The Douglas Archives

A collection of historical and genalogical records

Among the more harrowing tales in the Douglas Archives are the references to indentured servants, often children.

Image used for illustration - it is not being suggested that these children were slaves.

The main money-making crops in colonial Georgia were tobacco, indigo and rice, all of which required intensive manual labour. Indentured servitude became one of the solutions to the need for labourers. The poor of England and other nations could arrange for passage to Georgia by signing a contract of indenture to a master for a number of years, usually four to seven. While some indentured servants received fair treatment, others had cruel masters who demanded hard physical labour, fed their servants insufficiently and beat them for any number of infractions. As indentured servants, women experienced rape by their masters or others. As punishment for becoming pregnant, their labour terms were extended.

Georgia was not the only state to receive 'white slaves', and, indeed, many were conveyed to the West Indies. Among them was a boy aged 15 from Aberdeen.

We know nothing about Robert Douglas, save that he was '"a poor lad" who arrived in Jamaica in June 1721.

But we do know a bit about boys from Aberdeen being sold into slavery from the revelations of Peter Williamson who, in January 1743, fell victim to the trade when he was kidnapped while playing on the quay at Aberdeen 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. He returned to Scotland and prosecuted those responsible.

A trade in kidnapped servants allegedly flourished in Aberdeen, Scotland, during the 1700s, spiriting away hundreds of adults and children into indentured labour in the American colonies. The person responsible for exposing this trade was its most famous victim, Peter Williamson, a native of Aberdeenshire who published “A Discourse on Kidnapping” in 1758 and successfully sued the magistrates and merchants he considered responsible for his abduction.

Williamson was a witness of limited credibility, and testimony recorded for his lawsuits exposed inconsistencies in his story. Nevertheless, his prolonged legal battle generated an extensive archive of materials that makes it possible to reconstruct Aberdeen's experience within the broader context of the Atlantic servant trade. These sources reveal the spectrum of consent and coercion involved in recruiting adults and children for the servant trade, as well as differing perspectives on the legality of the trade, its utility as a form of poor relief, and the age of consent for entering into an indenture.

Williamson's depiction of Aberdeen's servant trade was hyperbolic and self-serving, but his lawsuits exposed the operations of a business that preyed upon Aberdeenshire's most vulnerable inhabitants at a time when they had few other options for improving their lot.

The 'Establishment' has created the misnomer of “indentured servitude” to explain away and minimize the fact of white slavery. But bound Whites in early Americacalled themselves slaves. Nine-tenths of the White slavery in America was conducted without indentures of any kind but according to the so-called “custom of the country,” as it was known, which was lifetime slavery administered by the white slave merchants themselves.

From the mid-1600s, the demand for labour in Britain's colonies led to the illegal emigration of hundreds of children through their "spiriting", or kidnapping, a practice particularly associated with Scotland. This ended in 1757 after a number of Aberdeen businessmen and magistrates were exposed for their involvement in the trade.

The Virginian Maid's Lament
Hearken, and I'll tell
You a story that befell
In the lands of Virginia-O
How a pretty maid
For a slave she was betray'd
And O but I'm weary, weary O!

Seven lang years I serv'd
To Captain Welsh, a laird
In the lands of Virginia-O
And he so cruelly
Sold me to Madam Guy
And O but I'm weary, weary O!

We are yoked to a plough
And wearied sair enough
In the lands of Virginia-O
With the yoke upon our neck
Till our hearts are like to break
And O but I'm weary, weary O!

When we're called home to meat
There's little there to eat
In the lands of Virginia-O
We're whipt at every meal
And our backs they never heal
And O but I'm weary, weary Oh!

When our madam she does walk
We must all be at her back
In the lands of Virginia-O
When our baby it does weep
We must lull it o'er asleep
And O but I'm weary, weary O!

At mid time of the day
When our master goes to play
In the lands of Virginia-O
Our factor stands near by
With his rod below his thigh
And O but I'm weary, weary O!

But if I had the chance
Fair Scotland to advance
From the lands of Virginia-O
Never more should I
Be a slave to Madam Guy
And O but I'm weary, weary O!

A stone-built house on the Green, sometimes referred to as a ‘barn’ was, by repute, associated with one of the darkest phases in Aberdeen’s history.

Press gangs in the hire of local merchants roamed the streets, seizing 'by force such boys as seemed proper subjects for the slave trade.' Children were driven in flocks through the town and confined for shipment in barns. So flagrant was the practice that people in the countryside about Aberdeen avoided bringing children into the City for fear they might be stolen.

Ships left Aberdeen for America infrequently and so the children had to be stored somewhere. Walter Cochran, town clerk depute, kept records showing how much money was spent in holding and shipping these children compared with what was made from selling them (normally at £16 per head). It was said that the merchants employed a piper to play outside the Barnhouse to drown out the noise of the shrieking and crying children.

We don't know what became of Robert, but we can assume that he had a hard life. However, there is also a possibility that he 'made good'. We just don't know.

Further reading:

* Douglas  Indentured servants

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Comment by William Douglas on May 1, 2022 at 11:44

Williamson ended his years in Edinburgh, where he introduced a the first Directory, and the first postal service, with post offices - a story worth reading: 

Comment by William Douglas on October 17, 2020 at 17:44

Fletcher of Salton describes the condition of the country after the Civil War
with the 200,000 people left to beg, "some sorners," the dread of isolated cottages, who
took food by force, robbed children of their clothes and the money they carried to pay the fees on their way to school, and even kidnapped children to be sold to merchant captains for slaves
in the American plantations. Grahame, in his Social State of Scotland, says that this continued much later; and that the widow of a Highland laird, who notoriously increased his income in this way, was presented to George IV. when he visited Edinburgh in 1821. "Outed" Episcopalian ministers and their families swelled the applicants for relief. The
kidnapping is corroborated by an advertisement in the New York Gazette, May 1, 1774 :—
"Servants just arrived from Scotland to be sold on board the Covunerce, Capt. Fergusson
master, now lying at the Ferry Stairs, among which are a number of weavers, taylors, blacksmiths, nailors, shoemakers, butchers, hatters, and spinsters, fourteen to thirty-five years of age. For terms apply to Henry White or said Master.
Source:  History of the Johnstones

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