11 September 2007

Could the Darien Scheme have succeeded?

The Darien Scheme was an attempt by Scotland to create its own colony in the Americas. The brainchild of William Paterson, a financial wizard and founder of the. The plan was to create a settlement on the Isthmus of Panama. The idea caught the public's imagination and public subscriptions raised £500,000 – half of Scotland’s the available capital.

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?"


Jessie said...

Imagine where the world would be if politics didn't always get in the way. The US could be so much better if it weren't all about slandering the other party all the time.
I'm from a long line of Knox's btw. My folks came to America in the 1600's but way back in history I've got Scottish roots!

jams o donnell said...

ALthough I am a Labour supporter and party member, I despair of politicians sometimes. Wow Iit is great you can trace your family back so far. I can't go back more that a few generations, sadly

Andree said...

When I read history like this, I despair that we (as humans) will ever quit our kingdom-building and just leave other folks alone. This is a fascinating article and I had never heard of it. I find it hard to imagine a Central America that is not Spanish and is instead Scottish.

btw: My maternal grandparents went to Nova Scotia from Edinburgh with the Home Children. I have not been able to find much info on that.

jams o donnell said...

It would have made for a very different Central America, that's for sure Meeyauw. On the other hand I agree about kingdom building. The British Empire may be gone but I am sure there will be similar entities in the future, sadfly.

Anonymous said...

I had never heard of this until I came across it on Coast, which has to be the best programme on the telly

jams o donnell said...

It certainly is very enjoyable watching, Gert