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.
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!