A wonderful paradise on the Isthmus of Panama


Towards the end of the seventeenth century, Scotland sank a huge chunk of its national wealth into an audacious scheme to colonise central America.

By building its own colonial empire, a still independent Scotland planned to become a more equal partner with England under the Stuart crown.

This is the first in a two part series looking at Scotland’s colonial disasters. In both cases, huge amounts of capital were raised and lost, and many lives ruined, as Scots attempted to forge a colonial empire in Central America.  

The colony was to straddle the Isthmus of Panama at the Gulf of Darién. It would create an overland route to connect the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Vessels from the Old World and the New World, it was hoped, would converge on the colony. Scotland would reap bountiful dividends.

In the end, the venture failed. The Darien Scheme’s downfall was a major push forcing Scotland to give up her independence and join with England in 1707’s Act of Union.

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A tropical cure for economic torpor?

There was something about the steamy isthmus of Panama that seemed to attract Scottish adventurers. With its tropical jungles, exotic plants and animals, searing temperatures and debilitating diseases, it was about as different from the mountains, glens and lochs of Scotland as could be imagined.

By the end of the seventeenth century, Scotland was suffering. English competition, the aftermath of ruinous civil wars and Scotland’s sclerotic export trade combined to stifle a moribund economy.

By the 1690s, crop failures compounded economic woes. Famine stalked an already suffering population.

There seemed to be two options. Scotland could pursue an economic and political union with England. Or it could forge an independent mercantile and colonial destiny.

Scottish nationalism and pride led the country to try and go it alone.

One of the country’s brightest leaders was William Paterson. He had gone to London to seek his fortune. He proposed the scheme that led to the creation of the Bank of England in 1694. This brought him huge personal riches and enormous political capital. He returned to Scotland brimming with ideas to improve his native land.

Under his guidance, the Bank of Scotland was set up in 1695. The Company of Scotland received its charter in the same year.  It would compete with the English East India Company and develop trade with Africa and the Indies.

The Door of the Seas, the Key of the Universe

These were important developments in modernising the Scottish economy. But they wouldn’t be enough to bring about the fundamental step change that many in the country demanded.

Once again, William Paterson had a big idea to transform Scotland’s fortunes.

The English, Spanish, Portuguese, French and Dutch all had colonies. Even Denmark, Norway and Sweden had expanded abroad. Scotland needed her own overseas outlet.

So, where should the Scots go?

Paterson had heard about ‘a wonderful paradise on the Isthmus of Panama’. It boasted a sheltered bay, friendly Indians and rich, fertile land. It was called Darien.

Darien offered far more than a natural harbour and agricultural land. It is one of the narrowest points on the thin strip of land connecting the Americas. Only 50 kilometres separate the Atlantic from the Pacific at this point.

Darien was, in Paterson’s own words, ‘the Door of the Seas, the Key of the Universe’.

By establishing a vibrant Scottish entrepot at Darien, goods could be conveyed the short distance between the oceans. This would save thousands of miles and days of sailing. It would also avoid the dangerous Cape of Good Hope and Cape Horn crossings.

Again, according to Paterson, ‘trade will increase, and money will beget money’.

It would also be a very different kind of overseas venture to those that had preceded it. It would not be a colony of conquest, like the Spanish and Portuguese empires in South America.

And it would not be a colony of plantations and slavery, like those in the West Indies, Virginia, the Carolinas and Georgia.

Instead, Darien would become a free port, an international emporium welcoming goods, ships and people from around the world.

It was a visionary and compelling idea. It caught the imagination in Scotland. Soon, subscriptions were pouring into the offices of the Company of Scotland. By the time ships were ready to sail, £300,000 had been raised. This vast sum is estimated to represent about a quarter of all of the money circulating in Scotland at the time.

Five ships were assembled and fitted out in Leith. They bore rousing patriotic names – the Saint Andrew, Caledonia, Unicorn, Dolphin, and Endeavour. They left Scotland on 12 July 1698, crowds of well-wishers crowding the shore

Their orders were to sail to the Bay of Darien and establish the colony of Caledonia with the first settlement to be New Edinburgh.

The pride of Scotland, the envy of the world

She sat in shade of the veranda, a light, cooling breeze blowing from the ocean. The morning rain storm had come and gone, and taken the oppressive heat with it. What remained was the vibrant blue of a cloudless sky and the glittering turquoise of the Atlantic Ocean.

Waves crashed against the white sandy beach and palm trees danced. It was days like this that made her happy. From her solitary refuge she could see all of humanity – these days, it seemed like everyone came to New Edinburgh.

Ships dotted the water as far as the horizon, carrying the flags and pennants of all the nations. Just over the hill to the left, the sprawl of the town of New Edinburgh began.

Was it still a town? It seemed more like a city now. Massive warehouses, tall buildings and solid churches clustered around the harbour. Scots colonial houses spread out as far as she could see – the crofts of the Caribbean.

But, unlike the croft she had been born in, these homes were prosperous and substantial.

Moraig was one of the last surviving colonists from the first ships that came to Darien. She had been a wee bairn, but those memories were still so vivid. She could barely step foot on a ship without feeling ill, remembering the disease and despair of that ocean crossing.

When they had arrived, there was no town and no harbour. Everything had been built by those brave, early settlors. Still, she remembered the sheer joy of reaching dry land, splashing in the spray of the ocean and feeling the warm sand between her feet.

Her parents had started work immediately, making a makeshift shelter and finding food and water.

Whilst she and the other children played, the settlement became a village. The natural harbour was reinforced with piers, wharves and jetties. All of this was guarded by Fort St. Andrew, the huge Saltire of Scotland flying proudly in the wind.

Her happy childhood was only interrupted a few times by the drums of war. The Spanish were made furious by what they had done. It didn’t matter that they had no settlements or interest in the area. They just wanted everything for themselves.

Their haughty pride was soon cut down by Scottish steel. With drums and fifes and the roar of cannons, the attackers were sent packing. It only took two or three defeats for them to learn the lesson.

Soon enough, the colony had enough cannons, ships and men to defend herself from Spain, pirates and any others foolish enough to test them.

Soon enough, her childhood ended. She was married and had children of her own. Her husband worked for the Company, and they were able to build a substantial home away from the packed streets of the harbour.

Over time, a path was cut through the dense jungle. New Stirling was founded on the Pacific side of the isthmus, a sister settlement connected by the Road.

In her later years, the process of getting goods from one side of the colony to the other had been honed into a smooth, efficient system. An iron road was laid, with mules and horses able to pull long trains of wagons across the isthmus. Now, there was even talk of digging a canal to connect the oceans.

She didn’t go into town very often these days. Her children, grandchildren and, Lord be blessed, even her great grandchildren came to visit her. There was always someone over to stay – the traders and townsfolk who had become friends over the decades.

She was happy and proud. They had planted seeds in this strange corner of the world and they had reaped a bountiful harvest. New Edinburgh was the pride of Scotland, and Scotland the envy of the world.

One of the most spectacular of all national failures

Today, there is no New Edinburgh on the isthmus of Panama.

Caledonia barely survived its first year.

And even today, Darien remains largely untouched. The Darien Gap is the missing link in the Trans-American Highway.

So how did it all go so badly wrong?

The colonists soon found that their new home was not a wonderful paradise. It was a malarial swamp on land owned by the Spanish. Paterson had backed his idea in person and accompanied the first ships. Even he 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.’

But nowhere on the peninsula was particularly suited to settlement. Agriculture failed and trade was non-existent. Worse still, 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.’

These troubles might have been overcome with help from England’s colonies. However, King William made sure that this assistance would not be forthcoming.

Scotland’s colonial adventure had run foul of William’s continental strategy. He might have been King of Scotland, but he was also the Prince of Orange and Stadtholder of the Dutch Republic.

He needed to build alliances to protect the Netherlands from France. In the 1690s, this meant befriending Spain. And Spain would never tolerate a foreign incursion on the Isthmus of Panama.

Paterson and the Scots saw an undeveloped opportunity. The Spanish viewed the land as the essential thread connecting two halves of her New World empire.

So, in the summer of 1699, King William issued a proclamation that forbade assistance to the Scots. This was issued to all of the colonial governors and commanders. It ensured that Darien would receive no help from Jamaica, the Bahamas, Bermuda or the American colonies.

That left the Scots surrounded by hostile Spanish forces and with no one to trade with. The bolts of tartan cloth and thousands of periwigs that they had brought with them across the ocean seemed particularly foolish in the suffocating heat of the tropical jungle.

Shipwrecked for want of necessary expenditure

Despair soon gave way to prostration as the colonists fell ill with a deadly array of tropical fevers. Paterson was not immune from the suffering – he lost his wife and daughter and was laid low by dysentery.

Eventually, in June 1699, the colonists decided to save who and what they could and return to Scotland.

Only 300 of the 1,200 original settlers survived. Just one of the first five ships made it back 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. She had sunk a quarter of her national wealth into the scheme. 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.

It became one of a series of chapters in a melancholy book. Walter Scott wrote, in The Tales of a Grandfather, that:

‘The Scots are often found to attempt splendid designs, which, shipwrecked for want of necessary expenditure, give foreigners occasion to smile at the great error and equally great misfortune of the nation.’

Next week, we fast forward 130 years to discover the story of the Poyais, the country that never was, in Scotland’s second attempt to colonise Central America.

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