If a Nation’s wealth and power were to be
measured in stubbornness, resilience, and inventiveness, rather than GDP, Scotland would
be a top-5 Superpower. The people that brought to you televisions,
refrigerators, penicillin, and gin & tonic have gone through many a rough patch throughout
their history. Very often, hard times were related to their
rocky relationship with their Southern neighbours, the English. In today’s exploration, we will look at
an example that sums up all I just described. This was Scotland’s only attempt at colonialism,
one that was funded on a sound business idea, but eventually turned into a failed utopia. Welcome to today’s Geographics, covering
The Darien Venture — also known as New Caledonia, or the colony that bankrupted Scotland. The Darien and its potential
Allow me to begin with a straight geography lesson. What is the Darien, and where can you find
it? The Darien isthmus is a region in modern-day
Panama, the narrow strip of land that connects Central America to the Southern American landmass. From above, the region looks like paradise
on Earth, with its gentle hills, luscious rainforest, and access to both the Pacific
and Atlantic oceans. On the Western coast, the region overlooks
the sheltered Bay of Darien, perfect for mooring ships and fishing. Our story takes place at the close of the
17th Century. Back then, the Darien had been home to the
Kuna people, at least until the Spaniards arrived. The Spanish Empire still ruled much of the
American continent and the Atlantic trade routes, threatened only by the proximity of
English colonies in the Caribbean. Now, as far as colonies go, the Spanish didn’t
show much interest in the Darien. I mentioned it looked like a paradise from
above, but on the ground, the place was quite inhospitable. The same lush jungle that looked so enticing
from above made it quite difficult to farm land and establish permanent settlements. Still, the isthmus had great strategic and
economic potential. Before the Panama Canal was opened in 1914,
merchant and naval fleets coming from the Atlantic were forced to circumnavigate all
of South America, sailing down to Cape Horn of the Magellan Straits before turning north
again. A long and perilous trip. There was an alternative, though, an idea
ripe for implementation: what if some entrepreneurial settlers would offer to unload cargo in the
Bay of Darien, transport it across the jungle to the Pacific coast, and load it onto another
ship? Those entrepreneurs would surely make millions
worth of dubloons, or whatever currency was used in the Caribbean at that time. At the close of the 17th Century, a concrete
business plan for such adventure materialized in the least likely nation, one not traditionally
associated with overseas conquest: Scotland. A nation in need of an idea
How about a short lesson on Scottish history? Scotland had been an independent kingdom for
centuries. In 1603, King James VI of Scotland, of the
House of Stuart, ascended to the English throne. From then on, he was known as James I in England
and James VI in Scotland. This surely must have confused foreign ambassadors
at the time! Scotland and England found themselves in a
relationship known as the Regal Union. In other words, the two countries had separate,
independent parliaments and administrative systems, but they shared a King. The Scottish Parliament had always resisted
complete subordination to English authorities, favouring a federative union instead. Following the victory of the Roundheads in
the English Civil War, Oliver Cromwell had imposed a forced union of Scotland, Ireland,
Wales and England – a union that few wanted. When the monarchy was restored in 1660, King
Charles II reverted to the old status quo. The English parliament made another attempt
at a full political union in 1689, but the Scottish Parliament, the ‘Estates’ rejected
the proposal. Scotland defended its independence, even if
it still shared a monarch with England. But in order to maintain independence, a nation
needs, among other things, a solid economy. And that’s something Scotland could rarely
boast. At the end of the 17th Century, the Scottish
economy was in a state of crisis. Years of famine had driven farmers away from
their lands. Homeless vagrants choked the cities, looking
for work but ultimately starving to death in the streets. The nation’s trade with continental Europe
had been crippled by the Crown’s wars; from 1672 to 1678, England allied with France and
Sweden against The Dutch Republic and Spain. Then, in 1688, a new faction emerged in Scotland:
the Jacobites. These were full-on independence seekers who
wanted to separate once and for all from the rule of the then-King of England, William
of Orange. The Jacobite uprising was part of larger conflict
known as the War of the Grand Alliance. This Grand Alliance, of which England was
part, fought against France, which could count on the Scottish independentists on its side. By the mid-1690s, Scotland was in a weak position,
ripe for total absorption by King William. Even non-Jacobites who had been against total
independence still treasured the autonomy of the Regal Union system, and they were at
risk of losing it all. Scotland desperately needed to revive its
depleted economic fortune, before it got swallowed up by its rich neighbour south of the border. Enter a man with a plan. This man was a financial adventurer called
