Sophia Dorothea of Celle- The Lady in the Tower

Sophia Dorothea Photo Credit- Wikipedia

Born the only child of the Duke George William of Brunswick-Lüneburg in 1666, Sophia Dorothea was illegitimate.  Her mother was the Duke’s long standing mistress, Éléonore Marie d’Esmier d’Olbreuse, an exiled French Protestant aristocrat.  They weren’t even supposed to be together, and Sophia Dorothea was not supposed to exist.

George William was supposed to marry Princess Sophia, daughter of the Palatine King of Bohemia (For more on her, please see this post:  George William was so repulsed by the “mannish” Sophia, he traded his claim to the duchy of Hanover to his brother, Ernst Augustus, so he’d take her off his hands.  Item:  If you look at her picture, she’s actually quite pretty, but there is no accounting for taste.  George William also agreed not to marry or have any heirs because along with being cousins, George William and Ernst’s children would be rivals for the throne of England.  No one consulted Princess Sophia as she was supposedly in love with George William and wasn’t too thrilled with his brother, who was reported to have a terrible temper.  All was fine until George William met Éléonore and fell head over heels with the beautiful French woman.  Eventually, the Duke and Éléonore were legally married and Sophia Dorothea was retroactively legitimized without protest from Ernst and his wife because they had plenty of sons.  

Sophia grew into a lovely young woman with thick dark hair, an ivory complexion and sparkling eyes.  Sophia was said to be skilled at “womanly pursuits” such as sewing, dancing and music, and was quite witty.  As a result, Sophia fielded offers from the future King of Denmark and the Duke of Wolfenbüttel, who was extremely handsome.  However, it seemed advantageous to consolidate the claims by marrying the cousins.  Electress Sophia hated her sister-in-law because she stole her man, and hated her niece by proxy.  However, she was onboard with this plan and talked George William into breaking off the engagement with the Duke of Wolfenbüttel.  Electress Sophia presented her niece with a miniature of her future husband, George Ludwig.  Sophia Dorothea pitched the thing into a wall screaming, “I will not marry the pig snout!” and proceeded to scream and sob.  Not a good start.  The first time she met George, she fell into her mother’s arms in a faint.  Same when she first met her future mother-in-law.  Things did not improve from there.

Despite Sophia’s protests, she was forced into the marriage.  George Ludwig and Sophia Dorothea were married in the Chapel of Celle Castle.  The couple lived at the Leine Palace in Hanover, and everyone hated poor Sophia Dorothea.  She was constantly reprimanded for a lack of court etiquette, and loud violent arguments were often heard from their chambers.  George was described as not only ugly, but rude, aggressive and dumb as a brick.  He instantly went off with his mistresses when he wasn’t yelling at his wife.  Electress Sophia was especially cruel to the young couple and was only happy to have Sophia Dorothea for her large dowry payments.  She wrote to her niece, Elizabeth Charlotte:

George Ludwig, Hereditary Prince of Brunswick-Lüneburg in 1680; Photo Credit – Wikipedia

“One hundred thousand thalers a year is a goodly sum to pocket, without speaking of a pretty wife, who will find a match in my son George Louis, the most pigheaded, stubborn boy who ever lived, who has round his brains such a thick crust that I defy any man or woman ever to discover what is in them. He does not care much for the match itself, but one hundred thousand thalers a year have tempted him as they would have tempted anybody else.”  

So they were basically in it for the money.  Nice.

Sophia Dorothea was terribly unhappy, but did her duty giving birth to the needed son an heir, the future George II in 1683, and a daughter, Sophia Dorothea in 1686.  The relationship did not improve at all.  George’s affairs got more public, and carried on with two women as once.   Sophia von Kielmansegg was the married daughter of his father’s mistress, and quite possibly George’s half sister, and was enormously fat.  Later, when George came to England she was nicknamed “the Elephant”.  The other was Ehrengard Melusine von Der Schulenburg, who was notoriously skeletal, and nicknamed by English “the Maypole”.  People were shocked that they were outstandingly ugly.  Because she had given them an heir, Sophia’s in laws backed off and things were almost cordial.  They actually stepped in and asked George to cool it with the mistresses.  He refused, and Sophia’s relationship with George got worse.  In one notable incident at their daughter’s christening, George nearly strangled his wife in public.  He was known to hit her on occasion as well.  What a prince.

