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Issue 15 - The Darien disaster

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Scotland Magazine Issue 15
July 2004


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The Darien disaster

James Irvine Robertson looks at one of the worst misjudgements in Scotland's commercial and economic history

There are only eight Commandments in Scotland as there is nothing to covet or steal ran the grim jest in London at the end of the 17th century. After James VII abandoned his throne to the Protestant William of Orange in 1688, there followed dreadful years of want north of the border – King William’s years – when the sun scarcely shone, harvests failed and, in some areas, up to a quarter of the population starved to death.

The fact that England and Scotland shared a king was no help. William had taken the throne to promote the bitter struggle to preserve his native Holland against the French. Scotland’s welfare was the least of his concerns.

Customs dues hindered cross-border commerce and the powerful East India Company and other English interests froze Scots from overseas trade and colonisation.

Mercantilism was the economic doctrine of the day. Trade could not be conjured up from nowhere; you must capture someone else’s share and the English were not going to give up theirs to the Scots.

Dumfriesshire born William Paterson had already made a fortune and in 1694 he was the leading light in the establishment of the Bank of England. Now he had a dream.

He came across a journal by a sailor, William Wafer, which described the wonders of the Darienisthmus at the south end of the land link between North and South America. If a colony could be established in this idyllic spot, it could control trade in both great oceans.

So he promoted an Act in the Scottish Parliament to create The Company of Scotland Trading to Africa and the Indies. If England would not share its colonies, Scotland would create its own. A book was opened in London and £300,000 subscribed.

But the English Parliament objected and the subscribers withdrew. Paterson went back north and, in a surge of patriotic fervour and excitement, £400,000 was raised in Scotland – about half the nation’s liquid assets.

Volunteers rushed to join the expedition and the directors bought ships and the products of the country as trade goods to fill their holds.

An open secret was that the destination was the Darien but there was a problem. The region was claimed by Spain and William did not want to offend the Spanish in his conflict with France.

Instead of English indifference to the venture, the king demanded active opposition and the substantial English interests in the West Indies were forbidden to have any truck with the Scots colonists.

Five ships and 1200 volunteers – soldiers, farmers, tradesmen and a few wives – set off from Leith on 14th July 1698. In many ways it would have been like a voyage today to colonise Mars.

Everything for any eventuality must be carried on board. And once the ships had left, no further help could be forthcoming for months if not years.

After a difficult voyage with two or three people dying each day from disease, the expedition made its destination on 2nd November. Instead of a land flowing with milk and honey they discovered a swampy, fever-ridden jungle. They named it Caledonia and the township they intended to build there New Edinburgh.

The colony was governed by a council of squabbling incompetents who rotated leadership amongst their number each week.

They and the sailors stayed on board the ships, relatively safe from fevers. The others landed and began to build their settlement and fortifications against the Spanish.

The Indians were helpful but had little food to spare and were bemused by the periwigs, Scots bonnets and other inappropriate trade items with which the ships were filled. The few European vessels that nosed into the bay found the prices the Scots demanded for this stuff too high.

Rations were poor quality, inadequate and putrefied in the climate. The land yielded nothing to replace them. The rain seemed incessant; everything rotted in the heat and humidity; morale collapsed and the settlers died of disease in droves.

A couple of centuries later those building the Panama Canal would pay the same terrible price for their labour. The settlers had not the strength or resources to survive, let alone build a colony, trade and dominate the region.

Even their ships were wrong for the job, and often were stuck in harbour unable to sail out against the prevailing wind. After dreadful losses, misery and dissent, the colony was abandoned in June 1699 and the survivors made their way to New York.

Back in Scotland, of course, this tragedy was unknown. After sending off the five ships, the company seems to have rested on its laurels for some months before gearing itself up to send a second expedition of 1300 people which left in August 1699.

They arrived at New Edinburgh, found the settlement abandoned but busied themselves in trying to set it up once more although they evacuated 500 men and all the women to Jamaica.

The same squabbles, the same fevers, the same rain, the same will-sapping heat had the same effect. This time the Spaniards mounted an assault and forced the weakened survivors to surrender.

On 12th April 1700 the colony was finally abandoned. Ten ships set out from Scotland for the Darien; one made it home along with, perhaps, a tenth of all those who set out with such high hopes.

The abject failure of the venture had a shattering effect on the nation. The gaunt survivors were shunned by their families. They were cowards who had abandoned their duty and brought shame to their country.

The effect on the economy was equally disastrous. No capital was left to invest in the future; Scotland lay becalmed – until 1707. In one of the clauses of the Treaty of Union, London repaid every investor the entire costs of the venture.

No wonder the bill was passed.

26th June 1695
An act to establish ‘The Company of Scotland’ passed in Edinburgh

13th November 1695
£300,000 raised in London

17th December 1695
The Lords and Commons in London protest and the king declares himself ‘ill-served’ in Scotland

26th February 1696
£400,000 raised in Scotland

14th July 1698
The first fleet sails from Leith

2nd November 1698
Arrives at Darien

22th June 1699
Colony abandoned

23rd September 1699
Second expedition sails from Edinburgh for Darien

30th November 1699
Arrives in Caledonia and finds it deserted

1st March 1700
Spanish attack the colony

31st March 1700
Scots surrender

20th June 1700
News reaches Edinburgh. Riots occur – the mob controls the city

The Treaty of Union By Article XV, the Company of Scotland is dissolved and investors losses are repaid.