William Paterson, a Scot who had built a reputation in London by founding an institution still
active today: the Bank of England. (Ironic, I know.) Whilst in London, Paterson had made friends
with a sailor named Lionel Wafer. I wonder how thin he was? This sailor captivated Paterson’s attention
with tales of a fantastic land on the other side of the Atlantic: a wonderful paradise,
overlooking a bay of calm waters, blessed by rich, fertile land and populated by tribes
of friendly natives. This land of milk and honey was called Darien. When Paterson returned to Edinburgh, he started
hatching an ambitious plan to jump-start Scotland’s economy. If trade with Europe was languishing, why
not move where trade was thriving? Paterson would turn Scotland into a colonial
trading power in the Americas. What could possibly go wrong? Paterson’s plan
I hinted at this earlier in the video. Paterson immediately realised the true potential
of the Darien Isthmus, as all major European naval powers were attracted to the lucrative
markets in China, Japan, and the rest of Asia, but the way to get there was prohibitively
long, expensive, and dangerous. Now, the purpose of ‘traditional’ colonies
were to exploit the newly occupied lands, to seize local goods to sell elsewhere, or
to provide an additional market to absorb goods and workforce from the motherland. Paterson’s plan was way more original: the
colony he had in mind would be entirely dedicated to transporting land cargo from the Atlantic
coast to the Pacific one, and vice-versa. Paterson’s enterprise would charge a nice
fat fee for their transport services, but this trading route would still be cheaper
and safer than the traditional circumnavigation of Cape Horn. In more poetic terms, Paterson claimed that
“Darien will be the door of the seas, the key of the Universe”
Were there any risks involved? Of course there were! But how can one make a profit without incurring
in some risk? In this case, risk took the shape of Spanish
colonial troops armed to the teeth, something that modern-day start-ups only occasionally
have to face. If you had asked me, the business proposition
was sound and enticing. I would have invested my hard-earned dubloons
in Mr Paterson’s venture. As it turns out, Scots in 1695 shared my enthusiasm. The idea proved hugely popular, so in June,
Paterson founded the Company of Scotland Trading to Africa and the Indies. There was a great rush to buy shares, both
north and south of the border. A bit-coin for the 17th century, if you will. Or should I say bit-dubloon? Maybe I will quit talking about dubloons,
as the currency at that time was still the boring Pound. A risk that start-ups normally face is protectionism
and resistance from more established companies. This case was not different. The English East India Company, fearing the
loss of its monopoly on British trade to the Indies, pressured the English Parliament,
which threatened the new company with impeachment. This threat of legal action eventually forced
English investors to withdraw. The East India Company and the English authorities
went as far as to threaten to embargo any merchant who attempted to trade with Paterson. With such opposition and boycott in England,
Paterson ‘went public’ in modern terms, and he expanded the sale of his shares to
Scottish people in all walks of life. Thousands responded to the call and within
6 months Paterson had raised £400,000, which in today’s money is 43 Million Pounds, or
54 Million US Dollars. A useless bit of trivia here: in those days,
that amount of cash could buy you either 74,000 horses or 96,000 cows. You could also purchase and outfit five ships
for an Expedition to Panama, which is exactly what Paterson did. The names of the ships alone evoke swashbuckling
tales of sea-faring adventures: The Unicorn, a mythical beast! The St. Andrew, Scotland’s patron saint! The Caledonia, the Latin name for ‘Scotland’! The Endeavour, the English synonym for ‘Enterprise’! The Dolphin, an intelligent, wisecracking
fish! [Caption: it’s a sea mammal]
Next, Paterson proceeded to adequately kit out his ships. Surely, he stocked up on cannons, muskets,
rapiers and cutlasses! Wrong. Here is a list of the inventory:
[Editing suggestion: the items underlined below should appear as text on screen. In other words: as Simon talks through the
list, each item pings on screen] First, some pistols – see, I told you, pistols
are vital if you need to swash and buckle! What’s next? Axes, spades and flooring nails. Well, you always need tools to build a colony. An how are you going to carry them? With 3 horse-drawn carriages. That’s sorted then … but no mention of
horses?!? The list continues with a series of household
items, such as 9 smoothing irons, 94 bed covers, 10 cups. And I agree with the smoothing irons, because
nobody ever colonized central America with a wrinkled shirt. Speaking of clothing, the five ships stocked
also 85 ceremonial wigs, 2,000 hats, 1301 pairs of slippers and 324 pairs of women’s
gloves. And here I am starting to doubt if these Scots
got their priorities right … Last but not least they carried with them hundreds of combs
and mirrors. These were to be used as ‘currency’ to
trade with the friendly natives described by Wafer. So apparently, Europeans trading mirrors and
