The Darien Scheme: A Scottish Disaster in Panama
At the end of the 17th century, Scotland was in dire straits; crops had failed for seven years and decades of warfare had crippled the economy. People by the thousands had left their crofts and turned up homeless in the cities. There was starvation. William Paterson came along with a plan of salvation. He had made a fortune trading in the West Indies and the Americas. He announced a plan to settle willing Scots in far off tropical parts to engage in a grand construction project that would make everyone rich.
Paterson’s plan was to establish a colony on the Isthmus of Panama and from this he would build a link to the Pacific Ocean. This would be hugely profitable because it would save ships from having to sail round the tip of South America to reach Europe. That voyage involved the notoriously violent waters of Cape Horn and possibility of losing vessels to the storms.
With a road, goods could be ferried across the isthmus, saving time, and the potential loss of cargo.
There was the slight inconvenience that the territory was claimed by the Spanish. But hey, sometimes bold adventurers need to get their elbows up a bit.
Paterson spent several years travelling around Europe trying to drum up financial backing for his scheme. But, the bankers of Europe were of a conservative bent and he failed to find anybody with the vision to back him. There was also a reluctance to do anything that might upset the Spanish; this was particularly true in England.
Finally, he got the government in his native Scotland to put up some funds.
With the government on board, Paterson had no difficulty finding other investors. As Historic U.K. noted “There were no shortage of takers though, as thousands of ordinary Scottish folk invested money in the expedition, to the tune of approximately £500,000 – about half of the national capital available. Almost every Scot who had £5 to spare invested in the Darien scheme.” In today’s money that would amount to about £68 million.
In addition, thousands of Scots volunteered to take part in the adventure.
From the maps, Darien, near what is now the border between Panama and Colombia, looked to be the best spot to start a settlement. It was on the narrowest part of the isthmus so that meant less work building a path to the Pacific.
But, none of the colony’s planners, including Paterson, had ever been there. A few ragged reports from passing sailors were enough to encourage the planners to persuade themselves that this was a paradise where fortunes could be made.
The optimistic souls aboard the first fleet did not have the slightest inkling that the place they were headed for could hardly have been more inhospitable. Neither did the leaders, including Paterson and his wife and daughter, who sailed with them.
The Scottish climate is cool, wet, and changeable. In Darien, it is swelteringly hot all year round, with some places getting well over 100 inches of rain a year. Scotland has clouds of irritating midges; tiny biting insects. Darien has billions of mosquitoes, many carrying deadly diseases.
In July 1698, a fleet of six vessels sailed off to what is today Panama with 1,200 excited Scots aboard.
Fifteen weeks after leaving Scotland, Paterson's fleet arrived in Darien. They found a good, sheltered harbour and dropped anchor.
But, it was a dispirited group that got their first taste of the tropical climate. Many of the Scots had fallen ill during the voyage and there was a lot of bickering among the leaders. However, they went ashore, planted the flag of Scotland, and proclaimed the land was Caledonia with its capital as New Edinburgh.
But, there must have been a lot of feelings of subdued disappointment as the little landing ceremony took place. Their first task was to dig graves for dead colleagues, among them Paterson’s wife and, later, his daughter.
They also got their first view of the dense jungle through which they were expected to drive their route to the Pacific. To add to their misery, they were attacked by Spaniards who did not take kindly to the Scots setting foot on what they claimed to be their land. Never mind the Kuna Indians who had lived in the area for centuries.
The Colony Fails
The pioneers were short of food, so the local Indians helped the Scots with gifts of fish and fruit. However, most of this was taken by the officers and sailors who stayed on their ships.
The hot and humid climate meant that food spoiled quickly and the settlers started to come down with dysentery.
By seven months into the expedition they had lost 400 of their companions and those that were still alive were sick with yellow fever, malaria, or a very nasty ailment they called the bloody flux. They were dying at the rate of ten a day.
The idea that their ships would trade for goods came to nought when they discovered that England had banned all its colonies from entering into commerce with the Scots.
Roger Oswald was one of the young adventurers who had joined the project wrote that the settlers had to live on a pound of mouldy flour a week: “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 ...” And, on this diet they were expected to wield pickaxes and shovels in searing heat to build their settlement.
Threats of a Spanish attack persuaded the few survivors to abandon the colony, take to their ships, and head for Jamaica.
The governor of the English colony was under orders not to annoy the Spanish so he refused to let them land. They limped on to New York where they were given help.
News travelled slowly in the 16th century, so a second mission left Scotland not knowing that the first had foundered.
The November 1699 departure had six vessels and 1,300 pioneers brim full of excitement and anticipation. A third fleet of five ships left shortly thereafter.
They arrived to find a few dilapidated huts and no settlers. Morale was low and there was infighting among the leaders.
Again, the Spanish attacked. Although also weakened by fever, the Spanish prevailed and the Scots quit the colony never to return.
The few pioneers who survived the debacle were treated as pariahs back in Scotland. The investors who lost all their money blamed the settlers for the project’s failure, which almost bankrupted the country.
With the economy in tatters, Scotland’s elites went, cap in hand, to England for financial help. The price of that assistance was the loss of Scottish independence. The Scottish Parliament was dissolved and the Act of Union of 1707 passed “joining Scotland with England as the junior partner in the United Kingdom of Great Britain” (BBC).
William Paterson, the organizing genius behind the Darien Scheme, had earlier formed the Bank of England. He received a knighthood for services to the nation.
Among the “essential” items the first Darien settlers took with them were “85 ceremonial wigs, 2,000 hats, 1,301 pairs of slippers, and 324 pairs of women’s gloves’ (BBC History).
Many Scots believed then, and some still believe today, that the Darien Scheme was deliberately undermined by England to force the country into submitting to rule from London.
The graves of hundreds of Scots are somewhere near the settlement but the jungle is so impenetrable that nobody has been able to find them.
- “The Darien Scheme.” Ben Johnson, Historic U.K., undated.
- “The Caribbean Colony that Brought Down Scotland.” Allan Little, BBC News, May 18, 2014.
- “The Darien Venture.” Dr. Mike Ibeji, BBC History, February 2, 2011.
- “The Darien Scheme.” Glasgow University Library, May 2005.