How The Darien Scheme Changed the History of Scotland’s Independence

The late 17th century was a hot point for claiming foreign lands in the name of different countries of Europe. These countries were entrenched throughout the Americas, and every passing year saw more merchant ships carrying cargo across the sea. Nova Scotia and the Carolinas are sites of well-known communities founded by Scottish emigres. But a lesser-known attempt, called the Darien scheme, sought to establish a new Scottish colony in the New World at the Isthmus of Panama. This scheme is often blamed for the virtual collapse of Scotland’s economy, and is cited as a key factor in the 1707 Treaty of Union between England and Scotland.

Darien scheme Caledonia

Gulf of Darien map within the dotted area, right. William Paterson pushed for a Scottish colony at Darien to be used as a gateway between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. Source: Wikitravel

The Backdrop of the 17th Century

In the early 1600s, Scotland had been trading with Asia and Africa. But during this time of harsh economic rivalry in Europe, England thought the Scots were getting a bit too wealthy. They slapped down the 1660 Navigation Act. This required that all trade goods to and from England or any English possession or territory in Asia, Africa or the Americas must be transported in English ships sailed by an English captain overseeing a 75% English crew. This stripped Scotland of their economic independence and led to increased dependence on England.

Ambitions of William Paterson

Infuriated, a Scot named William Paterson eventually found a loophole: they were not prevented from establishing their own colonies. Paterson quickly set up the “Company of Scotland Trading to Africa and the Indies,” also called the Scottish Darien Company. Paterson’s Darien scheme targeted the Isthmus of Panama on the Gulf of Darien. His ambitions first involved setting up a colony they would call Caledonia (symbolic because this was the part of Scotland the Romans could never conquer). Then he planned to establish a trading post that would connect the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. Had he been successful, the new colony of Caledonia may have proven to be an extremely lucrative empire.

william paterson, conceiver of the Darien scheme

William Paterson founded the Darien colony near the Isthmus of Panama in 1698. Source: public domain.

Fundraising for the Darien Scheme

Raising capital for the Darien scheme was not a problem. Many English and Scots wanted to reap the rewards that the import-export business was then yielding. Unfortunately for Scotland, King William of England reacted to parliamentary pressures by publicly denouncing The Company of Scotland, which caused the English investors to take back their monies.

The company had to rely on Scottish investors, who came up with a huge sum of money – £400,000 sterling. This is impressive when one considers that Scotland was already wounded by years of wars and famines. This figure supposedly equalled a fifth of Scotland’s capital. Supposedly, even commoners cleared out their life savings, because they believed wholeheartedly in the purpose of the venture and what it would mean for Scotland should it succeed.

Setting Sail for Darien

Twelve hundred passengers full of hope, all of whom were promised houses and acres of good farmland, sailed in five ships that left Leith near Edinburgh in 1698. William Paterson, his wife and child were also on this expedition. Forty passengers died of illness between Scotland and Darien. After a four-month journey, they arrived in Panama on November 2, and within two months 32 more people died. Soon after, it became apparent that life was going to be very different than they had expected.

The Darien project immediately incited European countries. England forbid anyone under their power to trade with or assist Caledonia in any way. This meant they could not obtain any provisions from the English islands in the area, including Jamaica.

Agriculture also proved to be difficult and requires time and energy – both of which the Scots were short on, as they were starving and dying of illness. Instead of establishing farms, the Caledonians had to resort to setting up a rickety town, christened New Edinburgh. They also built a fort called Fort St. Andrew.

Relations with the Kuna Indians and Spaniards

The Darien colony needed locally grown items to plant and eat. They sought to trade with the native Kuna Indians, who inhabited the Darien region. However, the colonists discovered that nobody living in a hot and humid area of swamp needed what they had brought to trade with — primarily heavy woolen fabrics and combs. A failed attempt to get more money and emigres from Scotland compounded the tragedies. And to make matters worse, Spain held claim to the area, although they had no presence or settlement there. The Spanish began to take military actions against the settlers to keep their domain.

Kuna Indians at Darien

Kuna Indians, by Lionel Wafer. He spent four months in Darien in 1681. Source: John Carter Brown Library.

