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Aberdeen Harbour
Aberdeen Harbour

Peter Williamson, also known as Indian Peter, lived from 1730 to 1799. He was kidnapped into slavery and later sued officials in Aberdeen for slave trading. The wider picture in Scotland at the time is set out in our Historical Timeline.

Peter Williamson was born on his parent's croft near Aboyne in Aberdeenshire and brought up by an aunt in Aberdeen. In 1743 at the age of 13 he was kidnapped and taken as a slave, to Philadelphia, where he was sold for a period of seven years to a planter, Hugh Wilson, who had himself been kidnapped as a child. Hugh Wilson died in 1750 as Williamson's period of indenture was coming to an end, and left his possessions to him. Williamson remained in North America, and in 1754 married the daughter of a wealthy planter, who came with a dowry of 200 acres of land in Pennsylvania.

At the time Pennsylvania was on the front line of the French and Indian War, in which the British army fought against the French army and their native Indian supporters. On 2 October 1754, Indians attacked Williamson's farm and took him prisoner. After three months in captivity, he made his escape, only to find his wife had died during his absence. William then joined the British army in Pennsylvania, fighting with them for two years and rising to the rank of lieutenant. At the Battle of Fort Oswego in August 1756 he was captured by the French and became a prisoner of war. He was subsequently marched to Quebec, and then put on a ship to England as part of a prisoner exchange. On arrival in Plymouth he was declared unfit for further service because of a hand wound, given six shillings, and discharged from the army.

Williamson then set out to walk back to Aberdeen. In York he was able to interest a publisher in an account of his adventures, which appeared under the title, "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." Sales of the book provided Williamson with sufficient income to return to Aberdeen. Here, however, the merchants and magistrates, who he claimed in his book to be in league with the kidnappers, imprisoned him until he signed a declaration that his accusations were false. They also publicly burned any copies of his book they could get their hands on.

On his release, Williamson made his way to Edinburgh where he sold copies of his book in the coffee houses around the law courts. This raised sufficient interest to allow Williamson to sue a number of Aberdeen officials for their part in his kidnapping. In December 1763, Peter was awarded damages and legal costs at the Court of Session in Edinburgh. The case exposed the huge scandal of children being sold into slavery in the New World, and the degree of corruption endemic at the time in Aberdeen. It emerged that as many as 600 of the city's children had been kidnapped and sold into slavery between 1740 and 1746 alone.

Williamson used his legal winnings to finance a tavern in Edinburgh's Old Parliament Close. Then, in 1773, he compiled Edinburgh's first street directory, which he printed in a printing-house he had established in 1769. In 1776, he launched a weekly journal, The Scots Spy or Critical Observer which ran for 10 months. His most successful venture was the Williamson Penny Post he launched in 1774. For 30 years this carried letters and packages across an area within an English mile of the centre of Edinburgh. He was eventually bought out by the General Post Office in return for a pension. Williamson remained a tavern keeper in the Lawnmarket until late in life, and died in 1799, having lived what must be one of the more eventful lives of the century.

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