A wonderful paradise on the Isthmus of Panama

Scotland’s independent colonial adventures were devastating failures that ultimately led to the country becoming the junior partner in the United Kingdom. Why were Scots so drawn to central America, and why were their schemes so unsuccessful?

There was something about the steamy isthmus of central America that attracted Scottish adventurers. With its tropical jungles, exotic plants and animals, searing temperatures and debilitating diseases, it was as different from the glens, lochs and firths of Scotland as could be imagined.

A map of the proposed 'New Caledonia' in Darien Edinburgh: 1699.

Was it simply the only free spot left in a crowded mass of competing claims? A patch of territory so inhospitable that no other colonial power had bothered to develop it? Or had the Scottish colonists dared to dream of incredible projects that were centuries ahead of their time? Whatever the reason, Scotland’s failed colonial dreams would ruin the nation not once but twice and ultimately see her independence given up for union with England and access to her thriving colonial empire.

To many in Scotland it was simple logic that drove them to invest or even settle in central America. Envious southward glances saw England amassing wealth, trade and colonies across the world. Whilst England had valuable possessions in North America, the Caribbean and India, Scotland had no overseas outlet.

By the end of the seventeenth century, Scotland’s economy was suffering from English competition, the aftermath of ruinous civil wars and a lack of export trade. By the 1690s, Scotland’s economic difficulties were compounded by crop failures which brought famine to the suffering population. There seemed to be two options: an economic and political union with England or forging her own mercantile and colonial destiny.

Scottish nationalism and pride ensured it was the second of these options that was taken up. One of the leading lights was William Paterson, a Scot who had been one of the founding directors of the Bank of England. Under his guidance, the 1690s were littered with enthusiastic projects: the Bank of Scotland was set up in 1695, the Company of Scotland was chartered in the same year to trade with Africa and the Indies and public education was promoted throughout the kingdom.

The Darien Chest, Royal Museum, Edinburgh  by Kim Traynor

A great wave of optimism and nationalistic pride saw huge subscriptions to the Company of Scotland raised both at home and abroad. A huge sum of £400,000 was raised within weeks, an amount equivalent to one-fifth the entire wealth of the nation. But what would the Company do with all of this money? Once again, the Scots turned to Patterson for an answer. A sailor had told Paterson about:

“a wonderful paradise on the Isthmus of Panama, with a sheltered bay, friendly Indians and rich, fertile land – a place called Darien.”

Paterson saw more to Darien than merely trading with friendly locals or reaping rich harvests from the fertile lands. A successful colonisation of Darien would allow the Scots to control a shortcut for trade between the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans.

Soon five ships had been assembled and fitted out in Leith, the Saint Andrew, Caledonia, Unicorn, Dolphin, and Endeavour. Their orders were to sail to the Bay of Darien and establish a settlement. On reaching the Americas the settlers founded their new town and named it New Caledonia.

The euphoria was short-lived. The colonists found that their new home was a malarial swamp on land owned by the Spanish. The natives, whilst not overtly hostile (they reserved their hatred for the Spanish), were not friendly and did not wish to trade. Even Paterson acknowledged their first choice for settlement was unwise:

“A mere morass, neither fit to be fortified nor planted, nor indeed for men to lie upon… We were clearing and making huts upon this improper place near two months, in which time experience, the schoolmaster of fools, convinced our masters that the place now called Fort St Andrew was a more proper place for us”.

The commemorative two pound piece celebrating the Act of Union

But nowhere on the peninsula was particularly suited to settlement. Agriculture failed, trade was non-existent (a position made all the most bitter by an English embargo on the colony) and the Spanish were set to attack the interlopers on their territory. One of the colonists, Alexander Shields, wrote that:

“the Colony had deserted the 20th of June last [1699] for sickness (having destroyed themselves by working excessively on the fortifications) and for fear of want of provisions, that the St Andrew with her men was gone to Jamaica and the Unicorn and Caledonia to New York.”

Only 300 of the 1200 settlers survived and only one ship managed to return to Scotland. Further disaster was to follow, as a second wave of settlers had already set out to Darien before news of the disaster reached Scotland. They would find an abandoned colony and just as hopeless a situation as their predecessors. This time, the Spanish were in no mood to entertain Scottish guests and sent a large force to besiege the settlement.

The result for Scotland was catastrophic: a quarter of her national wealth had been sunk into the scheme and people from all strands of society were heavily in debt. It also marked the final push towards full union with England. In 1707 the Act of Union brought the two kingdoms together into the United Kingdom.

Gregor MacGregor By George Watson (†1837).Tvwatch at de.wikipedia [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons

This was not the end of Scotland’s independent (and disastrous) colonial adventures. In the 1820s, Gregor MacGregor’s bond-market frauds ran to £1.3m (as a share of Britain’s economy, around £3.6 billion today). At the heart of his frauds was a colonial vision not entirely dissimilar to Darien. MacGregor had invented the Principality of Poyais, a rich and fertile land larger than Wales and ripe for settlement and development. MacGregor, no stranger to self-aggrandisement, set himself up as a the Cacique of Poyais.

Once again, Scots flocked to the banner of colonisation, with thousands investing in the scheme and hundreds signing up to be amongst the first colonists. MacGregor issued bonds in the name of this fictional country, offering a return of 6% – double the rate offered by the British Government. Once again, Scots were beguiled by promises of rich returns and the trading prospects of a canal linking the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.

According to the Economist, the promises were extravagant to the point of being suspiciously to good to be true:

“the natives were not only friendly, but loved the British. The soil was not just fertile, but capable of sustaining three maize harvests per year (elsewhere, two would be good going). The water supply was not just clean, clear and abundant, but in the streams of Poyais there were chunks of gold.”

Once again, the dream proved to be a cruel mirage and the first settlers faced ruin, disease and death. Today, Darien is so inhospitable and undeveloped that it is the only break in the 30,000 mile Pan-American Highway (the so-called Darien Gap). It is a similar story in Poyais, whihc lies untouched and untroubled by economic development.