The Darien Disaster 1698 – 1700

By Jim Henderson

The Darien disaster 1698 – 1700.
King of Scotland & England William 11/111 1689-1702.
A Protestant with Dutch connections.

Leading up to the year 1700 a total of 7,000 Scots emigrated to the America’s,
Between 10 and 20,000 moved to Europe and between 60 and 100,000 went to Ireland.
This was 60 years before the clearances started in Argyle.
In 1755 the first reliable census was carried out, the Scot’s population was only 1,265,380.
England’s population 5,400,000.

As Britain approaches the final days of Brexit and the political upheaval caused by the Northern Ireland border, and the SNP are gaining support for their aim to have Independence, the following account is a reminder of HOW and WHY Scotland lost their Independence in 1707.

Scotland at the end of the 17th century was in a state of crisis. In the years leading to 1695 famine was widespread affecting Scandinavia, Finland, France and Northern Italy. It was estimated that 3 million deaths were a direct result of the famine. In Scotland, the country wide crop failure affected many families, and hundreds lost their homes. Religious differences also compounded the hardships that many people faced.

Scotland’s economy was relatively small compared with their neighbour south of the border. The range of exports was limited making Scotland weak as a country, and unable to protect itself from the competition and legislation controlled by the English. They had no agreement in place or a share of the export trade, the once thriving industry of shipbuilding was in decline. Good’s required were imported from England, trading in the English sterling instead of the Scots shilling. To compound matters, the navigation acts increased the economic dependence, limiting the Scottish shipping and the Royal Scots navy had few vessels or manpower.

The solution expressed in Scotland was the need to have a political or customs union with England. However, the much stronger view held was that Scotland should remain independent and create a mercantile and colonial power as had England. In 1695 the Scottish parliament in response to a number of suggestions established the Bank of Scotland (17th July) to deal with the expected funding required. They also introduced an act for the settling of schools, created a parish-based system of public education and the Company of Scotland to raise capital by public subscription to trade with Africa and the Indies.

The wider political context at the time, which was to later have an impact on the plan, was the war going on between England and France, and England and had no desire to upset the Spanish, which claimed the territory known as ‘New Granada’ located in the north of south America near to Panama. Economics at this time meant that the Darien scheme was not simply competition but an active threat to English merchants. The Company of Scotland attempts at raising capital in Holland failed because the English withdrew any support after their East India Company threatened legal action. The grounds were based on their claim that the Scots had no authority from the King to raise funds outside the English realm.

William Paterson

A Scottish born trader and successful financier, William Paterson promoted an idea for Scotland to develop a new colony on the Ishmus of Panama in an area named ‘Gulf of Darien’ to be renamed ‘Caledonia’. He made his name in the financial world by being one of the founding directors of the Bank of England. When in London he met a sailor named Lionel Wafer, who told him of a paradise in an area of Panama, which had sheltered bays, friendly indigenous population and rich fertile lands at Darien.
Evan although the land had never been surveyed, the idea proved to be extremely popular and it created a rush of Scot’s both rich and poor to subscribe. Despite the failure in raising investment from the Dutch, within a period of six months the sum of £400,000 was raised, equivalent to £50,000,000 today.

Andrew Fletcher of Saltoun invested his savings of £1,000 equivalent to £90,000. 50% of Scotland’s financial capital invested in the scheme, which was expected to return untold riches for the investors.
Towns and communities found them selves in competition to raise funds for the project; Glasgow and Edinburgh raised £3,000 each and individuals like the Duchess of Hamilton 1631-1716, equivalent to almost £300,000.

The scheme was an attempt at making the Kingdom of Scotland a world-trading nation to overcome the restrictions and trading controls being exercised by the English government. The idea was to form an overland route connecting the Pacific and Atlantic oceans and was based on the same principle which later created the Panama Canal. (France began working on the canal in 1881, the USA took over the project in 1904 but it was not opened until 1914).

The colony established on the Isthmus of Darien was a potential threat to the Spanish Empire by being near routes used to ship silver. This was compounded by William 11 (not a supporter of the scheme) who instructed the Dutch and English colonies in America, not to supply the Scot’s settlement to avoid the wrath of the Spanish.

First expedition-
Having raised the investment and support of many Scots the first excursion, led by Captain Robert Pennecuik, left Leith docks on the 12th July 1698 with a fleet of 5 ships, The Saint Andrew, Caledonia, Unicorn, Dolphin and Endeavour with one thousand and two hundred passengers and crew, sailed round the North of Scotland to avoid the English learning of the expedition. This proved to be the worst part of the journey. During the voyage 70 lost their lives due to accidents or illness. They landed at the Gulf of Darien by the end of October or beginning of November, many were weak after the voyage due to lack of good provisions. At first their base was the 5 vessels, moored in the bay, the fittest were put to work to establish a timber stockade (Fort St Andrew).

