A Darien Adventure: How Scotland Tried (And Failed) To Become A World Power

When I got my first full-time job in journalism, there was a little side-effect college hadn’t prepared me for: the stress of being in the middle of the 24-hour news cycle, 40 (plus) hours a week. From my desk, I could always see at least four TVs playing CNN, my computer had an AP wire ticker running at all times and even the bathrooms had NPR looped into them.

While the world (and my work) was tuned into the Ebola outbreak, I found myself weirdly fixated on, and stressed by, a different news story: the vote for Scottish independence. The high intensity minute-by-minute coverage made this news story into a global panic, and I was more invested in the story than the average Sassenach.

This whole post brought to you by Outlander GIFs.

In the days leading up to the referendum, I lay awake at night, unable to sleep. How could a whole country just pop out of another one? How could we go from 168 member nations in the UN to 169 overnight? Sure, South Sudan had done it, and sure, Scotland had some good arguments to leave. But beyond the politics and beyond the headlines, it was just disconcerting to think that we could add or subtract a country, just like that.

Which is probably what the Scots thought when the Act of Union was passed in 1707, dissolving Scottish Parliament and making it part of England. (Citizens didn’t even get a vote! Wolf Blitzer would have something to say about that, I’m sure.)

Both the Scottish Leave movement and I could have saved ourselves a lot of stress if Scotland had just remained independent from the get-go. Why did these two ever join forces?

I will, Jamie Fraser. I will.

As you might guess, it had to do with money. As the Scottish poet Robert Burns put it, Scottish parliament was “bought and sold for English gold.” But the reason Scotland was broke … that’s a story you’d never guess.

In the 17th century, every seafaring nation was grabbing land as fast as they could. Wealthy power brokers were starting colonies across the Americas and poor folks were hopping on ships to start new lives in new lands. Scotland was no exception — drought, famine and trade restrictions created a class of people willing to try their hand at something new. Many settled in British colonies where they were often seen as second-class citizens next to the English.

But one Scot, a man named William Paterson, wasn’t going to be a second-class citizen. He had a plan to make Scotland the most powerful colonizers on the planet — and it would only take one little piece of land. He proposed creating Caledonia, a colony in Panama on the Gulf of Darien.

Caledonia — named after the one piece of Scotland the Romans never conquered — would have a trading post, New Edinburgh, that connected the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. No one had done that yet, and it would be a most valuable location.

Originally, the English supported this plan, offering half the funding. But they pulled out under pressure from the East Indies Trading Company, which wanted to maintain its trade monopoly.

But the Scots can do bad all by themselves. They got thousands of everyday people to throw money into the plan. Despite years of famine and drought, Scottish citizens emptied their life savings into the pot, hoping to be part of the greatest feat of colonization the world had ever seen. Historians estimate between one fifth and one half of all of Scotland’s national capital was invested into the Darien Scheme. Thousands of Scots volunteered to go to Caledonia to start the colony.

Location + money + willing volunteers. What could go wrong?


1200 people left Scotland in 1698. Four months later, they arrived on what is today called Panama’s “Mosquito Coast.” They started by digging graves for the 40 people who died on the boat ride over and the 400 others who would die within the first six months.

The land was not what Paterson had promised. It was hard to cultivate (particularly while everyone was dying from malaria/starvation) and the English (those bastards) stopped any other Europeans from trading with them. They tried to trade with the Indians, but the Indians didn’t particularly want the heavy woolen fabric the Scots had brought to trade with. (It was Panama. Panama.)

The Indians did offer as much food as they could, but it wasn’t enough to sustain the colony. When the Spanish decided to lay claim to the land, Scotland gave up. They voted (finally, some democracy!) to disassemble and head for New England.

But no one told Scotland — or, at least, not quickly enough. Another six ships with 1300 excited pioneers left Scotland in 1699, expecting to find their friends and neighbors flourishing in the Panama sun. They found an abandoned colony and a pile o’ graves. This second group was no more successful than the first, with most of the survivors dying on the return journey.

In the end, Scotland lost over 2000 lives and all of the £500,000 investment. The country was entirely bankrupt and forced to agree to the Act of Union. Was England’s unwillingness to support Scotland’s attempt at colonization just one big ploy to bankrupt the country and bring them under British control?

We’ll never know.

Some say the Darien Scheme was a national embarrassment. Some say it was a bold attempt that failed spectacularly. Most people don’t even know about it today, even though the summer of 2014 brought back echoes of a Scottish bid for freedom.

Like the Darien Scheme, the Scottish independence referendum failed and the leader of the “Leave” side stepped down. But there’s talk of bringing the issue to a vote once more — maybe no one told this second wave what happened to those who went before them.

1 Comment

  1. You taught me something new about Scottish history! I thought they combined Parliaments when James VI/James I ruled. But I think I made that up because it fit nicely in my imagination. So, the English were okay for the Scots to colonize places where they could be useful, like Ireland, managing the savages, but not where they might really be independent. Does bitterness carry on through DNA? Love your writing!


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