Sophia was lonely and sad, and in that state she turned to an old friend for comfort.  Swedish Count Philipp Christoph von Königsmark met Sophia when she was sixteen and first married to George in Celle.  He left Germany and became a favorite of Charles II, and a notable soldier and lover.  He returned to Celle five years later, and found the lovely Sophia ripe for romance.  They wrote each other’s names on palace windows.  They exchanged love letters, where Philipp praised her sexy knees.  This was apparently a compliment.  He also wrote he longed to “kiss that little place which has given me so much pleasure.”  I’m pretty sure he wasn’t talking about her knees.  It was a full blown affair complete with secret codes, clandestine meetings and secret go betweens.  However, Sophia’s father in law, Elector Ernst Augustus, got wind of the scandalous correspondence, possibly from his mistress Countess Platen, who was also the mother of George’s mistress “the Elephant”.  Philipp was exiled and got a new post with the Elector of Saxony.  Apparently, he couldn’t keep his mouth shut and went bragging he’d had George’s wife as one his many conquest.  The rumors reached the ears of George’s other mistress, “the Maypole”, Ehrengard Melusine von der Schulenberg.  She ran and tattled what she heard to George, and to say he was not happy was an understatement.

Philip Christoph von Königsmarck; Photo Credit – Wikipedia

George confronted his wife with evidence of her affair.  She was not about to be cowed and cast his own infidelity up to him.  The argument turned violent and George threw himself on Sophia and began choking her and pulling out her hair.  She was only saved when their attendants pulled him off, but was left with purple bruises.   Sophia resolved she could not stay with such a man.  She and Philipp attempted to elope.  Their plans were foiled when Countess Platen, stuck her nose in again.  Things went swiftly south from there.  On July 2, 1694, Philipp disappeared.  It is thought he was at Leine Castle to spring Sophia and from there escape.  The legend goes that they tried to arrest Philipp, but as he was an excellent soldier and expert swordsman he got the better of the guards.  One guard was wounded, but they eventually overcame him through numbers and Philipp was killed.  Supposedly his body was covered in quicklime and buried under the bloodstained floor boards of Leine Castle.  Supposedly, several guards and the Countess Platen confessed to his death on their deathbeds.  Strangely, there was a skeleton found under the floorboards at Leine Castle in August 2016.  Analysis by researchers at Lund University indicate the body is centuries old.  The university is attempting to extract DNA from the bones to compare with samples from Philipp’s living relatives.

Whatever happened to Philipp, he was gone and Sophia was alone and under house arrest in hysterics. On December 28, 1694, a tribunal of judges and Lutheran Church officials was declared in favor of George.  What else?  Sophia was convicted of “malicious desertion”, and was imprisoned at Castle Ahlden.  The marriage was dissolved.  Sophia was only 28.  She would never leave Castle Ahlden, even when George became George I of England.  Keeping with the Hanoverian tradition, George and his son George Augustus hated each other as hard as they could.  The main bone of contention between them was George’s treatment of Sophia.  George Augustus was waiting for her father to die so he could free his mother and install her as the Dowager Queen of England.

She died thirty years later, and left a letter to George denouncing him for his cruelty to her.  She was buried next to her parents in the Old Chapel in Celle.  George refused to acknowledge her death except to overturn her will and take her property for his own.  Fate did have the last laugh as George suffered an attack of apoplexy four weeks after Sophia’s death and only a few days after receiving her last letter.  The official cause was listed as getting a stomach ache after imbibing an enormous supper with a huge dessert of fruit.  However, there is a legend that a fortune teller had prophesied that if he caused his wife’s death, he would die himself in a year.  The legends also say that Sophia’s ghost came back to take her revenge on George.  So perhaps George got his after all.


La Petite Struensee

In an earlier post, we told the story of the tragic Caroline Matilda of Great Britain.  She had an affair with her deranged husband’s doctor and had a child by him.  (For more on that story, please see this post: )  She was sent in to exile and never saw her children again.  What happened to the little girl they called La Petite Struensee in reference to her bastard parentage?

