The Union

On the eve of the referendum on Scottish independence, the National Post (Toronto) looks back on the event that propelled parliamentary union in the first place: the Darien Colony in Panama.


Why Scotland is part of Great Britain: Disastrous 17th century colony in Panama behind union with England

Tristin Hopper | September 17, 2014 6:45 PM ET

A Scotsman is credited as being the “Father of Australia.” Another Scotsman consolidated the modern state of India. In Canada, a Scottish explorer was the first European to cross the country from sea to sea. A few decades later, another Scotsman was the first to put a railway across it.

Scots thrived in the colonies of the British Empire — which makes it all the more ironic the main reason they entered a 300-year union with England in the first place was because their own attempt at a colony had been such an unbelievable failure.

“Trade will increase, and money will beget money, and the trading world shall need no more want work for their hands, but will rather want hands for their work,” read the infamous 1695 words of Scottish financier William Paterson as he dazzled his countrymen with tales of New World riches.

By the dawn of the 18th century, much of Central America was already speaking Spanish, New France stretched from Quebec to Louisiana, and thousands of English settlers were busy carving out what would eventually become the United States.

Seventy years before, a Scottish colony at Nova Scotia (Latin for “New Scotland) had fizzled out after only a few years. But now, Scotland’s 1 million residents decided it was high time to try again.

The plan, in hindsight, was astonishingly naive. A tiny flotilla of Scottish ships was to sail right into the centre of the mighty Spanish Empire and plant a colony on the Isthmus of Darien, in what is now Panama.

There, in a settlement to be dubbed New Caledonia, the Scots would set up a kind of proto-Panama Canal.

Rather than sail around Cape Horn, fleets of European merchant ships would unload their cargo on the western edge of New Caledonia. Then, after the Scots had hustled it through the jungle, they would pick it up on the other side.

“The time and expense of navigation to China, Japan, the Spice Islands and the far greatest part of the East Indies will be lessened more than half,” said Paterson.

For a country beset by crop failures and internal wars, the prospect of becoming Europe’s middle-man was too good to resist. The kingdom of Scotland suddenly went all-out on Paterson’s colonization scheme.

“It certainly was a national frenzy in terms of investing; people were subscribing to this company with dreams of fabulous wealth,” said Leith Davis, director of the Centre for Scottish Studies at Simon Fraser University.

As one British historian put it, the scheme attracted “the nobility, the gentry, the merchants, the people, the royal burghs without the exception of one … young women threw their little fortunes into the stock, widows sold their jointures.”

Within months, the venture had raised about half of all the available cash in Scotland. By the time a first batch of 1,500 eager Scottish volunteers set sail in 1698, up to one fifth of the country’s total net worth was bound up in the plan.

“It was a pretty major disaster,” said Elizabeth Ewan, a professor of Scottish history at the University of Guelph.

For starters, the English — in particular the East India Company — had no interest in seeing their northern neighbours get a foothold in the New World. When the Spanish inevitably attacked the upstart colony, English ships were forbidden to intervene.

And although Scots had dreamed of colonizing a tropical paradise, Darien was a disease-ridden swamp. The colonists’ attempts at yam and corn farming failed, and local natives were generally uninterested in swapping food for their ample supplies of combs, tartan and mirrors.

On top of everything, the venture was horrifically mismanaged. The organizers embezzled their enormous windfall, lost it on side-investments and squandered it on overly extravagant ships, none of which were insured.

“The management lost touch with reality, thinking a financially poor Scotland could take on the Spanish Empire, set up a colony in Central America and control both sides of the isthmus with just three ships,” Scottish historian Douglas Watt told Edinburgh’s The Scotsman in 2006.

Of the 2,500 volunteers who had set sail in two expeditions, only a few hundred ever made it back Scotland alive.