In 1632 Scotland lost Nova Scotia – her only colony – as a result of the English war against France. England’s Dutch wars subsequently compromised valuable trading privileges upon which Scottish merchants had previously relied. Scottish overseas trading activity was further hampered by the Navigation Act, which cut Scottish ships out of international trade by forbidding the import of goods into England or her colonies unless carried in English ships or ships from the goods’ country of origin. Beginning in 1651, the goal of the Act was to force colonial development into lines favourable to England, and stop direct colonial trade with the Netherlands, France, Scotland and Spain. This law was enacted despite the Union of Crowns, and effectively meant that Scots merchants were boycotted for trade in England and all her colonies. To make matters worse two powerful English trading companies – the East India Company and the Royal African Company – claimed monopolies on the rich trades with the East Indies and Africa and jealously guarded these territories.
The year 1707 was the year when Scotland and England became one. The Union meant little to the abused and downtrodden of Scotland. Capitalism was on the cusp of its rapid rise during the Industrial Revolution, where money would be king and ordinary people would be nothing more than commodities and the fodder of profit for the wealthy elite. Scottish commercial interests wanted access to England’s colonial possessions to boost their weak and stagnant economy. In an era of economic rivalry in Europe, Scotland was incapable of protecting itself from the effects of English competition and legislation. The Scottish establishment realised that it could never be a major power on its own and that if it wanted to share the benefits of England's international trade and the growth of the English Empire, then its future would have to lie in unity with England. More so, Scotland's nobles were almost bankrupted by the Darien fiasco. Some Scots nobility petitioned Westminster to wipe out the Scottish national debt and stabilise the currency. The first request was not met though the second was and a Scottish Pound was given the fixed value of a shilling. Personal Scottish financial interests were also involved. Scottish Commissioners had invested heavily in the Darien Scheme and they believed that they would receive compensation for their losses. The 1707 Acts of Union, Article 14, granted £398,085 10s sterling to Scotland to offset future liability towards the English national debt. The events of the Union tended to crystallise the Darien scheme as a story of the Scots against the English but it is argued that economic distress was not the sole factor behind the decision of the Scottish Parliament to vote itself out of existence.
Scotland’s Darien Company was the inspiration of the Scot who had already founded the Bank of England. William Patterson whilst in London, he had met a sailor called Lionel Wafer, who had told him about a wonderful paradise on the Isthmus of Panama, with a sheltered bay, friendly Indians and rich, fertile land - a place called Darien. Paterson immediately saw the potential of Darien as the location of a trading colony. Trade with the incredibly lucrative Pacific markets was a hugely expensive business, since all merchant ships had to make the hazardous trip round Cape Horn on the southern tip of South America. This added months to the journey, and the ships involved had a high chance of being lost at sea. If a colony could be established at Darien, goods could be ferried from the Pacific across Panama and loaded onto ships in the Atlantic from there, speeding up Pacific trade and making it much more reliable. Moreover, the Scottish directors of the Darien Venture could charge a nice fat commission for the privilege. Never mind that the Spanish claimed control of that part of Panama. There was the widespread belief that Spain was a paper tiger whose great days of imperial and military glory were in the past. The Scots, because of their successful venturing to the West Indies, were familiar with some of the recent stories about its failing powers. Henry Morgan, the legendary buccaneer, had marched across the Isthmus with just over 1,000 men and destroyed a much larger Spanish force that attempted to bar his path to Panama. Eight years after the sack of that city, Portobello was taken by a few hundred buccaneers. In 1695 the Scottish parliament passed an Act for a Company Trading to Africa and the Indies, popularly known as the Darien Company. Some have said the Darien venture was the most ambitious colonial scheme attempted in the 17th Century, the Scots realising the strategic importance of the area. However, others have said the Scots were daft to attempt such a venture, as it was doomed to disaster before it ever got off the ground.
