Caledonia dreaming


Illustrations: Christian Tate

Scotland in the 1690s was, in many ways, not hugely different to the Scotland of 2014. It was a land brought low by famine, sickness and relentless human misery, convulsed with religious and dynastic dispute and teetering on the verge of financial ruin. Or at least, according to the darker mutterings of the ‘no’ campaign, that’ll be the Scotland we’ll all be looking at from 19th September 2014 onwards, should the country vote ‘yes’ to independence.

The disastrous Darien expeditions of 1698 and 1699 have gone down in history as one of the great colonial misfires”

A declamatory few among them might even point to the last time Scotland resolved to cast off into international waters alone, without British trade winds at her back. The disastrous Darien expeditions of 1698 and 1699 have gone down in history as one of the great colonial misfires. In 1696, Scotland was consumed by mercantile wanderlust and saw foreign adventure as the miracle cure to its ills. Four years later the country had been shattered by an intrepid bid to start its own trading empire: more than three quarters of its 2,500 would-be colonists were dead or missing and around a fifth of its wealth had been sunk into a swampy, diseased cranny on the other side of the Atlantic. It was not a success.

Unionist rhetoric aside, Darien-era Scotland did have at least one thing in common with the Scotland of 2014. At the turn of the 18th century the country had its own parliament which wielded a decent degree of autonomy over its people’s affairs, yet material suzerainty rested in London. And, after almost a century of sharing a monarch with England – ever since the accession of James VI and I had united the crowns in 1603 – Scots’ anxiety over being ruled in all but name by the Auld Enemy to the south was the hot political topic of the day.


Illustrations of the indigenous Kuna from Lionel Wafer’s ‘A New Voyage and Description of the Isthmus of America’

Fatefully, into the independence debate of 1696 strode a man with a plan. Dumfriesshire-born, 38-year-old William Paterson was not exactly the Alex Salmond of his time; more the Duncan Bannatyne. A financial prodigy, he already had “A founding director of the Bank of England” on his CV. But Paterson’s real ambition was to establish a Scottish toehold colony on the eastern side of the Isthmus of Panama. He had heard about the Darien peninsula years previously, from a buccaneer called Lionel Wafer, who had impressed him with tales of a ripe patch of fertile land in Central America, peopled by genial Mesoamericans with long hair. It had been a popular stopping-off point for pirates and he’d been marooned there for a spell in the 1680s. Paterson had been captivated by the idea of using this unclaimed niche to conjure into existence a Scottish trading empire to rival those of the oceangoing superpowers of England, Spain, the Dutch Republic and Portugal – and to finally determine the question of Scottish independence into the bargain.

As it turned out, Paterson’s ill-fated imperial start-up, the purposefully named Company of Scotland Trading to Africa and the Indies, did decide that question, but in entirely the wrong direction. As historical convention has it, the dramatic failure of the Darien enterprise led directly to the Acts of Union in 1707, by which the Scottish Parliament voted itself out of existence, leaving Scotland at the mercy of cold-shouldered anglocentric governance from London for the next 300 years.

The fall of New Edinburgh

History has cast the ‘Darien scheme’ as a quixotic misadventure that was doomed from the start. But, says Dr Helen Paul, lecturer in economic history at the University of Southampton, Paterson’s idea made a good deal of sense on paper. “He originally conceived Darien as a free trading port that was above state borders – which was quite far-sighted of him. It could have worked as a small-scale venture, something like a pirates’ nest, nipping out to grab primarily Spanish shipping. But the more ambitious idea was to bring goods over the isthmus by mule train as a land bridge route connecting the Pacific and the Atlantic.”

With the only other option a month or more’s detour around South America, the potential windfall from overland tolls and commissions must have seemed limitless. As Paterson himself put it: “The time and expense of navigation to China, Japan, the Spice Islands, and the far greatest part of the East Indies will be lessened more than half, and the consumption of European commodities will soon be more than doubled. Trade will increase trade, and money will beget money, and the trading world shall need no more to want work for their hands, but rather want hands for their work.” It was to be conquest with a conscience, an empire founded without the “guilt or blood of Alexander and Caesar”; one that the Presbyterian God of hardworking, fraternally minded Scots could surely get behind.


So what went wrong? On 4th July 1698 five ships set sail from Leith Harbour laden with colonists, goods to trade with the locals, King James Bibles and the equivalent of Scotland’s life savings. The expedition had been backed by £400,000 of private capital, which Paterson had harvested from all strata of Scots society during a six-month marketing campaign. According to a 2005 article by Professor Tom Devine of the University of Edinburgh this was “an extraordinary investment for a poor country” – nearly two-and-a-half times the estimated value of Scotland’s annual exports. To raise it, Paterson had leveraged his financial reputation and resorted to a strong dose of Scots separatist rhetoric to make up for the fact that the English East India Company had legally blocked investors south of the border from putting money into their upstart competitor.

Local provisions proved difficult to come by and the torrential rains overwhelming – even for the Glaswegians”

Some 1,200 settlers – mostly ex-soldiers, sailors, professionals and preachers – made landfall on 2nd November. They called their new home Caledonia Bay and set to work building their New Edinburgh. As Wafer had foretold, the indigenous Kuna people were receptive to their new neighbours, taking the Scots for natural allies against the Spaniards occupying their territories. And they did have long hair. That much of Wafer’s story held water.

