Founding of the Darien Colony

The Darien Colony was founded by Scottish emigrants on November 3rd, 1698. But it all went horribly wrong.

On July 12th, 1698 five ships carrying 1,200 eager colonists left the Port of Leith in Scotland to a rapturous send-off. Most of the ill-fated emigrants did not know where they were going and did not find out until the sealed orders were opened at Madeira, but they were brimming with enthusiasm anyway.

A voyage of three months took them across the Atlantic to a harbour on the mangrove-studded Caribbean coast of Panama. On November 3rd, they took formal possession of their new territory, confidently naming it Caledonia and laying the foundations of the settlement of New Edinburgh. But it all went horribly wrong. Hundreds died of fever and dysentery before the colony was abandoned.

The idea was to establish a colony in Darien, open to ships of all countries, and to carry the cargoes of the Atlantic and the Pacific across the narrow isthmus of Panama, cutting out the long voyage around Cape Horn. Holding the key to the trade of both oceans, the colony would be hugely profitable and would make Scotland one of the richest nations on the globe. This scheme was the visionary brainchild of the brilliant Scottish financier William Paterson, who made a fortune in London and was the leading founder of the Bank of England in 1694, while still in his thirties. A year later, the Company of Scotland Trading to Africa and the Indies was authorised by the Scottish Parliament. It was meant to be a rival to the East India Company, but powerful interests in London did not want a competitor and obstacles were put in the new institution’s way. So fierce was resentment at this treatment by the English that thousands of Scots put their own money into the enterprise. Fervent national pride was aroused and a crowd cheered to the echo as the ships – Caledonia, St Andrew, Unicorn, Dolphin and Endeavour – sailed from Leith. Scores of stowaways who hoped to go along had to be ejected tearfully from the ships before sailing.

The first passenger rightfully on board was William Paterson, with his wife and son, neither of whom would survive the expedition. Many of the others would not survive either. The promoters had failed to allow for the Darien climate, the insuperable difficulties of transporting cargoes through mosquito-infested tropical jungle and the fact that the Spanish considered the territory their own and were not about to tolerate intruders.

Already on the voyage across the Atlantic the expedition’s leaders had started to quarrel among themselves. Once landed, the settlers were treated kindly by the local natives, who enjoyed flying the cross of St Andrew gaily on their canoes, but the Scots were desperately short of food, a prey to disease and riven by feuds. The English colonies in the West Indies and North America were forbidden to communicate with them or send them help by order of the government in London, which had its foreign policy and its relations with Spain to consider. The Spaniards were mobilising against the colony and a ship sent from the Clyde with extra supplies never arrived. In June, the exhausted survivors decided to go home. Paterson himself was now too starved and ill to persuade them otherwise. They sailed painfully back to Jamaica and New York, abandoning ship after ship on the way. Only the Caledonia finally made it back to Scotland.

Unaware of all this, a second consignment of settlers reached Darien at the end of November 1699, but the ship carrying their food supply caught fire and burned, while a Spanish fleet arrived to blockade the harbour. The enterprise was abandoned in March 1700 and a capitulation was signed with the Spaniards in pelting rain while a solitary piper played a lament. Traces of the settlement were found in 1979 at what is still called Caledonia Bay.

Scotland blamed the whole fiasco on the English. Paterson himself was bankrupt, but still believed in his scheme and tried vainly to revive it. Meanwhile, the Darien disaster seems to have persuaded hard-headed Scotsmen that their country could not prosper by itself, but needed access to England’s empire, and it helped to pave the way for the Act of Union between the two countries in 1707. Under the Act the investors in the Darien scheme were quietly compensated for their losses at taxpayers’ expense.