The Darien Scheme: A Little Known Story in British History

Matthew T. Meaney


When we think of colonial superpowers, massive empires like Spain, Portugal,

France, and England come to mind. However, most people do not know that just north

of England sits a country that once had lofty colonial ambitions of its own: Scotland.


In the late 17th century, Scotland and England were connected to each other

through what was called the regal union. This regal union meant that Scotland and

England each had their own parliaments but shared a monarch. The Scottish people,

however, longed for a greater sense of financial and cultural independence from their

southern neighbor, even if it meant that they still shared a monarch. Independence

groups like the Jacobites, who believed in full separation from England, were growing in

popularity, and Scotland began looking for ways to distance itself from England.


Enter William Paterson - a Scottish financial adventurer responsible for founding

the Bank of England in 1692. The year is now 1695, and Paterson has another

innovative idea. Paterson has recently befriended a sailor named Lionel Wafer, who

had been to the New World. Wafer told Paterson stories of an exotic land called Darien

abounding with natural resources. Darien is located on what is now the isthmus of

Panama. Paterson began to hatch an idea - if a colony could be set up on this isthmus,

one could drop cargo off on one side, drag it across land, and reboard it on ships on the

other side. This process was touted as a safer, cheaper, and easier way to transport

cargo from Europe to Africa and the Indies. In June of 19695, Paterson and the

Scottish parliament founded the Company of Scotland Trading to Africa and the Indies.

This new corporation attracted attention from another trading company already

established in England - the English East India Company. The English East India

Company found itself threatened by this new rival, and thus lobbied English Parliament

who in turn threatened impeachment against the young corporation. English investors

then decided to pull out their investments from the Company of Scotland Trading.

Paterson subsequently decided to open up shares of the company to the Scottish

common people, and successfully raised 400,000 pounds (43 million pounds/$54 million

today’s money)

At this point, Paterson and the company had enough capital to purchase and

outfit five ships (Unicorn, St. Andrew, Caledonia, Endeavor, and Dolphin) to use for an

expedition to the Darien land. The supplies with which these ships were outfitted,

however, would prove to be less than ideal for colonial exploration and settlement. The

ships were stocked with basic supplies like pistols, axes, and some building tools, but

the list becomes rather unusual after that: three horse drawn carriages (strangely

without horses), smoothing irons, bed covers, and cups, as well as large amounts of

wigs, hats, slippers, and women’s gloves. Also in supply were combs and mirrors,

stocked with the intention of using them as currency to trade with the native Americans.


The entire trip and exploration was planned in secret to avoid interference from the East

India Company. In fact, the passengers did not even know the final destination until

they reached the open seas.

Nevertheless, on July 4, 1698, 1,200 settlers on five ships agreed to set sail from

Leith Harbor, under the command of Captain Robert Pennecuik. On November 2,

19698, the expedition reached land at Darien. Seventy passengers lost their lives on

the journey, a good survival rate for the day. However, it would seem as though the

expedition had used up all of their luck getting through the journey...

The settlers renamed Darien to New Caledonia (Caledonia being the Latin name

for Scotland). Despite what may seem like a warm reaction from the settlers to their

new home, their first choice of land was less than ideal. The settlers spent their first few

weeks clearing jungle brush and constructing huts for shelter. This original settlement

was short-lived, however, as the settlers moved to a new location, one more suitable for

strategy and defense. The colonists dubbed this new area, “New Edinburgh,” a

reference to the great city of their homeland. Wasting no time to make use of New

Edinburgh’s strategic advantage, the settlers promptly erected Fort Saint Andrew.


Though they made great strides in terms of defense, the settlers struggled to

sustain the New Caledonian colony. The land was not suitable for farming, and the plan

to trade with the native populations using combs and mirrors did not pan out. The New

Caledonians survived for some months, however, torrential rainfall in the spring of 1699

mixed with raging tropical diseases caused a significant downturn for the colonists. By

March of the same year the death rate had exceeded 10 per day. With odds not in the

colonists’ favor, it seemed time for an important leadership decision to try to change the

tides in New Caledonia.


This key decision came from top colony leadership, who decided to dispatch all

of the ships of the exhibition to nearby colonies in hopes of trade. Four of the five ships

returned, and with less than good news: English settlers had been banned by order of

Parliament from trading with the Scottish colonists. The fifth ship, the Dolphin, was

captured by Spanish colonists. In addition to their capturing of the Dolphin the Spanish

were also supposedly waiting on the border of New Caledonia as they planned an

attack on the already suffering Scottish colony.


New Caledonian leadership felt as though there remained only one decision left

to be made - the decision to abort the mission. The Scottish settlers who had spent the

better part of a year as “New Caledonians” abandoned the settlement, boarding four

ships for a return voyage to Scotland. Only one ship, the Caledonia, returned safely,

carrying roughly 300 passengers, significantly less than the original 1,200 that boarded

five ships.


Whilst the original company were making their treacherous homecoming, a

second exhibition set sail in August of 1699, employing three ships, led by the Rising

Sun, to take 1,300 settlers across the Atlantic Ocean. After a difficult journey in which


160 passengers died, the new settlers arrived in New Caledonia to find an abandoned

Fort St. Andrew. These new settlers attempted to rebuild the Fort and the surrounding

settlement all while the Spanish amassed troops in nearby Toubacanti.


With an ever increasing threat looming in the Spanish forces, a young Scottish

colonel named Alexander Campbell persuaded the colonists to attack the Spanish first.

With help from some of the natives, the Scottish launched a successful attack that

knocked back the Spanish force. The Spanish, however, responded forcefully, sieging

Fort St. Andrew for a month until the New Caledonians surrendered Darien to Spain in

March of 1700. The Spanish showed the Scots some mercy, allowing them to return

home to Scotland, with some 350 former colonists perishing along the way.


After two unsuccessful Darien explorations and colonization attempts, the

Scotland Trading Company found itself with a significant loss. The country of Scotland

was left completely bankrupt and in need of outside help.


Enter Queen Anne of England, a nation embedded deep in the War of Spanish

Succession. The War of Spanish Succession was a major European conflict that was

fought to determine who should rule the Spanish Empire after the death of the childless

Charles II. It became clear to England that it needed more manpower to fight the war.

So, Queen Anne devised a plan: England would make an offer to Scotland to join in

Union. Also included in the offer was a sum to be paid to Edinburgh of 398,000 pounds,

commonly referred to as the “Equivalent.” The Scottish Parliament, much to the dismay

of the common people, found the offer too enticing to refuse. Scotland and England

officially united, not only under one monarch, but under one parliament and defense

policy. Through the Act of Union, the United Kingdom was officially born.

The Scottish people were, as previously mentioned, less than pleased with the

parliament’s decision. Many believed that Scotland had sold its independence away for

the Equivalent, and believed that Scotland was stronger than that. Following the Act of

Union, two major Jacobite uprisings took place in 1715 and 1745, respectively. The

idea of Scottish independence is something that is still discussed today.