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Or The Fall of Scotland?

Some have said of the Darien venture was “the most ambitious colonial scheme attempted in the 17th century” Others meanwhile, have said "They were plain daft to try it”. What say we take a look at the circumstances

First off, some introductions are in order. Allow me to present one William Paterson, a native of Scotland and along with being one of the founders of the Bank of England, he also made a fortune in international trade throughout the America’s and the West Indies.

Upon returning from one of his journeys, he came up with a plan that would not only make him a fortune but would take command of the trade between the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. His idea was to create a link between the two oceans.

In 1693, he established the “Company of Scotland Trading" to Africa and the Indies in his native Edinburgh. It would establish a settlement on a narrow strip of land known then known as the Isthmus of Darien. We all know it today as Panama. The company claimed that they would rake in profits through foreign trade and promoted the spot as a place where Scots could settle.

Some problems arose, such as, just who was going to invest in this grand plan?. Why, anybody interested in profits of course. It seems that the original investors (speculators?) in this Company of Scotland were Scottish and English in equal numbers, with the risk investment capital being shared half from the English and Dutch, and the other half from the Scots. Pressure was soon applied from the East India Company, who were afraid of losing their trade monopoly. This prompted the English Parliament to withdraw its support for the scheme at the last minute. The Dutch, being no fools, saw the English withdrawing and followed soon after. This left the Scots holding the bag.

Everyone’s heard the term “There’s a sucker born every minute” and there seemed to be no shortage of takers as thousands of Scottish folks invested their own money in the scheme to the tune of approximately £500,000. That figure represented - about half of the national capital that was then available. It seems almost every Scot who had £5 to spare invested in the Darien scheme. Thousands more volunteered to travel on board the five ships that had been chartered to carry the pioneers to their new home where Scots could settle.

Ah, but, who had actually been out to see this Promised Land, this remote spot where Scots could settle and enjoy their lives? Well, apparently not Mr. Paterson. For you see, these fledgling pioneers that were ready to set sail believed that Darien could offer them a colony. They would then become entrepreneurs and establish trading links between the east and west. Not only would they profit, but Scotland itself would rise to prosperity and would become a power in the eyes of the world. With much fanfare, ships sailed from And Leith harbor on 12 July 1698 with 1,200 people onboard.

After an arduous journey that took 3 ½ months, what did the depleted (and somewhat less excited) group of pioneers find? Nothing but a mosquito-infested scrap of land known as Darien. Many of these settlers were sick and those who weren’t got invovled in a classic case of in-fighting as power struggles arose among the company officials. They managed to get ashore and renamed the land Caledonia, its capital was named New Edinburgh.

The first task that greeted them was to dig graves for those who died en route. (This included Paterson's wife.) The situation did not get any better. For between a lack of food and attacks by Spaniards, Caledonia grew into a miserable place. The one upside was that the native Indians took pity on the Scots, bringing them fruit and fish. After just seven months in their new home, over 400 were dead. Many of the rest were emaciated and yellow with fever. They decided to pack their bags and head for home.

As we all know, news did not travel quickly in the 17th Century, and six more ships set sail from Leith in November 1699 loaded with another further 1,300 excited pioneers/settlers, all of whom were ignorant about the fate of their predecessors To cap it off, whoever said that bad news travels fast was obviously not a Scot as a third fleet of five ships left Leith shortly after that.

Well, only one ship returned back to Scotland out of the total of sixteen that had originally set sail and only a handful of folks survived. Scotland itself paid a huge price. Over two thousand dead and with the loss of the £500,000 in investment, the Scottish economy was almost bankrupt

Arguments have been made that the Darien Scheme crippled the country's economy to such an extent that it triggered the dissolution of the Scottish Parliament and led to the 1707 Act of Union with England. Was it coincidence or did the English plan their withdrawal from the scheme in order to ensure its failure?

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