In July 1698 1,200 people, mostly discharged soldiers, doctors, lawyers, ministers and seamen. The adventure cost one fifth of Scotland's wealth set sail for Darien. Initially things went well in what was called New Caledonia. The indigenous tribe was friendly and the settlers wrote of the abundant region as an Eden. However, it was not long before hunger and fever decimated the settlement. The situation was not helped by the fact that the land had been already claimed by Spain. Worse still, King William III, forbade the English colony in Jamaica from helping the settlers since he did not want to offend the Spanish.
By July 1699 the settlement was abandoned – the few hundred survivors had left for New England. A second expedition had already set out and arrived in 1700. Confronted by Spanish warships they capitulated and fled. The publicly funded company lost more than £232,000, virtually bankrupting Scotland. The failure of the scheme was a key factor in the union of England and Scotland in 1707
But could it have been different? Archaeologist Mark Horton believes that the colony may not have been such an ill-conceived idea. After visiting the site he concluded that it was well chosen and that the Scots might have succeeded had it not been for the English. Prof Horton found that the rivers were navigable and would have allowed the settlers to explore the interior without having to clear swaths of jungle. The waters were also deep enough to provide natural harbours for their ships.
Carlos Fitzgerald Bernal, a Panamanian archaeologist who has also visited the site agrees the Scots were not necessarily doomed. "It could have worked for sure. The reason it probably didn't was more to do with the inner workings of the British Empire.”
“Scottish imperial dreams were seen as a disaster but Scots subsequently played a major role in the British Empire as soldiers and businessmen," said Prof Horton. "The irony is that they turned out to be great empire builders after all."
Success in Darien could have changed history, with Scotland challenging English and Spanish might with the nucleus of an empire which straddled the Atlantic and the Pacific. The English colony in Jamestown, Virginia, almost failed in 1607 after encountering similar hardships, noted Prof Horton, but it squeaked into viability. "Who would have thought Jamestown would have led to the USA?"