Sailing West to Uncertainty… and Disaster

Nations soar or sink according to decisions made about how they are run, and this was seldom truer than of Scotland, 320 years ago this month. In the closing years of the 17th Century a combination of unpredictable woes and poor, ill-informed leadership set off a chain of events that ultimately led to the end of Scottish independence – and, coincidentally, the creation of a state known as the United Kingdom (and, by extension, the official beginning of the British Empire).

After the infernal suffering engendered by the Wars of the Three Kingdoms of the 1640s, the Cromwellian takeover and dictatorship of the 1650s, and economic downturn and political instability over the next three decades, Scotland then endured in the 1690s a succession of failed harvests that led to famine and inflation. Amid such depressing developments, then, it’s perhaps not all that surprising that, when a Welshman who had earned his money through Caribbean piracy offered the nation an idea for a bold and and radical way forward, most of Scotland’s great and good were prepared to sit up and listen.

Lionel Wafer had been the ship surgeon to Captain Henry Morgan during the latter’s exploits on the Central American coast (which included the destruction of Panama City), and had also been in contact with the English pirate William Dampier, but an injury forced him to spend time on the Darien isthmus. It was there that he was befriended by a community of the Cuna nation, and in 1695, five years after his return home, he published a book ostensibly about his experiences on the isthmus. The captivated readers of his book included several members of the Scottish establishment, who entirely swallowed his tale of a paradise inhabited by amicable and personable natives, and the planners in Edinburgh used it as their main intelligence when authorizing the expedition to Darien. It seems that few of them ever seriously wondered to themselves whether it was wise to take on trust anything written by a man connected with piracy.

The plan, formulated by the government in Holyroodhouse, was to set up a colony on the isthmus (the narrowest point of the whole Americas landmass), known as New Caledonia, and use it as a kind of international toll gate for shipping passing from the Atlantic to the Pacific, or vice versa – thus enabling traders to bypass the much longer (and more hazardous) route from one ocean to another via Cape Horn. Essentially this was the same thinking behind the construction of the Panama Canal two centuries later. With Wafer’s intelligence and almost half the nation’s total capital behind it, the expedition’s five ships set sail from the port of Leith for Central America on 14 July 1698.

When the first 1,200 colonists arrived at the location in Darien pinpointed by Wafer, which they called New Edinburgh (known to Panamanians today as Punta Escoces – Scotsman’s Point), they found the weather to be a good deal less hospitable than they had been led to believe, with frequent rain storms and infernal heat and humidity proving to be a breeding ground for swamp mosquitoes. Dozens of the colonists were dying of malaria and yellow fever not long after they had arrived. The land also proved to be a lot more mountainous, forested and impassable than they were expecting, thus dashing whatever hopes they had of safely transporting tradeable commodities from one oceanic coast to another. There is evidence that the colonists attempted to build a canal, but the technology and tools available to them wasn’t effective enough for such a venture. If anything, they were ahead of their time in their vision for the colony.

As if the climate, topographical difficulties and disease were not bad enough, the colonists also found themselves besieged by the Spaniards, who considered the Scots as squatters on their land. The Darien isthmus was, after all, part of the Spanish Crown’s Audiencia (administrative area) of Panama: as far as they were concerned, the fact that very few actual Spanish colonists thought fit to make a home in the most oppressively humid part of the audiencia was neither here nor there. There was also something of an imperialist culture clash evident: Spain’s modus operandi in running its colonies would always be exploitation of land and people, rather than in properly developing it for trade and communications. When BBC reporter Allan Little visited the place four years ago, he spoke to a member of the Cuna nation, who told him about their folk memories of the failed colony:

In the time of our forefathers… white people came here – Scottish and Spanish people. We liked the Scottish more than the Spanish, for the Spanish attacked us and drove us inland away from the coast and the Scots did not. But there were battles and many ships were sunk.

Not until long after Spain had been kicked out of its empire in the Americas would French and then American engineers make good on the promise of Darien, by building a Canal for real across the Isthmus. It would, however, be too late for the Scots.

What really stuck in the Scots’ craw was that they faced English obstructionism as well as Spanish hostility. Certainly, William of Orange, despite also being Scotland’s king, had his reasons: he was anxious not to provoke Spain, given that he had enough of a job defending not only England but also his native country, the Dutch Republic, from the ever-present threat of Louis XIV of France. As Spain’s barren and insane Habsburg king Carlos II was entering the last stages of his terminal illness, the last thing King Billy wanted was to give the Spaniards yet another pretext to put a member of the House of Bourbon on the throne in Madrid, and hand the French another European ally. Consequently, the orders to English captains and merchants from their government were not to assist the Darien colonists in any way, even if they were in danger of being overwhelmed by the Spaniards.

Only a handful of the 1,200 colonists who set out on the original journey ever made it back to Scotland. Around 400 were laid to rest in a makeshift cemetery at Darien, which, three centuries on, is still waiting to be rediscovered. On top of the obvious human tragedy, the colonial venture had swallowed almost half the contents of Scotland’s entire national coffers. The lesson that they had had to learn the hard way was that, as an independent kingdom they were too weak and with too limited resources to cut it alone as a major trading power, and not long after the survivors of Darien arrived back home in 1700 the main talk was the conditions in which to accept political union with England. Although the English government had their own reasons for seeking such a union (they were at war with the French, Bavarians and pro-Bourbon Spaniards, and were eager to avoid any trouble on their northern border), there is no doubt that the Union would have a greater impact on Scotland. After all, one of the above-board sweeteners on offer from London was the sum of £398,000 – precisely the amount of money the Scottish government had spent on the Darien venture (known as the Equivalent). Thus seven years later, the first United Kingdom was born. In the years to come the Union ended up giving Scotland a major shot in the arm, as by the end of the 18th Century the country boasted the fastest-growing economy and most dynamically modernizing society in Europe (in stark contrast to Ireland after the 1800 Act of Union…).

The chest of the Company of Scotland, used to contain the Darien scheme’s monies and papers

The Darien disaster was often invoked by both sides in Scotland’s Referendum debate of 2014, with Unionists invoking the episode as proof that Scotland is strongest only as part of a wider British enterprise, and nationalists pointing to the glaring geopolitical imbalance inherent in the Union, to Scotland’s detriment (in the words of Little, ‘when Scotland and England place themselves under one government in London – as they were under King William – that government will, when the interests of the two countries conflict, inevitably favour the cause of the larger and more powerful partner.‘).

Fortunately, however, the lessons of Darien have been learned over the last three centuries, and we know in our own times that no effective government in these islands would be quite so stupid as to take a massive politico-economic leap into the dark on the basis of questionable intelligence…

Based in Birmingham, Dan is a journalist, broadcaster and actor.

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