Louise Auguste was born July 7, 1771 at Hirschholm Palace in Denmark.  She was heralded as the child of King Christian VII of Denmark and his wife Caroline Matilda of Great Britain, but it was an open secret that she was the biological daughter of the king’s doctor Johann Friedrich Struensee.  The court called the little girl La Petite Struensee behind her back.  When she was six months old, Struensee and her mother were arrested, which led to his execution and her mother’s banishment.  She never saw her mother again and was left in the care of her step-grandmother, Juliana Maria of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel.  Dowager Queen Juliana had been the prime mover in the plot to unseat Struensee and Caroline Matilda.  It seems an odd choice to leave their young daughter in her care.

Louise and her half-brother, Crown Prince Frederik, were raised in the Danish court in Copenhagen and grew very close.  This did not please Juliana as she hated Louise’s mother and resented the fact that she and her lover tried to usurp her stepson’s throne. The two children were raised in a very stilted and formal setting, and were each other’s best friend and ally in the cold atmosphere of court.  Christian VII was mentally ill, and did not take much notice of the two children, so it must have seemed as if they were orphans.  At one point Louise was sent by Juliana away to be educated and Frederik lost his temper and insisted she return at once.  She was back at court with in the week.  Both of them developed a healthy resentment of Juliana, especially after they pieced together the story of their mother from court gossip.  The two children stuck together through adolescence and into young adulthood.

Louise was more outgoing than her brother, and became a favorite of the other young people at court.  She often shocked the more conservative older members of court with her fashionable dress, especially having her portrait painted in a softer style of dress popular at the French court.  At the unveiling, Dowager Queen Juliana nearl
y fainted as the shape of the princess’ legs could be seen through the sheer gown.  Scandal!  The artist was forced to paint over the offending legs with additional fabric.  Despite this, Louise was not interested in marriage.  Chief Minister Andreas Peter Bernstorff had the brilliant idea of marrying the 14 year old princess back into the royal house of Denmark.  At that time, there were two branches- the House of Oldenborg, of which she was supposedly a member; and the House of Augustenborg.  By marrying Louise to Duke Frederick Christian II, the two halves of the Danish royal family would be united and it would keep Louise from marrying into the rival Swedish royal family.  Louise was not excited about this plan, but went through with it at the urging of her brother.  Louise and Frederick Christian were married at Christiansborg Palace May 27, 1786.

The couple lived at court in Copenhagen for many years and Louise was proclaimed the “Venus of Denmark”.  They returned to Frederick Christian’s duchy of Augustenborg after his father’s death.  However, Louise was lonely and bored in far off Augustenborg.  Her husband was no company for her as he was very scholarly and would lock himself into his study to read for hours at a time.  In a compromise, they lived in Augustenborg during the summer, and the Duke allowed Louise to invite artists for company, and then returned to Copenhagen in the winter.  In an ironic twist of fate, the couple was childless for ten years of their marriage until Louise received fertility treatments from Dr. Carl Ferdinand Suadiacini.  Court gossip attributed the paternity of her three children to Dr. Suadacini in a cruel mirror of her own parentage.

When the French revolution started, Louise and her brother were one of the few royals that were in sympathy with the French.  Some, such as Anne-Marie Selinko in her novel Desirée, speculate this was due to their anger at the English mother.  However, this is pure speculation.  Her husband and her brother did feud over control the duchies of Schleswig-Holstein and Sonderburg, and began scheming to be chosen as the heir to the throne of Sweden.  However, Louise’s loyalties remained with her brother and the Danish throne, and worked with Frederik to keep her husband from becoming the king of Sweden.  Jean-Baptiste Bernadotte, Marshal of France and Prince of Ponte Corvo, was elected instead.  This caused a split between Louise and her husband, and their children took sides, with her daughter Caroline Amalie siding with her mother and their two sons siding with their father.  Caroline Amalie went on to become the Queen of Denmark after marrying a cousin of King Frederik.

Louise outlived her husband by thirty-three years, and after her eldest son took over the running of the duchies, she kept a court of artists and thinkers.  She died January 13, 1843 and is buried in Augustenborg.