Unfortunately, so did the land. The terrain Paterson had chosen from 5,000 miles away was marshy and hard to build on. Local provisions proved difficult to come by and the torrential rains overwhelming – even for the Glaswegians. Archaeologists investigating the site, says Dr Paul, “couldn’t find any evidence that they’d managed to plant a crop, and that’s a major issue – because if they hadn’t they weren’t going to get their first harvest in.”

Then tropical disease began to pick off the colonists at an alarming rate – a toll that would soon include Paterson’s wife and son. More threatening to New Edinburgh’s prospects than the fever and the hostile topography, though, was its location between two established and armed-to-the-teeth Spanish ports: Cartagena and Portobello, fortified hubs of the Spanish silver trade.

King William commanded all English subjects in the Americas to deny succour and support to the Scots colonists”

By March more than 200 colonists had been buried on the peninsula, and the death rate had reached ten a day. Meanwhile, the Spanish were increasingly bellicose; in January a fleet had weighed anchor at Portobello and in February they had captured one of the Company’s ships, the Dolphin.

In desperation the beleaguered colonists had just one place to turn: the English governorships in the Caribbean. But, unbeknownst to the Scots, that avenue of support had already been blocked. King William III and II – who appeared to have learned nothing from the PR disaster of the Glencoe massacre – had on hearing of the project denounced the Company’s directors; on advice from his ministers he commanded all English subjects in the Americas to deny succour and support to the Scots colonists.

king_william_iiiGeo-dynastic motives were likely to have been at the heart of this decision – the Darien episode occurred during the run up to the War of Spanish Succession, and William was too anxious about antagonising Spain to worry about the welfare of a few of his northernmost subjects. But it was this refusal to get involved, more than anything else, that scuppered Paterson’s dream. News of William’s proclamation reached Darien in May 1699; by June, New Edinburgh had been abandoned.

Paterson returned home with one ship and fewer than 300 survivors. Meanwhile, in August 1699, a second expedition had set off from home, oblivious to the fate of their compatriots. Fresh meat, in the form of 1,142 pioneers, arrived only to become the target of instant Spanish aggression. Incredibly, a new arrival, Captain Alexander Campbell, led a band of settlers on a pre-emptive strike against Spanish forces mobilising at Toubacanti and won an unlikely victory. But this only delayed the inevitable. After an overwhelming siege and naval blockade, Fort St Andrew surrendered in March 1700. The survivors were allowed to return home.

In all, Darien cost the Company of Scotland Trading to Africa and the Indies nine out of its 13 ships, and £232,884 in losses. The cost to Scotland herself was immeasurable. Darien’s survivors (apart from the illustrious Captain Campbell), lived out their remaining years as pariahs in Scottish society and Paterson himself became a leading lobbyist for union with England. As part of the Acts of Union deal, the British Parliament donated ‘The Equivalent’ to Scotland, a £398,000 dowry which was intended in large part to cover the Company’s debts.

And, inviting operatic levels of historical irony, the company set up to administer the compensation, known initially as The Equivalent Company, in 1727 received a charter to bank under the name Royal Bank of Scotland. This institution would itself have to be bailed out 281 years later by the same British parliament after it vastly overreached itself in attempting to build a financial empire overseas.

The Scottish Empire

It’s tempting – and over the years many have succumbed – to speculate on what would have happened if the Darien scheme had paid off for Paterson and for Scotland. And, let’s face it, it would have been glorious. Instead of a British Empire on which the sun never set, we might have had a Scottish Empire on which the rain never dried. A third of the world map in Tartan. Pipers saluting the dawn in Calcutta; Islay single malt in your Singapore sling; triple-fried confectionery outlets from Vancouver to Nova Scotia…

(Although, that’s not too far removed from what actually happened: in the centuries that followed, Scots intellects, Scots industry, Scots regiments and the Scottish diaspora turned out to be the vanguard of the British imperial project.)

It’s a romantic idea, but it was never going to happen. For one thing, according to Dr Paul, even if William Paterson’s wildest dreams had come true, success would have been short-lived. “If Darien had been very successful it probably would have been taken over by  somebody else straight away. What Paterson was envisaging was something that prefigures the Panama Canal – but to get the Panama Canal you need to have a lot of power behind you to control the route. Without the support of the English vis-à-vis free trade there was a limit to what they could do.”

And at any rate, Scotland had long ago been trapped in England’s economic orbit. “People get obsessed by ‘the state’ and ‘the country’ – but actually you’re talking about big trading systems like the Atlantic trading system, the Baltic trading system, the East India trading system.” A foothold on empire, says Dr Paul, “probably wouldn’t have led to Scotland being completely independent anyway. Or Scotland would have been very, very poor and independent.”

Under the unshruggable weight of geography and economics, Scotland and England’s stories have forever been intertwined. All along, the two countries have been a pair of antagonistic Siamese twins – forced to coexist, occasionally compelled to co-operate but always having to strain their necks to see eye to eye. Whatever the constitutional arrangement, sovereign state or incorporated nation – yes vote or no vote – this may well be the case in perpetuity.

But somewhere on the rugged east coast of Panama, on a square centimetre of the map now labelled ‘Puerto Escocés’ (or ‘Scottish Port’), for a brief moment 315 years ago England for once seemed an awfully long way away.

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