The Darien Colony

Map of Darien Colony

The Darien Colony was a symbol of Scotland's economic and national aspiration. The securing of a Scottish Empire abroad at a time when famine and poverty were becoming a problem at home could have set us on a very different path than that of union with England. As it turned out the colony was a terrible failure which cost Scotland dear and has long lingered in the national memory perhaps contributing to that strange self-defeating part of the Scottish psyche which revels in our glorious defeats.

In 1695 the Scottish parliament passed an act which led to the foundation of The Company of Scotland Trading to Africa and the Indies. The company set about securing funding but attempts to raise cash in the south or on the continent were largely blocked by the notorious East India Company who voraciously beat down any opposition to their supremacy.

Determined nonetheless the raising of capital became a matter of national pride and the Scottish people poured at least £400,000 into the company, a colossal amount at the time. The company directors considered a number of places to establish a colony including Greenland and Africa but they eventually settled on the Isthmus of Panama.

William Paterson, who had been a trader in the West Indies and founded the Bank of England before returning home, was the man who persuaded the company that Darien was the best place to colonise.

The obvious problems with this choice of location were plentiful, the area was mostly conquered by the Spanish and they didn't fancy cutting anyone else in on their prize. Worse King William feared offending the Spanish and so he refused any assistance even forbidding the English colonies nearby to trade with the Scots. This left the colony terribly isolated. In addition the area was covered in dense jungle, had a horribly wet climate and was home to diseases unfamiliar to Scots.

The first fleet to depart took many months to stock up amidst a sense of growing excitement across the country. The fleet was made up of five ships (they were named Endeavour, Dolphin, Unicorn, Saint Andrew and Caledonia) carrying over 1200 men, women and children from all walks of life. They set sail from Leith in July 1698 and arrived at Golden Island on November 3rd where they were mistaken by the natives as English.

Modern day Puerto Escoces

The Scots established a colony called New Caledonia in Caledonia Bay (known today as Puerto Escoces). They constructed a fort equipped with fifty cannons for defence, called Fort St. Andrew, to protect the position and they dug a canal. Initially things looked good and the natives under Chief Andreas were happy to sign a Treaty of Friendship, Union and Perpetual Confederation with the colonists. The Scots offered them better trade rates than the Spanish.

The colonists were soon attacked by the Spanish but they held their own and it was the problem of re-supply which really defeated them. The English were determined for Darien to fail and refused to allow any trade with their colonies.

The situation was made worse by factionalism amongst the colonists who exported local disputes and the prevalence of fever which combined with an alien environment to provoke the abandonment of the colony. By the time the second expedition was ready to set sail from the Clyde there were reports that the colony had been abandoned entirely.

The second party of 1300 colonists didn't fare much better. Despite a great victory over the Spanish at Toubacanti where the Scots fought alongside the natives under the leadership of Robert Campbell the might of the Spanish was too much to stand up against and the colony was blockaded by Spanish ships. In 1700 the remaining colonists surrendered to the Spanish on honourable terms.

Back in Scotland the failure provoked much anger especially towards King William who had ignored his Scottish subject's needs and in fact exacerbated the colonist's plight in favour of the English. There were riots in Edinburgh and it is unsurprising that the Scottish parliament passed the Act of Security in 1704 which would allow for a separate succession. The following year the English passed the Alien Act barring free trade and the union was subsequently forced on an unwilling populace. Many of the Scottish aristocracy saw union as a way of regaining their lost wealth. It is estimated that as much as a quarter of the wealth of Scotland was tied up in the Company of Scotland.

In 1705 an English ship called the Worcester docked at Leith in Edinburgh. Such was the anger over the failure of Darien that the Secretary of the Company of Scotland (perhaps keen to deflect attention) suggested they were pirates who had attacked a company ship off the coast of India. The unfortunate Captain Green and a couple of his crewmen were executed but the evidence was extremely flimsy.

Some people have described the Darien failure as the worst ever disaster to befall Scotland but there are so many to choose from it's difficult to assess. In any case there can be little doubt that it contributed to the union with England. The loss was felt throughout Scotland and national pride was seriously damaged.