The Darien Scheme was an attempt by Scotland in the late 17th century to establish a colony in the Darien Gap, part of what is now modern Panama.
Ultimately the plan to establish a trading post and overland route to connect the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans was unsuccessful and became known as the Darien Disaster.
Darien, Panama today
Today the Darien Scheme means little to most Scots but in the final years of the 17th century, the name became synonymous with hope, greed, failure and eventually the Act of Union with England.
Scotland was on the brink of starvation
When King James VII (II) was finally deposed and William III and his wife Mary took the throne in 1689, Scotland was on its knees.
A number of factors contributed to the terrible conditions in Scotland. Among them were England’s Navigation Acts (the Acts of Trade and Navigation) which was legislation designed to protect English trading vessels from foreign competition.
At that time, before the Union of Parliaments in 1707, it included Scotland.
In addition to difficult trading conditions, poor harvests had left Scotland almost bankrupt and its people on the brink of starvation.
Eminent historian Hugh Trevor-Roper subsequently said…
Scots were now forced to seek new trading partners and turned away from Europe to the Darien Isthmus in Central America.
The hope was to build a trading empire to rival the powerful English East India Company.
King William agreed to allow the Scots to establish a company to promote trade.
However, many saw it as a way of diverting recriminations over his involvement in the Glencoe massacre some years earlier.
During a session in the Edinburgh parliament of 1695, a short statement was given to the effect that an act should be passed which would promote the advancement of trade.
Writer John Prebble in his book The Darien Disaster described the feeling in Edinburgh, “It was as if a window had been opened, flooding the grey and impoverished rooms of Scotland with the sunlight of the Indies…”
The Company of Scotland Trading to Africa and the Indies.
William Paterson a Scot who would later found the Bank of England helped frame the first draft of the legislation establishing The Company of Scotland Trading to Africa and the Indies.
It became law in June 1695. Others, notably Andrew Fletcher of Saltoun, soon joined Paterson.
Establishing a trading settlement in Central America was the key objective of the Company.
Its archives are inscribed on UNESCO’s UK Memory of the World Register.
Unesco’s introduction to the Memory of the World Programme says…
It’s worth considering William Paterson’s motivation for his interest in establishing a Scottish colony in Central America.
While Paterson was certainly an astute banker and trader, a meeting in London with Lionel Wafer influenced his decision.
Welsh-born Wafer, often labelled as a buccaneer and privateer who had spent time in the region, described it in more flattering terms than it deserved.
Darien Scheme: subscription book
A subscription book to raise money for the Darien Scheme was opened in London and because the company’s charter seemed so attractive to investors, money poured in.
Such was the interest in England that the Scots struggled to retain control.
However, King William, recently returned from fighting in France, found himself under pressure from the English Parliament which saw the Scottish enterprise as a growing threat.
A House of Commons committee which had been examining what it called the “Scotch East India Company” proclaimed the Scots were guilty of a “ High Crime and Misdemeanor.” English support for the project evaporated.
With backing from south of the border suddenly removed, a new mood swept through Scotland. “A new and intense hatred of the English, coupled with a unity rarely seen before.”
A rising tide of support for the Darien Scheme brought Highlander and Borderer together. Men of noble birth and the poorest wretch were as one in a common cause.
With the withdrawal of English support for Darien and the closure of the subscription book in London, others were opened in Edinburgh and Glasgow to take its place.
A list of subscribers to the Company of Scotland, 1696 still exists. It makes fascinating reading for historians of the period.
Alongside many individual subscriptions, a number of towns also gave money. For example:
- The Good-Town of Edinburgh gave £3,000
- The Town of Glasgow also gave £3,000
- The Town of Dunbar gave £100
Incredibly for a nation on the verge of bankruptcy, £400,000 was pledged, a vast sum which represented around a quarter of Scotland’s wealth.
The expedition set sail from Leith, Edinburgh
In July 1698, three years after the Scottish Parliament had breathed life into the Company of Scotland, and despite English efforts to block them, five ships set sail from Leith, the port of Edinburgh carrying the hopes of a nation.
Only Captain Robert Pennicuik, who commanded the expedition, and William Paterson knew the final destination. Their secret was revealed to the 1,200 settlers and crew when the ships were at sea.
The captain’s orders commanded him to…
The holds were crammed with supplies for their voyage but also included a bizarre range of goods to trade. They included thousands of combs and mirrors and boxes of wigs.
When they finally reached Darien, which they called ‘New Caledonia’ in early November, seventy people, including William Paterson’s wife, had died during the voyage.
As it turned out this was only the tip of the iceberg.
They clambered ashore to find not a paradise as described by Lionel Wafer, but a mosquito-ridden swamp unsuitable for agriculture or building.
The area chosen for the colony was plagued by disease, difficult terrain, and hostile indigenous populations.
The settlers struggled to establish a viable settlement and faced severe supply shortages.
However, they persevered for eight weeks before moving to a new location where the settlers began the construction of Fort St Andrews, designed to be their main defensive structure.
The first rudimentary huts of what would become their new capital of New Edinburgh also started to take shape.
By the March of 1699, torrential rain had brought disease and over 200 settlers had died. Throughout April the death rate continued at an alarming rate — around 12 a day.
The native Indians, while relatively friendly, were, not surprisingly, uninterested in the goods the Scots were offering in trade.
Ships sent out to trade returned with the news that King William had forbidden other colonies in the region to trade with the Scots. The situation was getting increasingly desperate.
One settler, Rodger Oswald, wrote an account of life in Darien. He said,…
The final straw was the news that the Spanish planned an attack on the colony. The settlement was abandoned and of the four ships that left for the final time, only one, the Caledonia made it back to Scotland.
Of the 1,200 settlers that had originally sailed only 300 returned.
Darien Scheme: second expedition
A second expedition left Scotland in August 1699, not knowing the fate of the first, and finding the place abandoned they set about rebuilding it.
The Spanish however were certainly not going to tolerate a second attempt at colonising their territory and besieged Fort St Andrews.
The Scots finally surrendered in March 1700, and the survivors were allowed to leave. Some started new lives in the Indies and North America but few made it back to Scotland.
The failure of the Darien Scheme was a financial disaster for Scotland; the Company lost over £232,000.
Over the following seven years, it became increasingly obvious they would not survive economically and in 1707, Scotland was forced to concede to the Act of Union.
As part of the Act of Union settlement from England, Scotland was paid a sum of 398,000, known as the Equivalent, to compensate for the Darien losses.
In time, the organisation formed to administer the Equivalent became the Royal Bank of Scotland founded by Royal Charter on 31 May 1727.
It’s a name we are still familiar with today.
The Bank of Scotland was founded earlier by an Act of the Scottish Parliament on 17th July 1695.
- Scottish Banking History (after Darien)
The bold, some may say the desperate, vision of creating a Scottish settlement in the hostile landscapes of Panama highlighted the determination and resilience of those who participated in what turned out to be an ill-fated venture.
However, in essence, the ultimate outcome of the Darien Scheme fiasco was, for many Scots of the time, the unwanted United Kingdom of Great Britain.
More information about the Darien Scheme
The University of Glasgow, Spencer Collection has more information about the Darien Scheme.