'Indian Captive, Indian King, Peter Williamson in America and Britain' by Timothy J Shannon (Harvard University Press)
This is a remarkable book about an even more remarkable Scotsman. In June 1758, the Aboyne-born Williamson appeared in the streets of Aberdeen, dressed in the full regalia of a native American chief, ready and eager to tell the story of how, as a young boy in Aberdeen, he had been kidnapped and sold into slavery in America. In the book he had written describing his experiences – copies of which he had with him to hawk in the streets – he tells of his fate as an indentured servant in Pennsylvania; his becoming a soldier in the seven years' war; his capture and torture by the Indian allies of the French; and his experience as a French prisoner-of-war.
Appalled above all by Williamson's insistence that his kidnapping had been made with the full cognisance of the city's merchants, within days the local magistrates had him arrested and imprisoned. They dismissed his whole story as nothing but lies, and banished him from the city.
The book Williamson had written in the months after his arrival back in the United Kingdom and discharge from the army in 1757, was called 'French and Indian Cruelty.' Only 100 pages long, it was a work of popular literature, a version of the well-established captivity narrative, designed above all to appeal to and entertain a mass audience. The first edition appeared in York in 1757, where Williamson as a strolling player was staging his act as an Indian chief. After his banishment from Aberdeen, a second edition appeared in York in 1758. Subsequent editions were issued in Glasgow (1758), London (1759), Edinburgh (1762), and Dublin (1766). In every case, these editions coincided with Williamson appearing and performing in his Indian costume. But his book long outlived Williamson: versions of it appeared in no fewer than 11 editions in the 19th century.
Professor Shannon's book consists of a meticulous analysis of the story 'French and Indian Cruelty' purports to tell. His is a rigorously academic book, but one written in the very best tradition of academic work which can appeal to the general reader. It is a work of literary detection as exciting and absorbing as any thriller. There is none of the endless theorising which is the bane of so much academic writing today.
Instead, there is shrewd and careful analysis of all the evidence available to evaluate the central elements of the story Williamson tells: his 'kidnapping', his life in Pennsylvania, his Indian 'captivity', his experience as a soldier in the seven years' war, and his return to the United Kingdom and banishment from Aberdeen. Remember the city magistrates dismissed Williamson's tale as nothing but a pack of lies. Shannon invites the reader to join him in determining whether they were right or wrong.
How exactly is the modern scholar able to do this? Largely as a result of Peter Williamson's own behaviour. Banished from Aberdeen, he soon settled in Edinburgh. Clearly making a good living from the income from his performances and the sale of his popular book, in 1760 in the city's High Street he opened the significantly named American Coffee Shop, where he no doubt continued to perform and sell more copies.
More significantly still, in terms of the existence of Shannon's book, in January 1760, Williamson launched a lawsuit against the city magistrates of Aberdeen. In the course of his book, Shannon frequently reminds us that the events he is describing are occurring in the heyday of the Scottish Enlightenment. Yet as he sees it, it is the Scottish Enlightenment seen from the bottom-up rather than the top-down. He is right to do so.
Williamson was the son of a tenant-farmer in Aberdeenshire. He had arrived back in the United Kingdom as a penniless ex-soldier. He had no social status or wealthy supporters. Yet here he is able to raise an action in the Court of Session, Scotland's highest civil court, against the ruling magistrates of one of Scotland's major cities. It is impossible to believe that a person with his background could have been able to do as much even a single generation earlier.
Williamson proved to be a formidable legal adversary. He went about preparing his case by accumulating a large body of testimonies from witnesses concerning his identity and the events surrounding his transportation across the Atlantic in a vessel called the Planter in 1743. Then there are further depositions about his joining the British army and aspects of his service. All this material survives in the court records, and it enables Professor Shannon to build a detailed and convincing account of what actually went on in Williamson's life.
He concludes that while it was true that Aberdeen merchants were regularly involved in illegally transporting young people as indentured servants to the American colonies, Williamson exaggerates when he claims he was 'kidnapped' on board the Planter. Then his claim in the early editions of his book – that he was only eight years old when dispatched to Pennsylvania – is certainly false. All the evidence suggests that he would have been 13 or 14.
His service in the British army in America, leading up to his capture by the French, is well-documented, and Shannon regards this as the most reliable section of the book. But, crucially, various other elements in Williamson's account of his American experience just do not add up, and are almost certainly pure fiction. Thus most importantly of all, Shannon dismisses the writer's account of his Indian 'captivity' as 'a bald-faced lie' – and the evidence he provides in support of this conclusion is totally convincing.
'French and Indian Cruelty' turns out to be a mixture of truth and falsehood. Williamson did not hesitate to pretend that he himself had witnessed and suffered the horrific cruelties that native Americans were regularly accused of perpetrating during the seven years' war: the scalping of the dead and alive, the burning at the stake, and other forms of torture. He clearly knew full well that this was the kind of material that would make his book a bestseller. And he was right.
It's worth remembering that, here in the middle of the 18th century, Williamson was helping to establish what for the following two centuries would become the stereotypical image of those who in my childhood we still called 'Red Indians' – the war cries, war dances, tomahawks, scalping knives, moccasins, powwows, wampum, headdresses, and so on.
However, the veracity of 'French and Indian Cruelty' was not at issue in the case Williamson had raised over his treatment by the Aberdeen magistrates. It finally came before the Court of Session in January 1762. The presiding judge was none other than Henry Home, Lord Kames, that major contributor to the Scottish Enlightenment. On 2 February, Kames ruled in Williamson's favour, and ordered the Aberdeen magistrates to pay him £100 in damages and also meet his legal expenses. Encouraged by this success, Williamson soon launched a second lawsuit, this time suing the Aberdeen merchants involved in the voyage of the Planter and seeking £1,000 in damages. This case dragged on for several years but in 1768 the Court of Session once again ruled in Williamson's favour, awarding him £200 in damages.
Relaxing in what Robert Fergusson in one of his poems calls 'Indian Peter's coffee-room' – and which James Boswell records visiting in December 1774 – Peter Williamson must have felt very much the Indian king.