A Man Called Indian Peter

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Edinburgh Parliament HouseEdinburgh's  Parliament House had been built as the Scottish Parliament by Charles I. After the Act of Union in 1707 it ceased to be used for that purpose while still the seat of the High Court of Judiciary of Scotland.

Peter Williamson had opened a coffee house in the Parliament House presumably to have access to the law for a particular purpose.

In his early childhood he had been forced into slavery and now sought full justice.


A woodcut of Peter Williamson - Indian PeterPeter was born in 1730 in the Parish of Aboyne a small settlement between Ballater and Banchory. He was the son of a struggling crofter ploughman William Williamson who out of desperation sent Peter to an aunt in Aberdeen at the age of ten

Aberdeen was a thriving sea port with open access. Which allowed Alexander McDonald and Bonnie John Burnet important merchants, Alexander Cushnie a dean and procurator fiscal of Aberdeen to become involved in selling children into slavery.

By the early 1700s the slave trade was booming, it helped enrich  cities and fuelled the industrial revolution. In 1733 the Treaty of Utrecht ensured a British monopoly in the movement of slaves by promising a yearly rate of 4,800 to the Americas. Children were easy to capture and could be sold at a very high profit. 17th century authorities had decided to rid towns and cities of vandals, waifs and strays offering the new colonies much needed labourers. In Britain small children could be used as unpaid workers so why not in America as Virginia had already received 100 children in the late 17th century. They were such a success the Privy Council sanctioned the schemes.

 Peter was one of the surplus poor who fell into the hands of a band controlled by magistrates, town clerks, merchants and ships masters. Children were sometimes sold on to a list by relatives for a single shilling. The City and villages near Aberdeen were plagued by roving gangs set to capture the young for indentured servitude, which was another name for slavery. Those in captivity were placed in Backwynd Steps  building owned by the rich merchant Bonnie Burnet. Peter was imprisoned in Burnets property before shipment to America and it may be that news of his captivity had then reached the ears of his father. William had tried to have his son set free but with so many magistrates involved it proved impossible. In a last attempt William rushed to the port quay to help his son and received a bad beating for his efforts.

In July of 1743 a ship named the Planter was bound for Virginia, where the demand for labour had exceeded the supply of indentured slaves for Britain. Peter and 68 other children were forced on to the ship and locked up below with little to eat.

 The voyage of the Planter lasted 11 weeks and would have been horrifying for the vulnerable children on board. Off  Cape May in Delaware the Planter ran aground on a sand bank. The crew abandoned the ship leaving the young cargo to suffer the fear of drowning locked below decks. The next day the crew returned and took the children to Philadelphia to be sold to farmers, tradesmen and merchants. Peter was one of the fortunate when for a handsome sum he was purchased by a fellow Scot from Perth.

Hugh Wilson had himself been kidnapped and brought to America to work for a land owner. On the death of his owner Hugh Wilson was freed and toiled for years to become a farmer. By the time Hugh died he had become fond of Peter leaving some money, his best horse and saddle to him. At the age of 24 Peter married the daughter of a wealthy planter. His father-in-law provided a dowry of 200 acres of land on the frontiers of North Pennsylvania in Berks County.

The French and Indian War had began as an element of the seven years War. The French and her Lenape allies were intent in driving the colonist from America. Peters wife was visiting relations when the Delaware Indians attacked in October 1754. The house was surrounded and Peter was captured. Many of the farmers were killed or captured and scalped for a French reward. Those captured were subject to horrifying tortures and killed for the slightest complaint. Peter watched as the Delaware Indians massacre a man for uttering defiance. Peter was tied to a tree and his face, hands and feet burned by flaming branches. He realised that calling out in pain meant instant death so he suffered in silence. The Delaware Indians perceived Peters silence under torture as a form of bravery and released him from torment. He was used as a pack horse and forced to walk long miles subject to the whim of his captures. He saw many settlers being murdered during the arduous journey and yet he admired the Delaware. Despite their vindictive nature they had close affectionate family bonds and had their own government laws and police.  When an opportunity arose Peter escaped, travelling by night to avoid recapture. Luckily he stumbled on a farm and was taken in to recover from his ordeal. The State Assembly of Philadelphia called on him to recount his experiences while in captivity.

