Scotland’s failed colony: the Darien Scheme

Detail from an engraved map of Scotland's colony on the Darien peninsula (Sp Coll Spencer f18)

Detail from an engraved map of Scotland’s colony on the Darien peninsula (Sp Coll Spencer f18)

Did you know that Scots established an overseas colony in the late 1600s?

The trading colony in Darien, on the Isthmus of Panama, was founded to help secure a wider market for Scottish traders excluded from the privileges enjoyed by English traders under the English Navigation Acts.

The Darien Scheme was the brainchild of William Paterson, a Scottish-born London merchant. His greatest contribution was suggesting the location – a free port on the Isthmus of Panama. This, the narrowest point between the Pacific and Atlantic, potentially offered very profitable trade links with the Far East.

Paid for by public subscription, the first expedition of 1,200 colonists set sail in July 1698. Despite some initial successes establishing a fort and making friendly contact with the indigenous tribes, trouble was not far away. A supply mission from Scotland was shipwrecked, while the onset of the hot season spawned a host of tropical diseases. As provisions ran short, colonists quickly died of hunger and disease. Finally, after months of misery, sickness and starvation, the colony was abandoned.

Arms of the Scottish Company Trading to Africa and the Indies. The Latin text translates as:  Wherever the world extends, united strength is stronger (Sp Coll Spencer f51)

Arms of the Scottish Company Trading to Africa and the Indies. The Latin text translates as: Wherever the world extends, united strength is stronger (Sp Coll Spencer f51)

A second expedition set out in August 1699. Ignorant of the fate of the first, it also failed with great loss of life. They arrived to find the colony abandoned and all too quickly, a combination of disease, starvation and Spanish violence put paid to the newcomers too. Almost incredibly, of the 2,400 or so colonists who set out on the two expeditions, fewer than 50 are thought to have returned.

It has been argued that the failure of the Darien Scheme had significant political consequences for Scotland, even helping smooth the path for union with England. The colony’s failure was met with widespread anger in Scotland by many who felt that the English had deliberately compromised it by withholding assistance. Darien brought into sharp focus the difficulty of two parliaments pursuing competing policies under one crown and the question of Union was raised as a solution. By the terms of the 1707 Act of Union, the Darien shareholders – many of whom were powerful landowners and decision-makers – were well compensated for the losses racked up underwriting the Darien debacle.

Special Collections holds a fascinating collection of books, pamphlets, maps and manuscripts relating to the Darien Scheme in our Spencer Collection. Why not read a bit more about the Scheme in our full length Highlights of our Collection article? We also have a small selection of original documents relating to the Darien Scheme on display in the case in the Special Collections foyer on Level 12 of the Library – please pop up and have a look!

Categories: Library, Special Collections

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , ,

5 replies

  1. Surely, William Paterson’s greatest achievement was to found the Bank of England?

  2. An English friend e-mailed to say that BBC Newsnight had featured the Darien Scheme. Why I don’t know as I live in the Spanish mountains and with the hour difference, Newsnight is a no-no for my ancient bones.
    Mention of the sceme brought back memories from some 60 years at school when it was definitely part of the history curiculum. That could lead me to say how the standards of eduction have dropped in the past years, but that would be another rant. Suffice to say that if I could receive BBC iPlayer I would be tempted to suffer the dreadful Paxman and watch the programme.

  3. The Darien Scheme is officially recognised as a key part of Britain’s national memory through the inscription in the UK’s Memory of the World Register: There is more information on the Company of Scotland Trading to Africa and The Indies and the records which survive online here:


  1. The Darien Scheme Scotlands - U.S. and World, studying past, wars, presidents, language, economy - City-Data Forum
  2. » A wonderful paradise on the Isthmus of Panama

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: