The Darien Scheme

When you mention the phrase ‘trade with India’ in a historical sense, people automatically think of the British East India Trading Company that dominated English international affairs, trade and politics from the 31st December 1600, yet few would know that this was not the only attempt to trade with the India, the Caribbean or the Americas on the British Isles. Despite being joined under the crown by James I in 1603, upon the death of the last Tudor Elizabeth I, English and Scottish trade and political links were most definitely separate entities that operated within virtually the same sphere of ideology. This was exasperated by many European countries seeking trade from India and the Americas within years of each other. Scotland in the seventeenth century had struggled with famine and continued endurance of continental warfare that had crippled the trade links that were already established. Scotland was not capable of protecting itself against English legislation which was increasingly bringing the Scots under the rule of an English Parliament. The Scottish economic bands were diminishing and Scotland needed to find a quick route back to prosperity. Thus, in the 1690s, the Darien Scheme was born. The founding father of this scheme was a Scottish financial master called William Paterson who had spent several years south in England formulating what would become the formidable Bank of England. Paterson had spent time learning about the East India Trading Company and decided to take a new venture up to Scotland in order to garner trade links across the Pacific Ocean. The basis of the idea allegedly came from Paterson having a conversation with the sailor Lionel Wafer who told tales of paradise populated by friendly Indians in the fertile land of Darien.

Trade was incredibly lucrative in the seventeenth century for those who was capable of exploiting it successfully, and naturally the thought of Darien stuck in the mind of Paterson. It was however enormously expensive. The merchant ships had to travel a hazardous route below the southernmost tip of South America to reach most of the Pacific markets. The trip took months and there was a high risk of shipwreck or becoming at the mercy of piratical theft. Paterson had the forethought to plan for goods to be carried across Panama from the Pacific harbours to Darien which was situated on the east side next to the Atlantic. This meant there was a virtually unimpeded sea route from Scotland to the Americas. Therefore speeding up Pacific trade and making it instantly more accessible. Economically Scotland would gain huge profits. There was a minor problem. The area that Paterson wished to gain control over to create these trade links was owned by Spain, who were going to prove very problematic for the Scots.

When Paterson took his idea back to Scotland it was very popular and in 1965 the Company of Scotland Trade to Africa and India was established. However, the move was distrusted and disliked by both Spain and England who thought the Scots were going to overtake their monopoly on British trade to the Indies. The English investors into the company were forced to withdraw after the English Parliament threatened Scotland with impeachment. The threat did not prevent Paterson and the company from continuing their venture and they appealed to the Scottish people to help. Thousands subscribed and within six months approximately £400,000 was raised, which was used to fit out five ships even with the English attempting to block progress in every corner. Ambassadors were flocking to attempt to embargo any merchants who dared to trade with the new company.

The sailor had given the company an unrealistic vision of what to expect as they thought they were going to be greeted by people living in luxury. The first expedition set out in 1698 with a band of army veterans in order to establish a colony and to govern until a Darien Parliament could be established. The idea was to create a colony on the Isthmus of Panama and launch a prosperous gateway between the Atlantic and the Pacific traders. By the time the first five ships set sail Paterson was no longer involved due to being culpable for a subordinates embezzlement of the company, he was expelled from the Directors Board and away from the project. Most of the company consisted of those who would little chance of employment elsewhere and some had notorious backgrounds – involvement in the Glencoe Massacre is one particular example – that would’ve hindered their later life. On the whole approximately 1200 people set off from Leith in July 1698 and sailed East to avoid being observed by English warships. They landed in Darien on the 2nd November 1698 after short supply stops in Madeira and the West Indies.

The colony was quickly founded and named ‘Caledonia’ under the leadership of Thomas Drummond. The founders quickly formed their harbour in Caledonia Bay and built Fort St Andrew and a watch house. Several hiccups occurred in quick succession such as tides that threatened a ship if it tried to leave the bay and also the fact they had built in the heart of the Spanish landed colonies that traded silver. Caledonia eventually formed into becoming ‘New Edinburgh’ as settlement huts expanded the village and farming land was cultivated for the growth of maize. This seemed to be an auspicious start for the colonists but the founders did not fare well with those that already occupied the land. The local Indians refused to trade with the Scottish and those that docked in Caledonia bay did not express interest in their wares. Illness also spread with malaria producing a death toll of at least ten settlers a day. Some local Indians attempted contact by offering fruit but these were mainly commandeered by the leaders who kept mostly to their ship cabins. The only luck that occurred was a proficiency at turtle hunting.

Many analysts of the Darien scheme believe that had the English supported the colony, the settlers would have prospered and grown fairly rapidly. However, the English and the Dutch had expressly forbidden their merchants to supply the Scots, for fear of angering the Spanish, which meant after eight months the colony was abandoned. With most their people dead from dysentery and infested food only three hundred people survived long enough to sail to Port Royal in Jamaica. As the former settlers were deemed a disgrace to those at home they sailed north to New York to attempt a new life in the then small town.

As much a failure the first expedition was this did not prevent the Scottish from reattempting their scheme in 1699. The second flagship arrived in Darien in November 1699 and found the burnt embers and mass graves of the first settlement. Morale was low since it was expected that these people who join a busy town not be responsible for building a new one. This new settlement started a turf war with the Spanish and it did not gain any headway until the arrival of Alexander Campbell of Fonab. He organised a strong defence and took to forcing the Spanish back. As with all wars illness was rife which led to legions of death from both the Scottish and Spanish armies. Spain was able to regroup and forced a siege upon Fort St Andrew that lasted a month. Eventually in January 1700 the Scottish colonies were deserted for the last time. Few went home to Scotland, most sought a new life in the established colonies in North America. Of the approximate 2500 settlers that left Scotland, a mere couple of hundred survived to go elsewhere.

The failure of such a promising scheme led to a further morale loss in the Scottish heartlands who had lost a significant amount of their workforce. Many of the contemporary people placed the blame upon the English which led to an assault on an East India Company merchant ship and the hanging of the captain. Historians still debate today as to why the Darien Scheme failed so disastrously. One thing is certain, the failure of Darien Scheme was, and is, cited as a motivation to codify the 1701 Act of Union between English and Scotland. Due to many of the Scottish landowners having lost money through the scheme the English bailed out the Scottish economy in return for an offset future liability to help contribute to reducing the English national debt. This scheme still survives as an oral tale amongst the Kuna Indians who were the only people to settle peacefully in the region.

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