Friday, 1 November 2013

In Darien's Shadow

On November 2nd 1698, the first landfall was made by Scots at Darien in Panama. Two years later, after over a thousand deaths, the colony, New Caledonia, was abandoned. Seven years after that, bankrupted by the venture, Scotland signed the Act of Union and the Kingdom of Great Britain was formed, which exists as the United Kingdom to this day.

As the decisive event that ended the Kingdom of Scotland’s independence, the Darien scheme has become a touchstone for Scottish nationalists. The deliberate barring of English companies from investing, they claim, is proof that England long had designs to dominate Scotland. If only English companies had been allowed to invest, so the argument goes, then New Caledonia would have survived, and with it Scotland’s independence. The English, so it is implied therefore, knew that the venture would fail and bankrupt Scotland, leaving it with no choice but to enter a political union with England.

Like many, many nationalist arguments, however, this image of a cackling, moustache-twirling Perfidious Albion guiding Scotland towards English domination simply does not hold water. Geography and geopolitics brought about the failure of the Darien scheme, not dastardly English chessmasters plotting Scotland’s obliteration. Even with English investment and support, the settlers at New Caledonia would still have perished, if not from disease and starvation then before the guns of a Spanish fleet.

Scotland’s economy was not in a good way by the 1690s. A succession of poor harvests had led to widespread famine, its exports were extremely limited, and the Navigation Acts froze Scottish shipping out of trade with England’s colonies in America. Now, it will no doubt be tempting for Nationalists to argue that the Navigation Acts were just another part of England’s grand design to eventually absorb Scotland, but nothing could be further from the truth. Protectionism and mercantilism of that sort was simply how trade was done in the 17th and 18th century. Similar legislation existed in France, Spain, Portugal and Holland. If England had not reciprocated in kind, its economy would only have been harmed.

The solution seemed to be colonies of Scotland’s own. The Company of Scotland was established in 1695 to trade with “Africa and the Indies”. However, the original aim was swiftly abandoned when a banker, one William Paterson, presented to them his plan to colonise the Isthmus of Panama.

Paterson’s Darien scheme was a bold plan, but on paper, the potential returns were enormous. A Scottish colony there could be used as a link between the riches of the Pacific and the trading nations of Western Europe. Ships would no longer have to make the long, hazardous journey south around Cape Horn. Goods could instead flow much more quickly across Panama and through New Caledonia into the Atlantic, bringing untold riches from import duties to Scotland.

A seed of disaster lurked in Paterson’s plan however: the Spanish Empire, the largest and richest empire in the world, claimed the territory as part of New Granada. It was this that led to William III to bar Englishmen from investing in the Company: England was at that point embroiled in the Nine Years’ War with France and had no desire to provoke Spain into switching sides. Again, there was no long-term plan to bankrupt Scotland into agreeing to a Union. As with protectionism, political realities required it.

Undaunted by the prospect of awakening a sleeping giant, Paterson began fundraising in Scotland. If nothing else, he was an excellent publicist: within a few weeks, he raised £400,000 (equivalent to nearly £44 million today). It was a truly national undertaking. Almost every Scotsman who could put his name to five Pound Scots invested. The investment ultimately totalled about a fifth of the wealth of Scotland.

Paterson advocated settlement in Darien with utter disregard for the Indians already living there. I am baffled by those nationalists who endlessly disdain the colonialism of the British Empire yet insist that the English should have invested in and supported New Caledonia. The colony and the settlers’ intentions towards the Indians there were no less imperialist than future British conduct in India and Africa.

Five ships set sail from Leith in 1698 and landed on November 2nd. It soon became clear that Paterson had made only the merest glance at a map before advocating the expedition. The colonists were horrendously unprepared and ill-informed about life in the colony they called New Caledonia. The colony was a jungled, malarial swamp that defied cultivation and farming. Even today it remains a grim place: the Pan-American Highway, which connects Alaska in the north to Argentina in the south, is forced to break for the Darien Gap.

The idea of trade, upon which the colony’s hopes had been built, foundered immediately. No attempt was made to trade with the few passing merchant ships and the local Indian tribes had no use for the crates of wigs, mirrors and combs the colonists had with them. Food was poorly stowed and spoiled quickly once the oppressive Panama summer came round. The colonists were wracked by malaria and dysentery and by the beginning of the summer they were each trying to live on a pound of maggot-infested flour a week. After eight months the colony was abandoned in July 1699, apart from six men who were too weak to move. Only 300 of the 1,200 settlers survived and only one ship managed to return to Scotland. This was only the first expedition. A second expedition of 1,000 people had set out before the scale of the disaster became known. They were besieged by the Spanish and were finally allowed to abandon the colony for good in February, 1700.

No amount of English investment and support could have saved Darien. The colonists would still have died from disease or been evicted by the Spanish. The money would still have been lost. The entire Darien scheme was ill-conceived, over-optimistic, and poorly-executed. A charismatic man seduced the Scottish people into supporting his scheme, from which he promised enormous benefits, despite having no idea how to put this scheme into practice, and the benefits being non-existent. It was, if you will, an excellent metaphor for the current Scottish nationalist movement. I once saw a Scottish nationalist describe the Union as a “sentence” for Scotland, as if it is an unjust punishment. If the Act of Union was Scotland’s punishment for the Darien scheme, then it is one that it richly deserved.

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