A Scottish Colony in Central America —- The Darien Scheme
In the Age of Exploration and subsequent colonization of the America’s, the Kingdom of Scotland played a very small role. However in the 1690’s, a wealthy Scottish banker named William Paterson had plans to change all that. Paterson proposed the founding of a Scottish colony on the Isthmus of Panama, known to them as the Isthmus of Darien. At that strategic location the Scots could control trade between North and South America as well as overland trade from the Caribbean to the Pacific. Paterson believed that the colony could provide immeasurable riches to Scotland, a small economy with little wealth and few exports.
Using his influence as founder of the Bank of England, Paterson helped found the Bank of Scotland, and attracted investments from all over Scotland. Scottish nobles were so enthusiastic about the project that they invested £400,000, which was almost 1/4th of all the cash wealth in Scotland. The Company of Scotland was formed, and by 1698 an expedition of 1,200 people had founded the colony of New Edinburgh, which consisted of a simple fort and a number of huts.
The Scottish colonists at Darien were so out of place they were like fishes without water. Attempts at agriculture failed miserably as the colonists could not comprehend that farming techniques successful in Scotland would not work in the jungles of Panama. They also lacked fresh water as the colony had been built far away from any rivers, wells, or aquifers. The Scots had brought a number of trinkets to trade with the natives. However these natives, who had clashed with the Spanish for over a century, did not want their Scottish junk, they wanted the Scots gone. With shortages of food and potable water, the Scots soon fell to malnutrition and tropical disease. Especially deadly were the terrible outbreaks of malaria, typhus, and dysentery. By 1699 the colony was abandoned and the Scots returned home.
Undeterred by the failure of the first Darien Colony, the Company of Scotland settled a new colony in late 1699. The second colony made all the same mistakes of the first, and within weeks settlers died like flies due to disease, starvation, and attacks by natives. Worse yet, the Spanish got wind of the colony, to them an illegal settlement as Panama was considered Spanish territory. In February of 1700, a force of Spanish soldiers laid siege to the fort, eventually forcing the Scots to surrender. The remaining colonists were allowed to return home in peace.
The failure of Darien Colony was a disaster for Scotland. Those who invested in the colony saw their wealth disappear with a flash. The Scottish economy tanked as it saw one quarter of its wealth vanish into thin air. Worse yet was the fate of the Darien colonists. Of a total of 3,700 settlers, only around 500 survived. William Paterson himself journeyed with the first expedition, and would lose his wife and child to disease.
In 1707 England proposed a treaty in which Scotland and England would form one United Kingdom. The Acts of Union were highly unpopular among the Scots, especially Scottish nobles who treasured their sovereignty and power. To sweeten the deal the English offered a payment (bribe) of £400,000 to the Scottish Parliament, almost all of whom had lost sizable fortunes in the Darien Scheme. The Act of Union passed in May of 1707.
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