Their first problem was the discovery that the promised fertile land was not good for growing crops, the local Indians assisted with providing fresh fruit and fish. Adjacent to the stockade they began erecting huts to establish a new settlement naming it Edinburgh. Letters sent home on one of the ships returning to Scotland painted a good impression, which was misleading, as the letter claimed that all was going according to plan and the Scots at home, were totally unprepared for the impending disaster.

The colony was often besieged by attacks from the Spanish, then in the spring of 1699 the area was deluged by tropical rain, which escalated the plight of the people suffering poor health and fever, resulting in a further 400 deaths, including Robertson’s wife.

News of a large Spanish attack being planned on the colony hastened the decision to leave. After a period of 8 months the colony was abandoned in July and only 300 of the 1,200 folks who sailed from Leith made it back to Scotland on the ‘Caledonia’. News of this development never reached Scotland and another expedition was being organised. The other survivors headed for America with some arriving in New York including Paterson and Thomas Drummond who had been involved in the massacre of ‘Glencoe’ in 1692.

Second expedition-
This was made up of four vessels, the Rising Sun, Duke of Hamilton, Hope of Bo’ness and Hope, with a compliment of 1,300 passengers and crew. The fleet left the Clyde in August and made landfall at Caledonia Bay on the 30th November 1699, to discover the abandoned settlement, instead of a thriving community and a sloop from New York commanded by Thomas Drummond. He had learned that a re-supply ship had been sent to the Colony and returned to Darien accompanied with Robertson.
Despite their obvious disappointment the colonists began rebuilding the stockade to defend the Scots against the Spanish forces, who as before had to use the ships moored in the bay as their base.
In retaliation to the sporadic Spanish attacks the Scots led by Alexander Campbell, captured the Spanish stockade at Toubacanti in January 1700. This action was hailed as a great success, but Campbell was wounded and became very ill with fever.

The Scots now leaderless began to get disheartened and disarrayed. Shortly afterwards in February the Spanish responded by attacking the settlement and taking over the St. Andrew stockade, demanding that the Scots surrender. Following negotiations, the Scots were allowed to leave the colony in March with their ammunition and whatever personal items they could muster on the ships available. Some settled in the Caribbean with others heading for New York in the sloop. One ship seeking assistance in Jamaica was refused entry on the instruction of the English government, who feared upsetting the Spanish.

Only one of the vessels returned to Scotland and a number on board died during the voyage home, due to disease and lack of nourishment. Of the 2,500 – 3,000 Scots who left Scotland with such high hopes for the future, only a few hundred survived.

The scheme was a catastrophic disaster, impacting on Scottish business and politics for many years. The aftermath led to the formation of the Union in 1707 and the founding of the Royal Bank of Scotland (1727). Historians blamed the lack of support and co-operation by the English and hostility of Spain for the schemes failure. They also expressed that if the scheme had been a success, Scotland would have remained independent.

In the aftermath of the disaster the Scottish nation’s sense of betrayal was apparent. Many Scots believed that the opportunity for international trading was deliberately sabotaged by England. The resentment fostered played no small part in the Jacobite rebellions, which plagued the Union since in 1708, 1715, 1719 and the 1745.

Actions related to the failure of the colonisation.
The scheme was cited as the main reason for the Treaty being signed on 22nd July 1706 for the 1707 Union.The Scottish establishment [landed gentry and mercantile elite of Scotland] considered that the best way forward as a major trading power was to share the benefits of England’s international trade along with their possessions overseas. Another important feature in their decision was that most of the Scottish nobles were almost bankrupted by the scheme. The 1707 agreement stabilised the Scottish shilling currency and as part of the deal England paid off Scotland’s debt to the tune of £398,000, most of which went to cover the losses of the Company of Scotland. (Compared with today’s value – 50 million pounds sterling).

Scotland learned from the disaster, they learned how to deal with the failure and cope with debts. Within one generation Scotland became the most advanced business culture in the world at that time. By 1750 Scotland had 75% literacy, among the most literate of all Europe. In the city of Edinburgh one could walk down the main street and shake hands with many gentlemen who were considered geniuses in their particular field. Francis Hutcheson Philosopher 1694-1746, David Hume Economist 1711-1776, Adam Smith Philosopher 1723-1790, Joseph Black Physician 1728-1799, James Watt Engineer 1736-1819, John Playfair Scientist 1748-1819, Rabbie Burns Poet 1759-1796 and James Hutton Geologist 1726-1797, who discovered the unconformity at the North of Arran near Lochranza to name a few.

For any reader desiring to learn more about the Darien scheme, there is a book written by John Prebble published in 1968 and historical information on the Internet.

Jim Henderson