trinkets with Native Americans was a real thing. But would they accept this type of currency? At this stage, it appeared that Paterson and
Co., as brilliant businessmen as they may be, were completely unprepared for a lengthy
colonial ordeal. The First Expedition
On the 4th of July in 1698, sunshine over Leith Harbour bade farewell to Paterson’s
small fleet. The five ships set sail under the command
of Captain Robert Pennecuik, with 1,200 would-be settlers on board. Paterson and Pennecuik managed the departure
with utmost secrecy, surely to prevent interference from the East India Company. In fact, they were the only two travellers
with knowledge of their final destination. This was revealed to everybody else only when
they were at open sea, and they were allowed to open the sealed packages handed over by
the Captain. The ships sailed 500 miles and then sailed
500 more – and so on – until they made landfall at Darien on the 2nd of November. During the voyage, the party had lost 70 of
their original crew. As sad as this may sound, it was actually
quite a good ratio for sea travel at the time. Optimistic, they renamed the Darien peninsula
as New Caledonia, or New Scotland – not to be confused with the French colony of the
same name in the South Pacific. The colonists set to work building a settlement,
although their first choice of location was not ideal. Paterson described it as:
“A mere morass, neither fit to be fortified nor planted, nor indeed for men to lie upon”
After two months of clearing the jungle and building rickety huts, the settlers found
a better location. The new spot was more suited to building defensive
structures, and it became known as Fort St. Andrew. Within the fort stockade, they began erecting
their living quarters, which they christened New Edinburgh. This new position may have been more easily
defendable than the previous one, but the other problems remained. It was especially clear that the colony would
not be able to sustain itself; the land was unsuited to agriculture, and the Kuna natives
were uninterested in trading their food for combs and mirrors. What a surprise. The New Caledonians held on for almost a year,
before the adventure took an ugly turn. In the spring of 1699, the colony was beset
by constant, torrential rain and tropical infectious diseases. By March, more than 200 colonists had died,
and the death rate had risen to more than 10 per day. Supplies were running short. Paterson and Pennecuik dispatched their five
ships to nearby colonies, in the hope of trading with them. Four ships returned empty handed, except for
a piece of bad news: all English ships and colonies had been forbidden to trade with
the Scots by order of the King. The fifth ship, The Dolphin, did not return
at all: it had been captured by the Spanish, with its crew imprisoned. The young settler Roger Oswald described in
vivid detail that hellish Spring on the Darien Peninsula. He described how everybody had to survive
on less than a pound of moldy flour a week. “When boiled with a little water, without
anything else, big maggots and worms must be skimmed off the top…Yet for all this
short allowance, every man daily turned out to work by daylight…and so continued until
12 o’clock, and at 2 again and stayed till night…My shoulders have been so wore with
carrying burdens that the skin has come off them and grew full of boils…Our bodies pined
away and grew so macerated with such allowance that we were like so many skeletons.” Even William Paterson’s wife and only child
died in Darien, to say nothing of his hopes of reviving Scotland with a brilliant business
plan. Just when things couldn’t get any worse, more
bad news reached the colony. The Spanish, whose colonies bordered Darien,
were planning an attack on New Caledonia. The settlers were in no position to fight
off an invasion. As panic spread, they decided to abandon the
settlement. But the return voyage was not as lucky as
the first one: of the four remaining ships that abandoned the colony, only the Caledonia
made it back to Scotland, with less than 300 souls on board. The Second Expedition
While Paterson and the remaining survivors were returning to Scotland, a second expedition
was being readied by his company. The second wave of colonists of course knew
nothing about the disaster that had struck their predecessors, and so they set sail in
August 1699. This was a smaller fleet of three ships, led
by The Rising Sun, but it carried a larger force of 1,300 settlers. 160 died in the crossing. After four months crossing the Atlantic, the
second expedition found Fort St Andrew and New Edinburgh completely abandoned. It was a ghost town. But these Scots would not easily accept defeat,
so they just got on with rebuilding New Caledonia. But this second attempt did not fare better
than the first. Disease and malnutrition were again the main
scourges, with an added problem: a collapse in discipline. This was understandable, given the terrible
circumstances in which these poor souls had to survive, but this ‘barbarity’ scandalised
Reverend Archibald Stobo, one of three Presbyterian ministers in New Caledonia. He wrote:
“Our land hath spewed out its scum…We could not prevail to get their wickedness
restrained, nor the growth of it stopped…” He went as far as claiming that the tropical
diseases and starvation were the just punishment of God for the ‘wickedness’ perpetrated
