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Uncommon Sense

By oieahc · August 03, 2017

It started with a simple question

WMQ 7 min read

Today’s post is from Tim Shannon, whose article “A ‘wicked commerce’: Consent, Coercion, and Kidnapping in Aberdeen’s Servant Trade” appears in the July 2017 issue of the William and Mary Quarterly

This article began with a simple question: was Peter Williamson’s story of his childhood abduction true?  The fact that he won two court cases related to his allegations would seem to have settled the matter, at least in the eyes of the law. However, even a cursory reading of his autobiographical narrative and the court testimony reveals discrepancies in his story, and his fabrication of an Indian captivity did little to improve his credibility during his lifetime or afterward. Why then did the Scottish Court of Session and subsequent historians believe him?

Closely related to that question was another: how did Williamson’s tale of personal misfortune transform into an exposé of a “kidnapping trade” in Aberdeen?  Factual and fictional stories of youths kidnapped into American servitude circulated widely in eighteenth-century Britain, but Williamson’s story was different from those other examples in that he described this practice as a sort of cottage industry in Aberdeen, a business openly run by respectable people who preyed upon the poor and vulnerable. It seemed to me that antiquarians and historians had been too willing to take Williamson at his word in this regard, even though there was little other contemporary evidence in the press, courts, or customs records to support his claims.

This article’s original title, “A ‘Wicked Commerce’: An Inquiry into the Aberdeen Kidnapping Trade” reflected my original forensic purpose. Although I ultimately took one reader’s suggestion and changed the subtitle, I still like the original version’s emphasis on “inquiry.”  I was playing the historian-as-detective, looking into something that did not seem quite right. My initial conclusion was that Aberdeen’s “kidnapping trade” was more a product of Williamson’s clever self-promotion than historical fact.

Subjecting my detective work to the William and Mary Quarterly’s readers led to a broadening of the article’s scope and purpose. The most widely shared criticism among the readers was that I did not do enough to place what happened to Williamson within the broader context of Britain’s long involvement with the colonial servant trade. The readers sent me back to the rich historiography on the servant trade (much of it generated during the social history boom of the late 1970s and early 1980s) to reconsider what happened in Williamson’s Aberdeen in light of how the servant trade operated in London, Bristol, and Liverpool. The readers also challenged me to address more squarely the issues of age and consent: it was easy enough for me to debunk Williamson’s tale of being abducted as an eight year old off the Aberdeen quay, but why then did his age figure so prominently in Lord Kames’s application of the Transportation Act to his case?  How and why did adolescents get caught up in Aberdeen’s servant trade, if they were not being snatched off the streets in the manner described by Williamson?

Answering these questions led me back to my original sources and resulted in a much more sophisticated analysis of them (at least, that’s my story, and I am sticking to it). In response to the readers’ criticisms, I devoted more attention in the revision process to parsing how parents, local merchants, and national authorities interpreted the legality of using the servant trade as a form of poor relief. There was no universal agreement among these groups about the age at which a child could consent to an overseas indenture. For parents, the issue hinged on the usurpation of their custodial rights by merchants, who defended their recruitment of youths by citing the parents’ inability to care for their children. For the Court of Session, the issue had less to do with the local tug-of-war going on in Aberdeen between parents and merchants than the legal precedent established by the Transportation Act, which set 15 as the minimum age for sending paupers and orphans into colonial servitude. Ultimately, my argument became less about Williamson’s alleged abduction and more about clashing perspectives on the acceptability of exporting poor youths into the colonial labor force, whether they consented to it or not.

I hope readers find the article an interesting and worthwhile investigation of the eighteenth-century servant trade. Those who want to learn more about Williamson’s remarkable and multifaceted life can look forward to the publication of my book Indian Captive, Indian King: Peter Williamson in America and Britain in early 2018.


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