The Darien Scheme was an attempt to create a Scottish colony. The scheme intended to create ‘Caledonia’ on the isthmus of Panama (Darien). This would create a colony with land passage from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean, providing an economic advantage for the kingdom of Scotland as global trade began to increase. The first expedition to Darien was in 1698. It was followed by resupply the following year. The scheme was a disaster and caused financial loss for many of its backers.
The Darien Scheme saw a first expedition set up New Edinburgh on the now Panamanian coast. The settlement struggled to trade with local tribes who were not hostile but showed no interest in the goods the settlers had brought. News from Darien back to Scotland was sent through the occasional vessel that entered the bay. Most of the letters that were sent back gave the impression that the colony was doing well. In reality, it was far from successful.
Settlers had cleared some land to grow crops. They also received some gifts of food from local tribes. Most of the food was retained by the captains of the ships though. The conditions on land were unhealthy. Diet was poor and malaria kicked in. Mortality rates rose to above 10 per day, a high number for a colony of 1200.
Desperate, a ship was sent to Jamaica to seek assistance from the English colony. The English refused to help as King William forbade any actions that may anger the Spanish. Following this, the survivors boarded two ships and made for New York. Here they discovered that supplies were already on the way to the colony. Attempts were then made to return.
A resupply convoy set of in 1699 totally unaware of the poor condition of the colony. Four ships set sail from the Clyde carrying 1000 new settlers. These people believed Darien to be working and expected to find New Edinburgh a bustling new community. Instead they found the burnt out remains of one of the resupply ships and most of the huts in ruins. The settlers who were there were low in number.
These settlers had little choice but to try and rebuild New Edinburgh as quickly as they could. Shelter was needed for the 1000 new settlers and defences were important given the proximity of the Spanish and native tribes.
A clash with the Spanish was almost inevitable. It came in January 1700. An officer of the company had been sent to bolster the leadership. Unlike those already there, he was motivated and committed to action. Alexander Campbell of Fontab led an attack on a Spanish stockade. The attack was successful but Fontab was injured and suffered from fever. The Spanish, though also ill with fever, counter attacked. The colony stood little chance.
A surrender was agreed between the colonists and the Spanish. The colony would be abandoned with the Scots allowed to leave with their guns. Only around ten percent of the 2500 settlers ever made it home. The investment in the Darien Scheme had been huge by lowland families. Worse still, the Company of Scotland that financed the Scheme was backed by around a fifth of money in circulation in Scotland. The collapse of the colony rendered shares in the company worthless and led to a collapse of the Scottish lowlands economy.
The failure of the Darien Scheme contributed to the Act of Union that followed in 1707. Opposition to the Act was muted as economically the Scots were now much more reliant on England.
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