Princess Caroline Matilda-   Unhappily Ever After

Despite what the fairy tales tell you, the life of a princess is not happily ever after.  A prime example of this is the life of Princess Caroline Matilda of Great Britain.  She was born on July 22, 1751 the daughter of the Frederick, the Prince of Wales and Princess Augusta of Saxe-Gotha.  In keeping with Hanoverian tradition, Frederick and his father King George II hated each other as hard as they could.  However, Frederick died suddenly three months before Caroline Matilda’s birth.  She was named after her grandmother, Queen Caroline, and her paternal aunt, Princess Caroline.  (Read more about Princess Caroline in this post: )  To keep things less confusing on the name front, she was always referred to by her first and middle names.

After her father’s death, her mother left the English court and raised her daughters strictly at Leicester House in London.  As a result, she was completely ignorant of the manipulations and machinations of court life.  She had a strange education, but could speak three languages and enjoyed being outside and riding as well as music.  Caroline Matilda was considered to have a beautiful voice.  She was considered “too plump” to be beautiful, but was vivacious and charming.  When a marriage was suggested between the Danish Crown Prince, Christian, and a British princess, Caroline Matilda was put forth as a candidate.  The two were close in age, with Christian at 16 and Caroline Matilda at 15.  Christian’s mother had been a British Princess, Louise of Great Britain, and so the prospective bridal pair were cousins.  However, this was not unusual for royal weddings.  Princess Louise had been extremely popular in Denmark, so this was considered a good match.  The betrothal was announced on January 10, 1765.

While wedding plans were still being made, King Frederick V died and Christian became King Christian VII of Denmark.  Caroline Matilda traveled to Denmark and the official wedding ceremony took place November 8, 1766 and she was crowned queen the next May.  Sounds like a perfect end to a lovely story.  Well, there were some problems.  Christian was not well.  He had grown up in a very turbulent court, and it took its toll on the young man.  He suffered from nervous breakdowns and episodes of both schizophrenia and mania.  As a child, he was diagnosed with dementia praecox, however, he was fully expected to grow out of it.  You don’t grow out of schizophrenia.

Caroline Matilda was completely out of her depth in the cliquish world of the Danish court.  Different court factions would trigger manic episodes in the young king then take advantage of them to get what they wanted.  Christian ran with a very wild crowd of young men who commonly trashed castles, and sought out prostitutes.  His favorite was a woman named Boots-Catherine, who true to her name took part in various BDSM episodes with the king.  He declared in 1767, he could never love Caroline Matilda because “it was not fashionable to love one’s wife.”  That had to hurt for a young wife to hear.  Despite all this, Caroline Matilda became pregnant and gave birth to a son on January 28, 1768.  During her pregnancy, Christian descended further into madness and would practice self harm or just have Boots-Catherine do it for him.

During this time, the poor girl’s only friend was her lady in waiting Countess Louise von Plessen.  Her mother-in-law, Dowager Queen Juliane Marie, kept the other ladies in court from being friendly with the lonely young queen.  In fact, the other lady’s at court enjoyed reminding Caroline Matilda her husband preferred the company of prostitutes to her.  Nice.  The poor girl couldn’t even take a walk in the garden as noble women were only supposed to take carriages.  Juliane Marie had her own problems following the wildly popular Princess Louise, but this just seems vindictive.  Louise considered the king and his wild friends immoral and encouraged the young queen to deny him her bed.  This does not lead to a plethora of heirs.  After the birth of their son, Frederik, Christian was influenced to banish Louise von Plessen from court, despite tears and begging from his wife.  Caroline Matilda was completely alone in a hostile court.chrstn7

Christian, however, was having the time of his life.  In May 1768, he went on a tour of Europe, which was basically checking out every brothel and bar on the continent.  This left his wife and child alone in Copenhagen.  Caroline Matilda eventually befriended some of her ladies in waiting, but they were as scandalous as her husband as they had many affairs.  One, Elisabet von Eyben, was sleeping with an actor from the French language theater named La Tour.  There were rumors he was seeing Caroline Matilda, but this has never been proven.  Though at this point, who could blame the poor girl.

