In 1758 Peter Williamson appeared on the streets of Aberdeen, Scotland, dressed as a Native American and telling a remarkable tale. He claimed that as a young boy he had been kidnapped from the city and sold into slavery in America. In performances and in a printed narrative he peddled to his audiences, Williamson described his tribulations as an indentured servant, Indian captive, soldier, and prisoner of war. Aberdeen’s magistrates called him a liar and banished him from the city, but Williamson defended his story.
Separating fact from fiction, Timothy J. Shannon explains what Williamson’s tale says about how working people of eighteenth-century Britain, so often depicted as victims of empire, found ways to create lives and exploit opportunities within it. Exiled from Aberdeen, Williamson settled in Edinburgh, where he cultivated enduring celebrity as the self-proclaimed “king of the Indians.” His performances and publications capitalized on the curiosity the Seven Years’ War had ignited among the public for news and information about America and its native inhabitants. As a coffeehouse proprietor and printer, he gave audiences a plebeian perspective on Britain’s rise to imperial power in North America.
Indian Captive, Indian King is a history of empire from the bottom up, showing how Williamson’s American odyssey illuminates the real-life experiences of everyday people on the margins of the British Empire and how those experiences, when repackaged in travel narratives and captivity tales, shaped popular perceptions about the empire’s racial and cultural geography.
The compelling story of one man’s remarkable experiences both as a victim of imperial cruelty and as a beneficiary of imperial opportunities, Shannon’s book nicely illustrates the paradoxes of empire for Britons of the eighteenth century. This is a valuable contribution to the history of the British Atlantic world and the experience of empire by people on both sides of the Atlantic.
Born in poverty, thrust into servitude, and set adrift in the Atlantic, Peter Williamson seemed destined for a short and anonymous life. Against all odds, he achieved modest fame and prosperity and lived to a ripe old age. In this extraordinary book, Shannon painstakingly separates fact from fiction as he reconstructs a life both exemplary and exceptional and illuminates the contours of the eighteenth-century British Atlantic world.
In a feat of historical detection, Shannon has brilliantly reconstructed the life of Peter Williamson, a Scotsman who achieved fame on both sides of the Atlantic for his misadventures and self-promotion. The result is a profound work that has much to tell us about identity and empire during the eighteenth-century.
In this masterpiece of historical sleuthing, Shannon reconstructs Peter Williamson’s astounding odyssey throughout the eighteenth-century Atlantic World—a moving and humane portrait of an ordinary person who lived an extraordinary life.
Peter Williamson was an ordinary man who told extraordinary tales—some of them truthful—about his adventures in the eighteenth-century British Empire. Shannon masterfully sorts out the transatlantic tangle of class and race, performance and retribution, that created this fascinating character. Indian Captive, Indian King is must reading for those who want to understand the era.
Williamson is a compelling character, but what makes this book so valuable is Shannon’s painstaking, careful analysis as he attempts to separate fact from fiction…This is one of those rare books that will be enjoyed by and serve a variety of readers, including those interested in the British Empire and Atlantic world history.
- 2019, Winner of the The Frank Watson Book Prize
- 360 pages
- 6-1/8 x 9-1/4 inches
- Harvard University Press
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