour in 1762 and awarded him £100 damages. It is from this later court case that most of what we know about this episode derives.

The Barnhouse itself was demolished in the late 19th century.

The Virginian Maid's Lament

Hearken, and I'll tell 
You a story that befell 
In the lands of Virginia-O 
How a pretty maid 
For a slave she was betray'd 
And O but I'm weary, weary O!

Seven lang years I serv'd 
To Captain Welsh, a laird 
In the lands of Virginia-O 
And he so cruelly 
Sold me to Madam Guy 
And O but I'm weary, weary O!

We are yoked to a plough 
And wearied sair enough 
In the lands of Virginia-O 
With the yoke upon our neck 
Till our hearts are like to break 
And O but I'm weary, weary O!

When we're called home to meat 
There's little there to eat 
In the lands of Virginia-O 
We're whipt at every meal 
And our backs they never heal 
And O but I'm weary, weary Oh!


When our madam she does walk 
We must all be at her back 
In the lands of Virginia-O 
When our baby it does weep 
We must lull it o'er asleep 
And O but I'm weary, weary O!

At mid time of the day 
When our master goes to play 
In the lands of Virginia-O 
Our factor stands near by 
With his rod below his thigh 
And O but I'm weary, weary O!

But if I had the chance 
Fair Scotland to advance 
From the lands of Virginia-O 
Never more should I 
Be a slave to Madam Guy 
And O but I'm weary, weary O! 

“White Slavery” in the Western Isles
Barney Kinsler recalled a visit to the Rodel Hotel on South Harris in 1966. He remembers some artefacts on the wall of the bar which were described as slave whips, used in the transportation of local people to the American colonies – so-called “White Slavery”. Other stories exist locally about people being taken against their will to work as indentured labour either in America or India.  Local historian Bill Lawson who made the point that in an oral or story-telling culture, like that of the Scottish Highlands and Islands, it is very difficult to separate fact from fiction. He believes that most of these stories and the few artefacts linked with them, originate in their maritime heritage – i.e. brought home from travels around the globe.

The first to write systematically against the slave trade was an Aberdeen Minister, the Rev. James Ramsay, a graduate of King's College.  He published his pamphlet in 1785

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Last modified: 01/09/2013