Dr Douglas Watt, from Edinburgh University, has spent three years examining for the first time in detail the financial records of the Company of Scotland to reveal the incompetence which crushed all hope of success. Watt said: "The commonly held belief is that the company was undermined by English government, but the financial records paint a different picture." Records show overconfidence and mismanagement from the start. There were too many directors - 30 at one point - mostly inexperienced lairds rather than businessmen like William Paterson. Much of the investment was squandered on extravagant ships. They spent so quickly and badly they almost ran out of money even before departing for Darien. Lists of shareholders in the Company of Scotland show city merchants, lairds, landowners and nobles, doctors, lawyers, some ministers, soldiers, craftsmen and almost 100 women invested between £100 and £3,000 each. The Duchess of Hamilton, the premier noble woman in Scotland, invested £3,000 in the hope of big dividends, as did the Duke of Queensberry.
Two forces conspired in the company’s foundation—desire in Scotland to find new markets overseas, and the wish of certain London merchants to circumvent the monopoly of the English East India Company. Opposition in the English parliament extinguished the London interest. The English government also threatened investors on the stock markets of London, Amsterdam, and Hamburg with dire consequences if they had anything to do with the Company of Scotland. King William, at war with France, was anxious to be on good terms with Spain, provided no support with instructions not to supply the colony. Nevertheless, Scottish investors went ahead alone. The Darien scheme was to be an attempt by Scotland to become a world trading nation by establishing a colony called 'New Caledonia' on the Isthmus of Panama, an attempt to emulate London’s commercial success by mobilising Scotland’s meagre reserves of capital and launch a world-wide trading empire. 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. Scotland, without military power, didn't have a chance. The warnings of the sober and the cautious went unheeded. William angrily denounced the project's promoters as "raging madmen"
Five ships (Saint Andrew, Caledonia, Unicorn, Dolphin, and Endeavour) set sail from Leith in July 1698 with around 1,200 people on board. the fleet made landfall off the coast of Darien on 2 November. The settlers christened their new home "New Caledonia". They constructed Fort St Andrew. Close to the fort they began to erect the huts of the main settlement, New Edinburgh, and to clear land for growing yams and maize. They soon found out that Darien was a malarial swamp on land owned by the Spanish. Also there was nobody to trade with there, apart from a few not very commercially-minded native peoples, the Kuna.
A colonist describes his experience:
'When boiled with a little water, without anything else, big maggots and worms must be skimmed off the top... In short, a man might easily have destroyed his whole week's ration in one day and have but one ordinary stomach neither... Yet for all this short allowance, every man (let him never be so weak) daily turned out to work by daylight, whether with the hatchet, or wheelbarrow, pick-axe, shovel, fore-hammer or any other instrument the case required; and so continued until 12 o'clock, and at 2 again and stayed till night, sometimes working all day up to the headbands of the breeches in water at the trenches. My shoulders have been so wore with carrying burdens that the skin has come off them and grew full of boils. If a man were sick and obliged to stay within, no victuals for him that day. Our Councillors all the while lying at their ease, sometimes divided into factions and, being swayed by particular interest, ruined the public... Our bodies pined away and grew so macerated with such allowance that we were like so many skeletons."
Occasionally, friendly indians took pity and gifted food but those were commandeered by those self-same idle councillors. Class power and privilege had not disappeared in the settlement. After eight months the colony was abandoned in July 1699. Only 300 of the 1,200 settlers survived and only one ship managed to return to Scotland.
Word of the first expedition did not reach Scotland in time to prevent a second voyage of six ships and more than 1,000 people. A third fleet of five ships left Leith shortly after. The second expedition arrived on November 30, 1699 and almost immediately faced a siege from the Spanish who called for the Scots to surrender and avoid a final assault, warning that if they did not, no quarter would be given. After negotiations the Scots were allowed to leave with their guns, and the colony was abandoned for the last time. Only a handful of those from the second expedition returned to Scotland. Those colonists who returned found themselves cast as pariahs in their own land. Roger Oswald, disowned by his father, wrote to a friend: "Since it pleased God that I have preserved [my life], and had not the good fortune (if I may term it so) to lose it in that place, and so have been happy by wanting the sight of so many miseries that have come upon myself... I never intended, nor do intend, to trouble my father any more."
