Imagine for a moment that you are a relatively small nation, with a declining economy, tiny military capabilities and is overshadowed by your huge neighbour. Everyone around you is building grand colonies, enjoying a huge piece of that sweet West Indies trade pie. Their exports and imports are booming, gold pouring in and their power is growing. Of course you would want to join in on that, who would not? After all, it is not that hard, a couple of ships, a bunch of settlers and off you go. And that is exactly what Scotland tried to do back in 17th century.
The whole Darien scheme was a master plan hatched by a very successful and already quite wealthy Scotsman, William Paterson. He envisioned a free port on the Isthmus of Darien, which is now a part of Panama, a very thin strip of land between the two American continents that would connect all trade between Atlantic and Pacific oceans, and therefore be a link between Europe and the Far East. For that purpose a new trading company was opened, the Company of Scotland Trading to Africa and the Indies, or as it also was called, the Scottish Darien Company.
This new endeavour would need a lot of money, and at first the Company of Scotland had a financial support from the English and Dutch. Sadly it did not work out, with a little bit of pressure from the East India Company, as they were afraid to lose their trade monopoly, and a lot of pressure from Spain, as they considered the Isthmus of Darien to be part of their territory, the English and Dutch decided to pull out. The Scots were left alone, but with some persuasion and colourful promises from William Paterson, they managed to raise about £500,000. That was a huge sum, nearly half of the national capital, drawing money pretty much out of every Scottish household. But it was done and it was time to set off.
On July 1698, five ships, Saint Andrew, Caledonia, Unicorn, Dolphin, and Endeavour, carrying around 1300 pioneers, set sail to the promised land and riches. The trip was rough, as many ships were overcrowded, but on 2nd of November, the fleet finally arrived at its destination. The colonists did not lose a moment, they called their new home “Caledonia”, quickly built a fort near the harbour, with 50 cannons in it, and constructed a watchhouse for extra security.
With all that done, the next thing the Scots did was to build a proper settlement, which they unimaginatively named New Edinburgh. In the beginning everything was going quite well, huts were built, land was cleared for planting crops and the harbour was well secured for any trading ships that wanted to drop by. But then summer rolled in, bringing with it malaria, yellow fever and heat that turned most of the food stock into a bacteria colony. People started to get sick and perish and, again thanks to the Spanish Empire and English unwillingness to anger her, there was no relief from the local traders or other colonies. Only local Indians pitied the poor settlers and brought fruits as gifts, but it was badly distributed by the fragment and corrupted leadership, and barely any of it reached the hungry and desperate mouths.
In July 1699, the colony was finally abandoned. Only 300 out of 1300 settlers set sail back home, among the dead were William Paterson’s wife and a child. When they finally reached the shores of Scotland, they were met with hostility and many thought of them as a disgrace to the country.
Some would think that the story should end here, but it does not. Before the first expedition could make it home and tell their disastrous tale, a second expedition set off for New Edinburgh. On 30 November of 1699, four more ships, The Rising Sun, The Duke of Hamilton, Hope of Bo’ness and Hope, carrying over 1000 new settlers, left Scotland, made their way across the ocean and ended up at the forsaken colony.
They tried to rebuild, but soon were cursed by the same plagues that devastated the first expedition. Many thought that things could not get any worse, but then the Spanish fleet arrived, telling the Scots to pack up and quit. They besieged the fort, and for the next month the both sides died from disease and fever. Finally, after some negotiation, the Scots were allowed to leave and even to keep their useless guns. Only few made it home.
The dream to own a little colony on the Isthmus of Darien died together with more than 2000 settlers. Scotland’s economy was devastated and most of its nobles impoverished. After the Darien fiasco many Scots agreed that the only way to gain access to lucrative international trade was through England, and in 1707 the Acts of Union was sighted, and The Kingdom of Great Britain was formed.
For more information on this topic check out these sites: