The Disastrous Darien Adventure
300 years ago, in 1698, saw one of the most heroic, and yet disastrous, episodes in Scottish history.
Five ships sailed out from Leith with 1,200 men and women aboard. Huge crowds gathered on Edinburgh’s Calton Hill and all along the coast of Fife to give them a good send-off. It had all begun a few years earlier when William Paterson, born in Tyndrum, but spending most of his life in England and abroad, started up the Company of Scotland. He was well placed to do so, having already proposed and founded the Bank of England and the Bank of Scotland.
The idea was that a group of colonists would set of for the Darien Isthmus in Panama to establish a free emporium where traders the world over could meet to exchange goods without the exploitation of slavery.
It was a grand idea, meant to go head to head with the Dutch East India Company, and, in Paterson’s words, Darien would become the door to the seas and the key to the universe.
Investment was initially to come from England, but King William had no love for anything Scottish and decided that anyone investing, who was resident in England, would be prosecuted. Undeterred, Paterson took his scheme to the Scots themselves, who rose to the challenge, delighted by the prospect of money begetting money.
They queued up to invest, for the pride of Scotland was at stake now that the English had so pointedly spurned the scheme, until at last an entire quarter of the liquid assets of Scotland’s economy was invested in the Company of Scotland.
And off they went the colonists in glory and cheers, five ships over the waves to America. But the journey was grim. Supplies were rotten or mouldy, and insufficient, and every day one or more bodies were chucked over the side into the sea. After sixteen weeks they limped into Darien, undeterred by the fact that the Spanish had already laid claim to the land, and set to building huts optimistically called The New Edinburgh in their new Caledonian settlement.
But Darien was no paradise, nor the key to free and universal trade; the jungle behind them was impenetrable; the rains were heavy and unceasing; their clothes rotted on their backs; no one wanted their wigs, woollen hose or tartan plaids. Fever was rife. Paterson’s own wife died. The leaders of the new township quarrelled about what they should do.
What they didn’t do was relay all this misery to their friends and supporters back in Scotland, who were under the impression that the expedition had been a raging success; so much so that they were already preparing another three shiploads of colonists to follow in their wake.
And then another disaster struck the folk in Darien.
King William issued an order to every English colonist on the American seaboard that forbade English trade of any kind with the Scots – no arms or ammunition, no clothes, no boots, no drink, no food. Darien was, after all, Spanish territory, and William did not want to antagonise the Spanish, and once the Spanish became aware of the Darien colony they decided to take action.
This threat of the Spanish attacking was the last straw. New Edinburgh was abandoned. Their ships couldn’t manage the Atlantic so they headed for New York. The entire crew and passengers of the St Andrew died at sea, and of the five ships only the Caledonia made it home to Scotland, bearing the terrible news that of the original 1,200 colonists less than 300 had survived.
But more disaster was on hand, because twelve days before the Company Directors learned the news that Darien had been abandoned, those further three ships of colonists had already set sail.
These ships arrived in November 1699 and once again were struck down by disease and distress. The Company, though, had sent 200 soldiers on a fourth ship racing after them over the seas, and these men attacked the Spanish at nearby Tubuganti, and won a brief reprieve.
A few months later the Spaniards were back in force, and once again the colonists abandoned New Edinburgh and set sail for New York.
They didn’t make it.
The Hope of Bo’ness was broken up on rocks just off Cuba.
The Rising Sun and the Duke of Hamilton were caught up in a hurricane offshore of South Carolina and sunk.
Not a single survivor.
The Company of Scotland was at its end, although ironically they would be proved right about the usefulness of Darien, as shown by the eventual building of the Panama Canal, that was begun in 1913.
A long time to wait to say I told you so, and far too late for William Paterson and his co-colonists, whose journey had begun with such optimism and ended less than two years later with most of them dead.