Hoping to recoup some capital by a more conventional venture, the company sent two ships from the Clyde, the Speedy Return and the Continent under the captaincies of Robert Drummond and his brother Thomas, who had played a part in the second expedition, to the Guinea coast laden with trade goods. Instead of seeking to sell for gold as the company's directors intended the Drummond brothers exchanged the goods for slaves which they sold in Madagascar. The Drummonds fell in with the pirate John Bowen of Bermuda. Neither ship was seen in Scotland again. The Drummonds decided against returning to Scotland to explain the loss of the ships they had been entrusted with and no more was ever heard of them.
The company sent out another ship but it was lost at sea and afterwards not being able to afford the cost of fitting out yet another ship they leased the Annandale in London with the intention of trading in the Spice Islands, but the East India Company had it seized. This led to the scapegoating and hanging of three innocent English sailors. Popular ballads of the time indicate that it was seen as direct revenge for the role of England in the failure of the Darien scheme. Thomas Green drunkenly boasted of taking the Speedy Return, killing the Drummonds and burning the ship. Despite a total lack of evidence, Green and two of his crew, John Madden and James Simpson, were sent for trial. The prosecution case, which was made in medieval Latin and legal Doric, was unintelligible to jury and accused alike. The defence advocates seem to have presented no evidence and fled after the trial. The men were convicted and sentenced to death by hanging. The Queen advised her 30 Privy Councillors in Edinburgh that the three men should be pardoned, but the common people demanded that the sentence be carried out. Nineteen of the Councillors made excuses to stay away from the deliberations on a reprieve, fearing the wrath of the infamous Edinburgh mob. Although they had affidavits from London by the crew of the Speedy Return, which proved Green and his crew had no involvement in the fate of the ship, the Privy Council declined to pardon the men. Green, Madden and Simpson were subjected to derision and insults by the mob before they were hanged, being mocked by the huge crowd on the way to the gallows on Leith sands. Although the oppressed often do revolt, the object of their hostility is frequently misplaced. They vent their fury on a political puppet or scapegoat, effectively masking the truly culpable. It is an old, old game
From the outset, the Darien undertaking was beset by bad planning and poor provision, weak leadership, lack of demand for trade goods, devastating epidemics of disease and increasing shortage of food; it was finally abandoned after a siege by Spanish forces in April, 1700. As the Darien company was backed by about a quarter of the money circulating in Scotland, its failure left the nobles and landowners – who had suffered a run of bad harvests – almost completely ruined and was seen as an important factor in weakening their resistance to the 1707 Act of Union. It proved conclusively that when the vital interests of Scotland and England were in conflict, the monarch would always opt to support the position of the more powerful kingdom. For King William the lessons of the Darien affair were clear. In future, he wished to avoid any potential war with Scotland, which was becoming increasingly likely, as this would result in the loss of their lands and associated rents. They also wanted to prevent the Scottish parliament from granting conflicting trade privileges and interfering in England’s foreign policy by acting as a competitor. Darien also brought home to many Scots that their nation simply could not go it alone in the colonial sphere, where massive military and naval resources were now vital for achieving success, convincing the business classes that they needed the military protection of the Royal Navy if they were to benefit from the new riches that colonialism promised. It is a reminder that it was the simple mundane realities of trade which bound Scotland to the union.
The poor of the Edinburgh mob, those Karl Marx described as the lumpenproletariat, do not mount revolutions, although they join them and become its cannon fodder. The real danger comes from the educated "middle-class" who are barred by a calcified system from advancement and denied what they deem they deserve. Lawyers without clients, journalists without newspapers, business-men without customers, and who had descended economically because of the Darien Scheme. They set out to rectify their position by bridging two nations. They recognised personal profit was to be made in a union with England.
The Darien Expeditions was a Scottish get-rich-quick scheme which most of the wealthy Scots put money into despite being warned off by the English, where the Scots elite lost their cash, bowed to English pressure, creating the union that was to keep them living in the style they had become accustomed too. So when nationalists talk about Scotland being sold out, it was by other wealthy Scots through bad business decisions. Darien is a monument to failure. The company's directors blamed the English government and merchants to deflect attention from their own failures.