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Peter Williamson

Peter Williamson (1730–1799), or Indian Peter as he became known, was one of the more colourful personalities of 18th century Scotland. He was kidnapped and sold into slavery in America. He was captured by Indians, but eventually escaped and joined the British army, serving for three years. He was imprisoned by the French. He eventually returned to Scotland and successfully sued Aberdeen officials for slave trading. In Edinburgh, he published the city's first street directory and set up a postal service, called the Penny Post.

Early life

Peter was born in 1730, the son of a crofter, at Hirnley in the Parish of Aboyne, Aberdeenshire. His parents were 'reputable, though not rich' and they sent him, as a young boy, to live with an aunt in Aberdeen.

At this time, kidnapping was a flourishing business in Aberdeen. Children were regularly kidnapped for sale in American plantations and a number of the Aberdeen City Bailies, who were in partnership with the kidnappers, amassed fortunes from this 'hideous traffic in human merchandise'. Kidnapping developed as a sideline of a State approved method of dealing with criminals and undesirables by granting warrants to merchants and ship owners for the transportation of vagrants and criminals to the Colonies. It was a lucrative business as each able-bodied person delivered to the plantations in Barbados, Antigua and America, which were in desperate need of workers, could be sold as indentured servants at a substantial profit.

In 1743, Peter was on the harbour at Aberdeen when he was 'taken notice of by two fellows employed by some worthy merchants of the town, in that villainous practice called kidnapping'. He was 'marked out by these monsters as their prey and taken forcibly on board a ship' where he was locked up below decks with around sixty other boys. Peter was then shipped across the Atlantic to America, where the ship ran aground on a sandbank in Delaware Bay, off Cape May and the crew abandoned ship, leaving Peter and his companions to a claustrophobic night with the constant fear of imminent drowning. However, next day, the ship was still intact and the crew returned for their live cargo.

In America

Peter was sold as a slave in Philadelphia for a 'handsome sum'. He was indentured for a period of seven years to a fairly well off planter, Hugh Wilson, who had himself been kidnapped as a boy. Peter describes Wilson as a 'humane, honest and worthy man', and, contrary to the normal harsh conditions of slavery in America, he treated Peter kindly. Just as Peter's period of indenture was about to end, Hugh Wilson died and bequeathed Peter 'some money, his best horse, saddle and all his wearing apparel'.

At 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 Pennsylvania, and Peter settled down to his new life. However, marauding Indians began to prove troublesome, instigated by the French who paid for every British scalp taken. On the night of October 2, 1754, Peter was in his house alone when Indians surrounded it. He was captured, and his house was plundered and burned. The Indians used him as a pack-horse and he was force marched many miles, witnessing along the way the murder and scalping of numerous settlers. Peter somehow managed to survive, and made a daring escape from his captors. Despite his personal sufferings at the hands of the Indians, Peter had a great respect for them, laying the blame for their behaviour on the neglect and abuses of the British and the bribery and "political schemes of the French".

Peter was then called before the State Assembly in Philadelphia to pass on any information he had acquired during his captivity. Shortly after, he enlisted in one of the army regiments established to combat the French and Indians in the colonial war. For three years he served as a soldier, rising to the rank of lieutenant and was involved in many engagements, in one of which his hand was badly wounded. Peter paints a grim picture of the British campaign, supplies of food and arms were hopelessly inadequate and soldiers were on occasion mutinous through pay being badly in arrears. He was present at the Battle of Fort Oswego, in 1756, where the British forces were compelled to surrender and was taken a prisoner of war by the French.

Return to Great Britain

After being marched to Quebec, Peter embarked as an exchange prisoner on a ship bound for Plymouth, where he arrived in November 1756. Some months later, Peter was discharged as being unfit for further service, due to a wound in his left hand. With only a small gratuity of six shillings, he set off to walk to his hometown of Aberdeen.

He arrived penniless in York, where he was fortunate enough to interest 'certain honourable and influential men' in his case. They assisted him in the publication of an account of his unusual adventures and experiences. The book was titled "French and Indian Cruelty, exemplified in the Life and various Vicissitudes of Fortune of Peter Williamson, who was carried off from Aberdeen in his Infancy, and sold as a slave in Pennsylvania." It gave remarkably good value for money, made excellent reading and created quite a stir in York. A thousand copies were sold and Peter made a net profit with which to continue his journey to Scotland.