  In 1755 he returned to his own farm in the British settlement to find his wife had died two months earlier. The farm had been run by his in-laws and was still viable. Peter felt he had no reason to stay with the demise of his wife and joined a Colonial Army Regiment. British regulars and Colonials  foraged deep into French territory. Peter was captured by the French after the British surrender at Oswego (New York State) in 1756.

In November of that year he was repatriated from Quebec on an exchange of prisoners and shipped to England. Peter was discharged as unfit due to a hand wound in Plymouth and began writing of his experiences. With only a small gratuity of six shillings he decided to walk to his hometown of Aberdeen.

 Stopping at York he found many sympathetic to his cause who helped him publish his book. It told of Aberdeen children being sold into slavery, Delaware Indian adventures and the French capture. It was called ‘French and Indian Cruelty’. To make additional money Peter would dress in his Indian clothes and hoop his way into the towns. His war dance attracted crowds who were lured into buying his book or giving money to his collection.

The book sold 1,000 copies in three weeks and the money helped fund a return to Aberdeen in 1758. He was not well received having to face the powerful body of men involved in the slave trade. To attract attention he held Indian culture exhibitions and where he sold copies of his book. The public were horrified with the details of Aberdeen child slavery and complaining of those responsible.

Peter was brought to the burgh court and found guilty of libel for selling scurrilous and infamous material the penalty was imprisonment and a ten shilling fine for vagrancy. His books was publicly burned and had to remain in prison until he signed a petition stating his account of the kidnapping was a sham. On release from the tollbooth Peter left for Edinburgh and seeking a remedy through the Court of Session. His book began to influence peoples opinions and gave confidence for others to speak out. The account book of William Fordyce & Co gave exact details of  the money involved in the shipping of child slaves. The date of the record was 1743 which included Peters name.  Walter Cochran a town clerk had records of the cost of food the children consumed while waiting to board ship and had complained of the amount. All of this was damaging for the slave dealers and forced them into a reluctant admission. In 1768 after lengthy legal struggle Peter was awarded £200 damages and 100 guineas costs.

Peter married a second time to the daughter of a bookseller.

He could be seen walking through the streets of Edinburgh in full Delaware Indian dress and became known as Indian Peter.

His coffee shop attracted those involved in the law in Parliament House inspiring Robert Fergusson to write a poem.

This vacance is a heavy doom
On Indian Peter's coffee-room,
For a' his china pigs are toom
Nor do we see
In wine the sucker bisket soom
As light's a flee.

Peter became a proprietor of a Tavern which had a sign showing, ‘Peter Williamson Vintner from the other World.’ At the doorway he had a wooden figure of himself in  Indian full ware. His tavern attracted customers such as magistrates who would dine after a public execution.

Peter made the city of Edinburgh’s first street directory. He also came up with the idea of a Penny Post which ran for 10 years until it was bought over by the General Post Office.

Peter later became addicted to drink and in January 9th 1799 died and was buried in Old Calton Cemetery dress in his Indian cloths. His place of rest is near the Martyr’s Monument. Peter Williamsons life is still written about, his adventures inexhaustible

White Slavery and Children.

An average cargo was three hundred, but the shipmaster, for greater profit, would sometimes crowd as many as six hundred into a small vessel. The death rate of 25% for White slaves enroute to America was 5% greater than Black Slaves.

Up to one-half of all the arrivals in the American colonies were White slaves and they were America’s first slaves. These Whites were slaves for life, long before Blacks ever were. This slavery was even hereditary. White children born to White slaves were enslaved too.

Whites were auctioned on the block with children sold and separated from their parents and wives sold and separated from their husbands. Free Black property owners strutted the streets of northern and southern American cities while White slaves were worked to death in the sugar mills of Barbados and Jamaica and the plantations of Virginia.

White Children wounded and crippled in the factories were turned out without compensation of any kind and left to die of their injuries. Children late to work or who fell asleep were beaten with iron bars. Lest we imagine these horrors were limited to only the early years of the Industrial Revolution, eight and ten year old White children throughout America were hard at work in miserable factories and mines as late as 1920 ..

Acknowledgments to David Dobson author of  Scottish Emigration to Colonial America, 1607-1785
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