In November 1698, a group of five Scottish ships landed in an eastern bay of Panama. Their mission, code name the Darien Scheme: found a colony that could compete with British trading companies and Spanish hegemony in Central America. They called their colony Caledonia, with the capital New Edinburgh. Ever heard of this colony? ‘Cause I sure as hell never had. Remember when I said, all of four lines ago, that it was founded in November 1698? Yup, well, it was abandoned less than two years later, in February 1700.
The idea of the colony originally hatched in the mind of a man name William Paterson, who had made a fortune in the English colonies in North America and the Caribbean. While living in London, Paterson had heard of an almost utopian stretch of land along Panama’s eastern coast. Natural harbors, friendly natives, the works. So, without ever actually visiting the site of this new colony, which would be forever tied to his name, Paterson & Co. began the work of setting up a corporation to back the effort and find investors. Thus, the Scottish Darien Company was born. And they did a hell of a job with their marketing campaign.
Despite the seemingly bizarre nature of events leading up to the founding of the colony of Caledonia, it generated a good deal of excitement in Scotland. By the time the expedition left home, it had raised nearly £500,000 (which was 25-50% of all the wealth in Scotland at the time) from investors who came from every socioeconomic level within Scotland. And so Paterson amassed his fleet of 5 ships (the St. Andrew, the Caledonia, the Endeavour, the Dolphin, and the Unicorn [yup, you read that right, the f-ing Unicorn!]), and a crew of sailors and settlers that numbered 1,200 strong. And in July 1698, they set sail with high hopes of fortune and adventure.
When they arrived on the shore of eastern Panama on October 30, 1698, several of the Scots lay dead on board, including William Paterson’s wife, and the rest were fighting among themselves. After digging graves for those who didn’t survive the trip across the pond, they set up shop in New Edinburgh. Located in a harbor on the eastern edge of Panama, the colonists hoped to become the link to unite the the world’s two biggest trading networks, the Pacific and Atlantic oceans, that were making larger and wealthier kingdoms even largerer and wealthierer.
Even though their dreams were big, their waste lines weren’t. Those who survived the journey from Scotland were in rough enough shape already. But after landing, the colonists had trouble growing and finding their own food. And, in a theme so oft repeated in the story of the Pilgrims taught to every little American boy and girl, the indigenous populations took pity on these dumb white folk and gave them fruit and fish. The Spanish colonists, whose king claimed that land for himself, however, weren’t quite so nice. Looking to drive the Scottish annoyance from their New World domains, Spanish forces periodically attacked the encampment.
After seven months of mosquitos and Iberian musket balls buzzing around their heads, the residents of New Edinburgh decided to bid the Americas a strong goodbye and sail home. Back home in the Lowlands, however, unaware of the fate of the first batch of colonists to Caledonia, since, you know, no internet, the Scottish Darien Company would eventually send another 1,300 settlers in November of 1699 – and yet another batch of colonists after that! All in all, by the time Caledonia was abandoned for good, only 1 of the 16 ships which had set sail across the Atlantic returned to the Land of Lochs.
With the failure of the Darien scheme, Scotland was bankrupt, and unable to resist pressures from England. In 1707, with the Act of Unity, Scotland ceased to be an independent kingdom, and joined England, to, along with Whales, form the Kingdom of Great Britain. The Darien Scheme proved one of the biggest blunders of the colonial era, and is now viewed by most historians as the final nail in the coffin of Scottish independence. At least it makes for a good blog post!