Finally, Christian returned to Copenhagen in January of 1769 bringing with him a new doctor to be installed as Royal Physician.  Johann Friedrich Struensee was able to handle the king’s moods and was able to bring a semblance of calm.  He encouraged the king to repair relations with the queen, which sparked Caroline Matilda’s interest in Struensee.  He also inoculated Crown Prince Frederik against smallpox.  Caroline Matilda’s trust in Struesee grew and she began exchanging ideas about the best way to raise the Crown Prince.  She appointed him her secretary and Christian appointed him his official reader.  He was given his own rooms at Christiansborg Palace, and was entrusted with more and more of the daily state affairs.  It was only a matter of time before the lonely young queen turned to the caring doctor for more than royal devotion.

The two became lovers, and their affair was the open secret of the court.  By spring of 1770, Struensee was the constant companion of the queen even accompanying her to meet her mother, the Dowager Princess of Wales.  Her mother confronted Caroline Matilda with the rumors of her affair, to which she replied “Pray, madam, allow me to govern my own kingdom as I please!”  By this time, Struensee was signing orders and they were given the same regard as if they had been signed by the king himself.  This period of time is called the “Time of Struensee”, which on its face its government by a usurper.  However, Struensee implemented many reforms and enlightened laws.  He even encouraged Caroline Matilda to ride out in breeches, which scandalized the court.  Caroline Matilda was finally happy.  She spent a wonderful summer which culminated in the birth of a daughter  on July 7, 1771.  There was no doubt the child was Struensee’s.

Johann Friedrich Struensee
Johann Friedrich Struensee

It was not to last.  Court conservatives led by Dowager Queen Juliane Marie.  She teamed up with the ministers replaced by Struensee and had him arrested after a masked ball.  The queen was to be arrested as well, but since she was the reigning queen and most of them still believed wholeheartedly in the divine right of kings they did not go through with it.  What they did do was shuttle her into a carriage with her infant daughter and took her into the night.  She was under house arrest in the old castle of Kronborg for weeks not allowed to see her son, while the Danish and English courts debated her sentence.  Back in Copenhagen, Struensee’s trial began and it was straight out of a Grimm’s fairy tale.  Juliane Marie had paid ladies in waiting to put flour on the floor to look for footprints to see if a man had been visiting Caroline Matilda.  The ladies also testified that they found Caroline Matilda’s garters in Struensee’s possession.  He confessed everything.  Faced with his confession, Caroline Matilda spilled her guts as well, but later recanted.  Her marriage with Christian was dissolved.  Struensee was executed and his decapitated head was put on display.  The ladies in waiting attending Caroline Matilda told her gruesome stories about her lover’s execution in hopes of seeing her crack.  Nice girls.  

What to do with Caroline Matilda?  She couldn’t stay in Denmark.  She couldn’t marry anyone else because she was damaged goods.  However, she was still a princess of Great Britain so she could not be executed.  Denmark tried to exile her to Aalborg with Struensee’s other supporters, but George III vehemently objected.  He threatened to break of diplomatic relations and a fleet appeared off the Danish coast.  Eventually, it was decided to send her to British controlled Celle in Germany.  She never saw either of her children again.  However, she did form a little court and reunited with her friend, Louise von Plessen. Maybe not happily ever after, but better than nothing.


The Delicate Investigation

Detail of a portrait of Caroline by Sir Thomas Lawrence, 1804
Detail of a portrait of Caroline by Sir Thomas Lawrence, 1804

George, the Prince Regent of England and the soon to be George IV, hated his wife.  I don’t mean they didn’t get on well together, I mean he loathed the sight of her.  When Caroline of Brunswick was introduced to her future husband, George embraced her then retreated to the other side of the room where he flagged down the Earl of Malmesbury.  With a face as white as a sheet, he begged the Earl, “Harris, I am not very well, pray get me a glass of brandy”.  Then George proceeded to continue to drink for the three days prior to the wedding and be massively drunk throughout the entire affair.  George was a reluctant groom to say the least.  He was already secretly married to a Catholic, the beautiful Maria FitzHerbert, and was having an affair with Lady Jersey, his new wife’s chief lady in waiting.  He was only marrying to produce an heir so parliament would pay off his enormous debts.