Although the Kuna despised the Spaniards for their aggression and intent to oppress the Kuna, they liked the Scots. They brought plantains and fruits to the Darien colony, but most of that food went to the leaders and sailors living aboard and protecting the ships. It wasn’t enough to feed the ailing colony.

Recently, in an interview with Allan Little of BBC (reference below), a Kuna elder reflected:

‘In the time of our forefathers…white people came here – Scottish and Spanish people. We liked the Scottish more than the Spanish, for the Spanish attacked us and drove us inland away from the coast and the Scots did not. But there were battles and many ships were sunk’.

Abandonment Followed by a Second Fleet

In the heat of June of 1699, only seven months after first setting foot in Darien, a vote was taken and it was agreed that the Scots of New Edinburgh would abandon Darien. The remaining colonists would sail to the (hopefully) more amiable people of New England.

“A second fleet [from Scotland] sailed in 1699, not knowing that the colony had already been attacked and burned to the ground by the Spanish, and abandoned by its few survivors” (Allan Little, “The Caribbean Colony that Brought Down Scotland,” BBC News, 2014). Although the Darien colony attempted to rebuild the fort and huts, the morale was low and the Spanish were threatening.

“The Kuna and Scots co-operated in skirmishes against the Spanish and routed them at the Battle of Toubacanti” (Paul). But the colonists had no military support, and hence, the second Scottish settlement at Darien was “besieged by the Spanish.” The few settlers who survived went back to Scotland in 1700.

Ultimately, 2,000 lives were lost and Scotland was financially drained. This left them with no choice but to sign onto England’s “Treaty of Union of the two Kingdoms of Scotland and England,” effectively destroying most autonomies that Scotland had previously enjoyed.

William Paterson had also returned, but without his wife and child, who had perished in Darien. Ultimately, he became a strong proponent for the Treaty of Union and fought for its cause.

The Ugly Aftermath

After the Darien affair, many Europeans felt as though the colonists had brought shame and disgrace to Scotland. Adding fuel to the fire, rumors circulated that members in the Parliament of Scotland who voted for the Union were bribed. Indeed, many public and private investors fell into financial ruin, and England sweetened the deal by agreeing to pay Scotland a fair sum of money as compensation for the Darien failure if Scotland ratified the union. Even today, much of the current literature regarding the Darien failure condemns the leaders of the expedition for poor planning and choices. The understandable bitterness and anger are still palpable in Scotland.

The following is a Scottish folk song referencing the Darien scheme and parliament, called “Such a Parcel of Rogues in a Nation” written by poet Robert Burns in 1791.

darien colony song

Factors for Thought

There were many factors that led to the outcome of the Darien scheme. Many people feel there was more than merely a withdrawal of support for the Scots at the time. Did the “powers that be” deliberately undermine Scotland’s chance for economic independence? Had it not been for the denial of support, perhaps the lack of proper provisions, such as food and tradable goods, could have been remedied with assistance of nearby colonies. Maybe with proper military backing for the colonists, the Spanish, already dealing with their own plagues, would have decided Darien wasn’t worth the trouble.

In the years following the Darien affair, the Spanish made many attempts to settle the region. However, constant opposition by the Kuna made it ultimately impossible. In the end, the bold ideas that fueled the Darien scheme eventually led to the building of the Panama Canal, which finally connected the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans for international maritime commerce. Today, somewhere around a million vessels have safely passed through the canal.

New Caledonia”, Wikipedia, sourced 12/21/16.
“Scotch Colonization”, Celtic Heritage magazine, August/September 1998
Little, Allan, BBC, “The Caribbean Colony that Brought Down Scotland,” sourced 1/4/17.
Wikipedia, sourced 1/4/17.
Paul, Helen Julia, sourced 1/4/17.
Wikipedia, sourced 1/4/17.

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Doug MacGowan

Doug MacGowan lives on the San Francisco peninsula with his wife, a dog, and far too many cats. He has published five books on the topic of historic true crime. In his free time he enjoys reading.

Historic Mysteries