On his travels northwards, he made some additional money by selling copies of his book and giving displays of Indian life: 'Armed to the teeth and painted like a Red Indian, he would enter a town, whooping and screeching until he had attracted a sufficiently large crowd. Then he would windmill his arms madly and give his impression of a war-dance.' At the end of the show, he would take up a collection and sell copies of his book.

Back in Scotland

In June 1758, Peter finally arrived in Aberdeen, where his exhibition of American Indian culture attracted great crowds and his book sold well. The details of his kidnapping horrified the Aberdeen public. The merchants and magistrates of Aberdeen also took note of the book, particularly the part that accused them of being involved in the kidnapping business, and Peter was charged with offering for sale a 'scurrilous and infamous libel upon the merchants and magistrates of the town'. The magistrates' own tribunal heard his case, so it was not difficult to secure a conviction: the magistrates being the aggrieved party as well as the judges. Copies of the book were seized and burned at the market-cross by the common-hangman. Peter was imprisoned until he signed a declaration that the account of his kidnapping was false, then he was fined ten shillings and banished from Aberdeen as a vagrant.

Peter made his way to Edinburgh, and found the city and its people much to his liking. The large hall in which the Scottish Parliament had met was then a meeting place associated with the adjoining law courts, and here Peter established a coffee-house that became a favorite meeting place of lawyers and their clients. The coffee-house consisted of 'three or four very small apartments, one within another; the partitions made of the thinnest materials; some of them even of brown paper'.

Robert Fergusson's poem, The Rising of the Session, described the lawyers departing for their summer break and devotes a verse to Peter's coffee-house:

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.

(Note: "Vacance" means vacation; "pigs", bottles; "toom", empty; "sucker bisket", sugar biscuit; "soom", swim)

Sues Aberdeen for slave trade

Peter sold copies of his book in the coffee-house and was encouraged by his lawyer customers to raise an action against the magistrates of Aberdeen. The case was heard in the Court of Session and the verdict was unanimous in Peter's favour. The Provost of Aberdeen, four Bailies and the Dean of Guild were ordered to pay a fine as compensation to Peter. His kidnapping was the best documented and, at the time, the most celebrated case of kidnapping. However, his enforced transportation and slavery were not exceptional as evidence of numerous other kidnappings emerged at the trial. The trade was at its briskest between 1740 and 1746, when more than 600 children from the Aberdeen area were transported to America. The evidence presented during the trial also detailed official corruption on an immense scale. Peter Williamson's final victory in court against the perpetrators of a practice that preyed on the poor and powerless was exceptional. Most victims being unable to return home, allowing the kidnapping trade to flourish for many years.

Peter then proceeded to raise an action for damages against the individual Bailies who had been personally responsible for his kidnapping. It was agreed that the matter should be decided by arbitration and the Sheriff-Substitute of Aberdeenshire, James Forbes, was appointed arbiter. James Forbes was best known for his convivial habits and, when he delayed his decision on the case until only 48 hours before the matter would return automatically to the jurisdiction of the Court of Session, both sides decided to speed up the process. The Sheriff-Substitute was bribed with vast amounts of food and drink at various taverns in Edinburgh over the following two days. He finally gave a verdict in favour of the kidnappers, after which he retired to bed 'very merry and jocose' and slept all the next day 'dead drunk and speechless'. The decree, which exonerated the kidnappers, was hurriedly drawn up and read aloud the following morning at the market-cross. The circumstances of the decision were brought to the attention of the Court of Session and Peter was able to produce evidence of the involvement of the bailie and his companions in his kidnapping. The court reversed the earlier decision and in December 1763, Peter was awarded damages with 100 guineas legal costs.

Business ventures

During these legal actions, Peter had also been busy in other areas. He had a lively and ingenious mind, and 'aided by the knowledge he had acquired in scenes more bustling than the Scottish Capital, he became a projector of schemes, locally new and unheard of, some of course visionary, but others practicable and likely to be generally useful'.

Tavern

He became proprietor of a famous tavern in Edinburgh's Old Parliament Close and, as a result of his earlier adventures, the sign over the tavern read: PETER WILLIAMSON, VINTNER FROM THE OTHER WORLD. Peter is described as being a 'robust, stout, athletic man and a great wag, of very jocular manners' and was a popular landlord. His occasional exhibitions, when he dressed as a Delaware Indian were also an attraction of considerable interest. A wooden figure of him in Indian dress stood as a signpost outside the tavern. The Edinburgh magistrates assembled at Peter's tavern for the 'deid chack', the dinner they took after attending a hanging. His flamboyant character even extended to the manner in which he signed his name with a flourish -- "P. Wm. son" -- with "son" lower down the page than "Wm.".

