A 'Wicked Commerce': Consent, Coercion, and Kidnapping in Aberdeen's Servant Trade

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A trade in kidnapped servants allegedly flourished in Aberdeen, Scotland, during the 1740s, spiriting away hundreds of adults and children into indentured labor 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.


Original version available from the publisher at https://oieahc.wm.edu/wmq/browse_toc.cfm

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