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The Darien Scheme (1698 - 1700)

The Darien scheme began in 1695 when the Scottish Parliament passed an Act for the establishment of a 'Company of Scotland Trading to Africa and the Indies'. It was founded so that Scottish merchants could find an outlet for their goods and became known as the 'African' or 'Indian Company' before becoming the 'Darien Company'. Although this was a Scottish enterprise much of the money, people and effort was London based and it was always known as the 'Scottish East India Company' in England.

A huge fundraising effort was initiated and capital of 400,000, half the total capital available in Scotland, was raised. There were no facilities available in Scotland for building the ships needed for the expedition and so three 500 ton Indiamen were ordered from Amsterdam and Hamburg to go with two they already had. Although the destination of the scheme was kept secret supplies were made ready at the Company's warehouses in Leith and advertisements for 1200 settlers were circulated.

The small fleet sailed on the 12 July 1698 and it was not until they reached Madeira that their orders to sail to Panama were announced. The particular destination of Darien seems to have been the idea of William Paterson, founder of the Bank of England, and he actually sailed with the expedition. He had got the idea from William Dampier who had crossed the Panama isthmus in 1679. Paterson had made some mistakes, however, he underestimated both the size of the Pacific and the difficulty of crossing the isthmus in the absence of a canal. His biggest mistake was underestimating the Spanish who were already in the area at Cartagena in Columbia.

They finally landed on 3rd November at Acla, which was renamed Caledonia. A site for a fort was chosen and named St Andrews and a town, named New Edinburgh. The settlers made treaties with the indigenous people but found the Spanish mobilising against them and a royal proclamation had disallowed the English, from Jamaica, from trading with them. The first fighting took place in February 1699 and then one of the Scottish ships was taken. Although a report was sent to Edinburgh asking for supplies and appearing enthusiastic the situation was already critical - desertions and death from disease were weakening the colony seriously. By June there was a proposal to abandon the settlement and only Paterson objected, but he was to ill himself to do anything.

Map of the Darien isthmus
Map of the Darien isthmus

The return journey was also a disaster, of the 900 who had survived to make it another 150 died on the way back. They had to abandon ships at both Jamaica and New York, one had had to be abandoned in situ. In the end only the Caledonia made it back to Scotland.

Just as they were leaving a second expedition had set out. This was an even shorter lived enterprise lasting from November 1699 to March 1700 when they had to capitulate to besieging Spaniards.

The Company struggled on for another seven years with continuing acrimony between England and Scotland over the matter, including the taking of ships and the executing of sailors, until the Act of Union when compensation was paid to the Scots involved as part of the general bribery of the time.

History Books on the Darien Expedition:

Author Title Published Price Order:
Prebble, J. Darien Disaster 1978 7.99

History Books on this time period

Author Title Published Price Order:
Ferguson, W. Scotland: 1689 - Present 1968 16.99
The four-volume Edinburgh History of Scotland is the most important project in Scottish historical writing for more than half a century; each volume is written by an expert on the period who brings to his work the direct acquaintance with original sources on which authoritative historical writing can alone be based.
This, the fourth volume, originally covered the history of Scotland from the Revolution of 1689 to 1967. The paperback edition was updated to include a brief review of the ten years to 1977. Political, ecclesiastical, economic, social and cultural developments all receive consideration, and the interaction of these factors is stressed throughout. But the treatment varies. For the 18th century, separate chapters are devoted to specific themes, thus enabling the reader to appreciate the background to ecclesiastical, social and economic movements. Then, on the ground so established, after 1832 the various factors at work in any given period are synthesised in a unified narrative.
The result is the most comprehensive and substantial volume on modern Scotland. It incorporates the findings of recent research, including the author's own work, and challenges many accepted verdicts. The book is fully referenced and, as a guide to further reading, has a detailed critical bibliography.
Mitchison, R. Lordship to Patronage: Scotland 1603-1745 1990 9.95
Drawing on political, constitutional, religious, economic and social studies, Professor Mitchison outlines the growing bonds between England and Scotland, beginning with James VI's succession and culminating in the Act of Union in 1707.
She argues that the union of the two states has had a distorting effect on Scottish history, constantly prompting comparisons of the constitutions and achievements of the two countries, rather than placing Scotland in a European context. This book attempts to redress the balance.
First published as part of the New History of Scotland series this is a highly readable and straightforward introduction to early modern Scotland.