EDINBURGH EXPERT WALKING TOURS - BLOG
On 12 April 1700 one of the most expensive failures in Scottish history was finally brought to a close, as the surviving members of an expedition to settle a Scottish colony on the isthmus of Panama in South America left that continent to return to their native lands.
The Darien project, as it was known, had cost over £400,000 (equivalent to over 20% of Scotland's wealth at the time), led to the deaths over 2,000 people, and left the entire nation state politically humiliated in the eyes of England. It remains a major turning point in Scotland's troubled relationship with England, and the aftermath of the collapse of the Darien Company would cast shockwaves rippling through Scottish society for the next century.
So what was Darien, how did it go so terribly wrong, and what happened afterwards? I'm so glad you asked!
Seventeenth-century Scotland was a very different place from the modern imagery of a nation bursting with confidence and culture.
The so-called 'Glorious Revolution' which led to the crushing defeat of Scots forces at the Battle of Culloden, had broken much of the traditional clan structures of the Highlands.
As a broadly agricultural economy, Scotland's population had been hit badly with a spate of poor harvests, and the already limited export market with Europe had been badly affected by famines which had swept across the Nordic countries.
Relations with England were poor, and the English Civil War and Wars of the Three Kingdoms had weakened the people and military might of Scotland, leaving the whole country in a state of restless depression. A political union with England had been suggested, but forces within Scotland felt that bolstering the Scots' financial independence with stronger export links to overseas markets would serve the country better without compromising its integrity as a self-governing nation.
There were several major trade routes around the globe at that time, but there was one major issue that any international trading nation had yet to surmount: there was no overland link between the Pacific and the Atlantic Oceans, forcing ships to make a long detour around the bottom of South America.
So a plan was suggested by an enterprising Scotsman named William Paterson - who had previously helped to established the Bank of England - to seek to establish a colony on the north-east coast of Panama, and create a passage across the South American continent to provide a service route that could bring tremendous financial benefit to the people who facilitated it. (The construction of the Panama Canal in the twentieth century served essentially the same purpose.)
The Company of Scotland was established in 1695, and charged with raising funds from a variety of backers from across Europe to support the project. Over £400,000 was generated in just a few weeks, equivalent to a fifth of all the wealth in Scotland at the time, and men were enlisted to sail to Panama and be the first colonists to settle Scotland's presence overseas.
A flotilla of five ships flying the Company of Scotland flag sailed from the port of Leith in July 1698, with a total of around 1,200 people aboard. In order not to raise suspicion with English maritime authorities, instead of sailing south and into the Atlantic via the English Channel they instead sailed north, traversing the seas around the northern coasts of Scotland, and out into the North Atlantic above Ireland. They crossed the ocean and arrived in Panama at an area called Darien, landing on 2 November 1698.
Their problems began almost immediately. The settlement that they established - named New Edinburgh - was heavily fortified, with over 50 cannons that had been shipped from Edinburgh, but it had no regular supply of fresh drinking water. The land that they were clearing in order to be able to plant crops was unsuitable for cultivation, and the local communities - to whom the Scots believed they could sell good and trinkets, in order to establish relationships and raise some cash - didn't want what the settlers were selling.
Despite all this, and with an expectation that things would improve, a letter was dispatched back to Scotland trumpeting the early success of the venture, and two further ships with another 300 people were dispatched from Scotland bearing fresh supplies and new colonists with new enthusiasm.
But conditions in New Edinburgh had worsened. As winter turned to spring of 1699, malaria spread rapidly among the new colonists, killing as many as ten people a day by the summer. Food supplies were running short, tensions in the camp were high, and Dutch and English colonies to the north and south had been instructed by their governments not to help to the Scots for fear of upsetting the Spanish, who operated valuable silver mines in the area.
In July 1699, New Edinburgh was summarily abandoned by those who had survived this far. One ship of survivors returned to Scotland to carry news of the expeditions failure, while two more ships sailed north to the relatively small port town (at that time) of New York, on the east coast of America.
But back in Scotland, not yet having received news of the failure of the initial settlers, four more ships carrying another 1,000 settlers had already departed for New Edinburgh! They arrived to the broken and abandoned settlement in November 1699. Thomas Drummond, one of the original settlers who had sailed to New York, had returned to Darien with a fully loaded supply ship, but the new arrivals were devastated to not find a thriving, fully settled town, and were instead being asked to build one again from scratch.
Tensions with the local communities were worse than ever, with Spanish settlers turning against their Caledonian neighbours. A series of sieges and conflicts resulted in further deaths, disease spread unabated, and by the time the Scots finally abandoned their cause in April 1700 just a few hundred of the over 2,500 settlers who had set out on the expeditions were left alive.
In the aftermath of this failure, Scotland was bankrupted and many of the individuals who had invested heavily in the venture had their reputations broken and their business relationships destroyed.
Seeking financial support to overcome the failure of the Darien project, the Scottish government approached the English government to request a financial loan to bail them out. England's response was that a loan would be offered, but that it would be to everyone's advantage if it wasn't a transfer of money between two separately trading nations, but between two partners in a joint enterprise....
Finally, the political union that had seemed so unlikely and unwelcome just a few years before now sounded like the only way the Scots could survive the effects of their failure. The Scottish parliament debated and ratified the terms of the deal, and on 1 May 1707 the United Kingdom officially came into being. One of the terms of the Act of Union of 1707 was a financial payment of over £398,000 to Scotland to help ease its burden on the English economy.
And so the union between Scotland and England was finally agreed, with many lords and nobles - who were humiliated and facing financial ruin after their involvement in Darien - given gifts of land in England to sweeten their disposition to signing away Scots independence.
Today the Darien expedition is something of a shadow on Scottish history, a failure of enterprise and opportunity that led eventually to national downfall. Of course, for many the union with England was (and remains) a vital and valuable partnership, but it seems unfortunate that it wasn't as a result of celebration and shared vision, but came on the back of terrible national humiliation for Scotland. Which may explain why some still see the relationship between the two countries as an uneasy and unequal pairing.
Find out more about Scotland's rich history with my private Edinburgh walking tours!
Edinburgh Expert Walking Tours is run by Gareth, an adopted native of Edinburgh, with over 20 years experience of living and working in the city...
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