by that ‘scum’! Despite Reverend Stobo’s best efforts, it
was not prayer that curbed societal collapse, nor his sermons that rallied New Caledonians
together, but an external threat: the Spanish. The first expedition had only been threatened
with an invasion, but now the menace was real: news reached the Darien of a massing of Spanish
troops in nearby Toubacanti. Surely, that was in preparation for a deadly
strike. A young Colonel, Alexander Campbell of Fonab,
took matters in his own hands and persuaded the colonists to launch a pre-emptive strike
against the Spanish. Campbell’s second-in-command, Lieutenant
Turnbull, even managed to recruit some natives in the expedition. The leader of the Kuna, re-christened Captain
Ambrosio, had always been a supporter of the Scots, as the locals had a long-standing enmity
with the Spanish. Turnbull had become good friends with Captain
Pedro, his son-in-law, which blossomed into a military alliance before the attack. The combined Scot-Kuna attack on the Spanish
troops was successful, a victory beyond expectations. The Spanish were repelled back into the jungle
mist. But a tactical victory doesn’t necessarily
spell a strategic victory. The Spanish had superior forces, as well as
access to more supplies, so their next move was a sound one: they blockaded New Caledonia
from land and sea and surrounded Fort St Andrew with trenches and cannons, slowly advancing
them toward the rotting ramparts of the stronghold. After one month of brave resistance, the Scots
capitulated at the end of March 1700. Darien became another of Spain’s possessions. The Spanish were merciful and allowed the
surviving colonists to evacuate with their possessions on their remaining ships. But the ordeal was not over yet, as months
at sea can always be treacherous. And so it was that 350 more women and men
died on the way back. Only a handful ever returned to Scotland. Aftermath: The Act of Union
The Darien Venture and the New Caledonia colony had been a complete disaster for Scotland. The blow to Scottish morale was crippling. The death rate had been 71% of all settlers. The surviving leaders of the expedition were
faced with accusations – mostly well-founded – of incompetence and in-fighting. The same accusations extended to the other
survivors, who were unjustly ostracised by their fellow citizens, sometimes by their
own families. The young settler Roger Oswald, for example,
was disowned by his father. Colonel Campbell of Fonab came out of the
affair with honour, at least. He was awarded the ‘Toubacanti Medal’ for
his part in defending New Caledonia. The expeditions had caused deeper economic
disaster. The Company of Scotland Trading to Africa
and the Indies had lost more than half of their initial capital of 400,000 pounds, most
of which was raised from the life savings of many ordinary Scottish citizens. As a nation, Scotland was now entirely bankrupt
and incapable of maintaining its economic independence. Seven years later, Queen Anne succeeded William
of Orange on the English throne. The Queen and her cabinet had to endure yet
another war, the War of Spanish Succession. They realised that, albeit financially strong,
England lacked in manpower to fight in conflict, sustain the economy and maintain the Empire. And Scotland could provide that manpower … so
they once again considered extending a proposal of Union to the Scottish Estates. Now the Scottish parliament was in a position
of weakness, after the economy, already in dire straits, had been sunk by the Darien
failure. When the English parliament presented their
proposal for an Act of Union, it included an enticing clause: London would pay to Edinburgh
a sum of £398,000, most of which went to cover the Company of Scotland’s losses. This payment became known as ‘The Equivalent’,
or ‘The Price of Scotland’. And it is still debated, but apparently William
Paterson had a hand in ensuring that this proposal would be financially favourable to
Scotland. He died 12 years later, in 1719, in London. The Scottish Estates accepted the proposal,
and from then on, England and Scotland became two nations formally united under one monarch
and one parliament, with a shared foreign and defence policy. In other words: a United Kingdom. It’s easy to argue that the UK would have
never become a naval, military, political or economic power if it had stayed disjointed
as separate sovereign entities. Still, the Act of Union was not welcomed by
all Scottish citizens. To some, the Estates had simply accepted a
bribe from London, in the form of the Equivalent. Either by corruption or ineptitude, they had
sold their nation’s independence. This resentment led to further Jacobite uprisings
in 1715 and 1745. Year later, the Scottish national bard Robert
Burns lamented as such the Act of Union: “O would, before I had seen the day
That Treason thus could sell us, My old grey head had lain in clay,
With Bruce and loyal Wallace! But pith and power, till my last hour,
I’ll make this declaration; We’re bought and sold for English gold-
Such a parcel of rogues in a nation!” And so today’s exploration draws to a close. A Company founded on the basis of a brilliant
idea, an expedition that sailed halfway around the world to found a Utopia, only to clash
with the harsh reality of inexperience, the hostile schemes of other powers, and the unyielding
challenges of the natural world.