In fairness, Caroline of Brunswick was no prize herself.  She rarely washed or changed her under things and as a consequence stank of BO.  The same Earl of Malmesbury who brought George the first of many brandies recorded in his diary Caroline lacked judgment, wit and tact.  Apparently, she had no filter and spoke whatever was on her mind as it came to her and acted indiscreetly.  In short, it was a match made in hell.

On the wedding night, George was so drunk he passed out on the bedroom grate and stayed there the entire night.  However, something must have happened as Caroline became pregnant and their only child, Princess Charlotte, was born nine months later.  Caroline’s access to her only daughter was instantly curtailed.  In fact, George wanted to separate from his wife now that his duty was done, but his father would not allow it.  Instead, Caroline was packed off to a house in Blackheath to do as she pleased, and that she did.  There were rumors of affairs as well as reports of dances where she pranced around without clothes.  However, she did a have a kind streak, as she was known for providing food for poor women in her kitchens and loving children.  This brought Mrs. Sophia Austin to her door on October 23, 1802.

Mrs. Austin’s husband had lost his job and she was hoping Caroline could user her influence to get him a new one.  Failing that, she hoped to get a meal from the kitchens.  To soften Caroline’s heart, she brought with her her three month old son, William.  Mrs. Austin was interviewed by Caroline’s footman and eventually brought to Caroline herself.  She immediately took a fancy to young William remarking “Oh what a nice one! How old is it?”  She then asked Mrs. Austin if she could have William for her own.  Mrs. Austin agreed to sell her son for one pound.   As awful as this sounds to modern ears, this was not an unheard of practice.  Mrs. Austin had several other children at home to provide for and money was tight.  Interviewed later, Mrs. Austin said she thought it would be better for William to be raised as a prince rather than in squalor.  From that moment on, Willikins, as he became known, was a constant fixture in Caroline’s home.

Caroline lavished all her frustrated maternal instincts on the young boy.  He was extremely spoiled and allowed to run wild through the household.  He would interrupt dinner parties to grab his favorite foods off the table, ruin expensive and rare books with his dirty fingers, and generally act like a brat.  Caroline would laugh indulgently and cater to his every whim.  However, this story takes a stranger turn than just a spoiled child.  Caroline fancied herself quite the practical joker, and had been stringing along one of her ladies in waiting by mimicking the symptoms of morning sickness and other pregnancy symptoms.  Lady Douglas bought this hook line and sinker, then when a baby showed up…well, it didn’t take much for her to believe little Willikins was Caroline’s illegitimate child.  Caroline made it worse by replying the child was the Prince of Wales’ when asked.  There was the matter of the throne at stake as there were fears Caroline would try to pop little Willikins on the throne over Princess Charlotte.genuinebookanin00percgoog

To get to the bottom of this, The Delicate Investigation was launched by the King and the Prince of Wales.  This was the creation of a commission to judge who exactly were the parents of young William.  The commission was comprised of no less than:  Prime Minister Lord Grenville, the Lord Chancellor Lord Erskine, the Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales Lord Ellenborough and the Home Secretary Lord Spencer.  Lady Douglas testified of Caroline’s pregnancy symptoms and her indiscreet behavior with men in the household.  Caroline’s other servants only confirmed she was flirtatious, but did not offer any proof of an affair.  Sophia Austin was summoned and testified she was the biological mother of young William Austin.  Caroline went off on another tangent and claimed William was the son of neither the Prince of Wales or the Austins, but of her previous fiancee, Louis Ferdinand of Prussia.

The Delicate Investigation confirmed William was truly the son of the Austins, but it ruined Caroline’s reputation.  Eventually, Caroline was exiled to Europe and William went with her.  However, as he got older and was no longer a child he seemed to lose his allure.  Caroline actively looked for another baby to replace him when William became a teenager.  She did leave him a modest sum of money when she died, but it was not what he expected having been reared as a prince.  This strange duel life took its toll on William and he died at the age of 47 in an insane asylum in Chelsea.


