Tuesday, February 26, 2013

History: The Darien Scheme

In the 1690s, the independent Kingdom of Scotland was deep in financial trouble. A series of civil wars and hard feelings from and against England, as well as year after year of sorry harvests, saw the landed gentry in tight straights and the poor in very hard conditions indeed. Something had to be done, of course; if Scotland grew too weak, both physically and financially, England would pounce of what she imagined was already hers.

Fortunately, the age of exploration - and get-rich-quick schemes - in the East and West Indies was in full swing. The Lords of Scotland were ready to dive in with both feet, and make a monetary killing in the process, and they were primed for what Education Scotland online calls the "economic guru" to fan the flames of greed. One William Paterson stepped in to do just that.

Paterson, a founder of the Bank of England, was also a preacher of the new word: anyone could get rich in the Americas. All it took, he insisted, was the right amount of cash and the right men to do the job. The Lords, hungry for the kind of wealth that was flowing in to countries like Spain and England, bought into Paterson's idea immediately. Scotland would establish a colony at Darien, what is now the Isthmus of Panama and - more specifically - the treacherous area known as the Darien Gap. The colony would be called New Caledonia and, for a small fee, the Scottish nobility could get in on the deal.

Paterson set to work inventing the Company of Scotland to raise "public capital." Initially, funds funneled in from all over Europe, including Holland, Germany and England. Colonists lined up to sign the charter singing the much familiar refrain: better to build in the New World than starve in the Old. A group of unsavory muscle men, former mercenaries for the most part led by a despicable character named Thomas Drummond, were also assembled, and five ships were commissioned for the voyage.

All appeared to be going well until William III, that king of England sometimes called "of Orange," got wind of the affair, probably from the aristocrats who invested in England's East India Company. He decreed that Scotland and her Company had no authority to raise money outside of Great Britain; Paterson had no choice but to return the much needed income from Germany and Holland. Much needed, it turned out, because Paterson - who was for all intents and purposes a penniless con man - had been siphoning coin into his own pockets. When the discrepancies were discovered, he was kicked out of the Company, but his disastrous plan went forward nonetheless.

There is an old saying among the indigenous people of Panama that the Darien can kill you in a thousand different ways. To this day it is ill-advised to make a trek through the area, as one particular episode of NatGeo's "Locked Up Abroad" proved without a doubt. The unfortunates who sailed for their New Caledonia, 1,200 in all, in July of 1698 were about to find that out the hard way. The journey itself, which began with a meandering sail around the north of Scotland to avoid English warships, was a nightmare. People and animals were sick most of the time, with many failing to survive the trip. Arriving at what the colonists called Golden Island in the Bay of Darien on November 2nd must have been something like seeing paradise.

But paradise it wasn't.

The colonists immediately set to building what they hoped would be a prosperous settlement, Fort St. Andrew, on the main peninsula of the Isthmus. Unfortunately, lack of nourishment - most of the stores had spoiled on the crossing due to the infiltration of pests and bilge water - a shortage of fresh water and disease made the work slow. Drummond, the brutal thug who became de-facto leader of the group, pushed the colonists to exhaustion. Their letters home were reviewed; everything had to appear to be going according to Paterson's original plan. No whining allowed. And then summer came and literal clouds of mosquitoes brought the horror of yellow fever to the yet unfinished Fort St. Andrew.

Worse than all this was the lack of agriculture and trade. The swampy land, riddled with salt water pools, was bad for growing. Both Spanish and English merchants refused to trade with the colonists as well. Their marching orders from Madrid and London were to let the Scots starve, grow sick and die. There was no room, in European opinion, for another colony in the Americas. Things grew so horrible that the colonists finally threw up their hands. in July of 1699, the 300 remaining colonists left a small number of their dying comrads at the tent city on the Isthmus and sailed for Port Royal, Jamaica. There they were denied food and water and not even allowed to come ashore. They sailed home, but not in time to save more wide eyed adventurers.

1,000 more colonists left Scotland in November of 1699. Their journey was also pitiable. From aboard the Rising Sun a man named Shields wrote of "our company very uncomfortable, consisting for the generality, especially the officers and volunteers of the worst of mankind, if you had scummed the Land and raked the borders of hell for them, men of lewd practices and venting the wickedness of principles; for these things God was provoked to smite us very signally and severely with a contagious sickness of the fleet." You can read the rest of the letter here.

The ships were so close packed that the "contagious sickness" was probably gaol fever: typhus. The colonists, weakened as before by illness and lack of proper food, could do very little for fortify what was not really the settlement they had hoped to find. They subsisted, to a large degree, through the kindness of passing buccaneers. These men, having no country on many occasions on often of French or Creole descent, were not hampered by orders from the kings of Europe. But the help was sparse as, for the most part, the colonists had little or nothing to offer the freebooters in exchange for food, fresh water and medicine.

The final blow to New Caledonia came when the Spanish, fed up with the annoying Scots, besieged what was left of Fort St. Andrew. According to Nat Edwards in his book Caledonia's Last Stand, the Scottish colonists made a daring raid on the Spanish stockade at Toubacanti in January of 1700. This was the last straw for the Spanish. By April of the same year, the colonist capitulated to the Spanish. Less than 200 men and women sailed for Scotland, leaving the dream of New Caledonia behind forever.

Many historians, Edwards included, see the failure of the Company of Scotland and the Darien Scheme as the death knell of the Scottish Kingdom. Their coffers empty and their crops still meager, the Lords of Scotland had no choice but to sign the Acts of Union and become part of Great Britain in 1707. The Darien Scheme, then, cost Scotland her chance at empire.

Header: New Caledonia and the Isthmus of Darien from a Scottish map possibly informed by adventurer Lionel Wafer c 1699 via Wikipedia


Timmy! said...

If it wasn't the Darien Scheme, it would have been something else. It was just a matter of time, Pauline.

Pauline said...

Unfortunately, you're probably right. The trouble began with a guy named Robert the Bruce and ended with the Bernie Madoff - as you metaphored - of 17th century Britain.

Charles L. Wallace said...

Taking a long time, but finally working on abolishing the Union of 1707. Huzzah!!

We got invited a bit after that to leave the lands (Wallace having become unpopular before unfortunately having to pass the torch to de Brus, and scions resisted Cromwell, and supported James, the Auld Pretender - we became Ulstermen (!!) for a generation before hastening to far Americay ;-)

Fascinating story, and thank you for highlighting it, Pauline.