Street directory

In 1773, Peter compiled Edinburgh's first street directory. This pioneering work contained an 'alphabetical list of names and places of abode of the Members of the College of Justice, public and private gentlemen, merchants, and other eminent traders; mechanics, carriers, and all persons in public business. Where at one view, you have a plain direction, pointing out the streets, wynds, closes, lands, and other places of their residence in and about the metropolis'. The directory cost one shilling and Peter continued to publish it until 1796. His own directory places him in Edinburgh as follows:

  • 1773- Printing House, Dunbar's Close.
  • 1774- Printing House, Swan's Close, a little above the City Guard, north

side.

  • 1775- Entry to the Royal Exchange.
  • 1778- At the sign of the Lanthorn, Luckenbooths, South Side.
  • 1790- At his General Post Office, Luckenbooths.

The directory was a product of his new business venture, a printing-house in the Edinburgh's Luckenbooths. In 1769, he had brought a new portable printing press from London and taught himself the craft of printing. He also invented a portable printing press which was able to print two folio pages, 'with the greatest expedition and exactness', and he would travel with his press to country fairs giving 'exhibitions of the wonder of printing to the astonished rustics'. At the same time, he developed stamps and ink for marking linen and books 'which stands washing, boiling and bleaching, and is more regular and beautiful than any needlework.' Another of his inventions was an early example of a basket scythe which he described as 'being able to do more execution in a field of oats do in one day, and to better purpose, than it is the power of six shearers'.

The Scots Spy or Critical Observer

In 1776, he launched a weekly periodical, The Scots Spy or Critical Observer , which ran for a total of ten months. It was published every Friday and consisted of a mixture of local gossip and articles.

Penny Post

During the time that Peter ran the coffee-house, he was frequently asked to arrange the delivery of letters and he employed a man to deliver them for a small charge. This gave Peter the idea for one of his most successful ventures - a regular postal service throughout the city. The earliest information about this is an advertisement in the second edition of his Edinburgh Directory published in 1774: 'The Publisher takes this opportunity to acquaint the Public that he will always make it his study to dispatch all letters and parcels, not exceeding three pounds in weight, to any place within an English mile to the east, south and west of the cross of Edinburgh, and as far as South and North Leith, every hour through the day for one penny each letter and bundle.'

The main office for Peter's postal service was in the Luckenbooths and he appointed seventeen shopkeepers in different parts of the city as official receivers of letters. He employed four uniformed postmen, who wore on their hats the words Penny Post and were numbered 1, 4, 8 and 16, so that the business would seem much larger than it actually was. Peter's Penny Post was the first in Britain and he ran it for thirty years. In 1793, the Williamson Penny Post was integrated into the General Post Office and he received a pension for the goodwill of the business.

In Robert Fergusson's poem, Codicile to Robert Fergusson's Last Will, he mentions Peter's Penny Post:

To Williamson, and his resetters
Dispersing of the burial letters,
That they may pass with little cost
Fleet on the wings of penny-post.

Later life

In his latter days, Peter returned to his old business and kept a tavern at Gavinloch's Land in Edinburgh's Lawnmarket, where it is thought that he ultimately became 'addicted to drink'. He died on January 19, 1799, and was buried in an unmarked grave in the Old Calton Cemetery, about fifteen paces north-east of the Martyr's Monument. The Scot's Magazine wrote:

At Edinburgh, Mr. Peter Williamson, well known for his various adventures through life. He was kidnapped when a boy at Aberdeen, and sent to America, for which he afterwards recovered damages. He passed a considerable time among the Cherokees, and on his return to Edinburgh amused the public with a description of their manners and customs, and his adventures among them, assuming the dress of one of their chiefs, imitating the war whoop, &c. He had the merit of first instituting a Penny-post in Edinburgh, for which, when it was assumed by Government, he received a pension. He also was the first who published a Directory, so essentially useful in a large city.

This article was first published in 'Eccentric Edinburgh'(Moubray House Press, 1990) by JK Gillon.

References

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