Americas,  Central America,  ER,  Scotland,  Western Europe

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