The Darien Scheme

Map of New Caledonia Photo: National Library of Scotland. Source: The Darien Adventure, Jim Malcom, OBE
Map of New Caledonia Photo: National Library of Scotland. Source: The Darien Adventure, Jim Malcom, OBE

Scottish settlement in America brings to mind Nova Scotia or any of the original thirteen colonies. There was one Scottish settlement which is much less known, but is just as important if not more so.

Since the crowns of England and Scotland had been united under James I, the fortunes of the two countries were tied closer than ever. However, things were not rosy in Scotland. Poverty, war, famine and homelessness was plaguing the land and threatening to have the Scottish identity swallowed up by their more prosperous neighbors the the south. William Paterson, a Scot who had made his fortune as one of the founding directors of the Bank of England, thought he had the answer. He met a sailor who told him of a beautiful area rich fertile land waiting for settlers and friendly native tribes. It was a bay on the Isthmus of Panama called Darien.

Paterson thought this was the perfect thing to revive the fortunes of Scotland by making it a major player in the transatlantic trade that was springing up. The Isthmus was narrow and cargo from the Pacific could be hauled overland through Darien to be shipped to Europe. There was money to made, Paterson knew it. He returned to Edinburgh and founded the Company of Scotland Trading to Africa and the Indies in June 1695.

Not everyone was thrilled about this development. Technically, the land had been claimed by Spain, but that never stopped anyone. The New World had been claimed by every European power that made it over there. Some people even said it could belong to the natives, perish the thought. The English East India company did not like their monopoly on transatlantic trade threatened, and lobbied Parliament. The English investors were forced to back out, but the company pressed on. Paterson opened up investment to ordinary Scottish citizens, and pound by pound the necessary sum was raised.

The five ships purchased for the voyage left Leith harbor on July 4, 1698 carrying 1,200 settlers. The landed at Darien on November 2 after a relatively easy journey. They named the peninsula New Caledonia and made a settlement of Fort St. Andrew and a stockade of New Edinburgh. Then it all started to go wrong.

The land was not good for farming and they could raise no crops. They had nothing of interest to the natives to trade. The spring brought rain and with it disease. By March 1699, 200 settlers had died and ten were dying each day. Roger Oswald described life in the colony as such, ‘{Flour rations} When boiled with a little water, without anything else, big maggots and worms must be skimmed off the top… In short, a man might easily have destroyed his whole week’s ration in one day and have but one ordinary stomach neither… Yet for all this short allowance, every man (let him never be so weak) daily turned out to work by daylight, whether with the hatchet, or wheelbarrow, pick-axe, shovel, fore-hammer or any other instrument the case required; and so continued until 12 o’clock, and at 2 again and stayed till night, sometimes working all day up to the headbands of the breeches in water at the trenches. My shoulders have been so wore with carrying burdens that the skin has come off them and grew full of boils. If a man were sick and obliged to stay within, no victuals for him that day. Our Councillors all the while lying at their ease, sometimes divided into factions and, being swayed by particular interest, ruined the public… Our bodies pined away and grew so macerated with such allowance that we were like so many skeletons.’

Remains of New Caledonia- Photo Credit
Remains of New Caledonia- Photo Credit

English ships and colonies were forbidden by order of the king to trade with the settlers. So the ships they sent out looking for supplies came back empty. One ship was captured by the Spanish and the crew imprisoned. News came that the Spanish were planning an attack on the settlement, and settlers turned tail and ran. Of the 1,200 who came, only 300 made it back to Scotland.

A second expedition had left for Darien in August of 1699 not knowing the fate of the settlers who went before. They found an abandoned colony. The second wave tried to rebuild, but were no more successful than the first. They were constantly short of supplies since no English colonies would trade with them and under threat from the Spanish. They did lead a successful pre-emptive strike against them at Toubacanti, but in the end the Spanish besieged Fort St. Andrew and took it in March 1700. A very few of those left made it back to Scotland.

The Darien expedition was an unmitigated disaster. The company lost over £200,000 and sent Scotland into more financial hardship. It also left bitterness as many felt the English had sabotaged their last bid for independence. It played a part in Scotland signing the Act of Union in 1707 so England would pay off the debts from the debacle. However, resentment festered and set the stage for the Jacobite rebellions ahead.


Sources available on request