Scotland’s Great Colony

At the turn of the 18th century, Scotland launched an enormous attempt to start a colony on the coast of modern-day Panama. It was an act that had a profound influence on world history, ruining the Scottish lowlands and paving the way for the union of Scotland and England in 1707. This is the story of Caledonia. 

Whilst England began to capitalise on its position as a major mercantile and colonial power, Scotland was in the economic doldrums. The costly Wars of the Three Kingdoms had not gone well for the Scots, probably accounting for 50,000 of their soldiers, lost through battle and disease in both England and Scotland itself. No sooner had the nation begun to recover than the stirrings of the first Jacobite uprising began in the highlands, eventually surrendering to the Scottish government after initial successes including the Battle of Killiecrankie. The Jacobite cause would rise again, but not until 1715. As if things weren’t bad enough, the already limited trade with France and Baltic states became sluggish in the late 1790s, and a series of painful failed harvests led to widespread famine in the north of the country, killing up to 15% of the Scottish population.

The fierce Jacobite charge at Killiecrankie broke Scottish ranks and won the battle, but arguably lost the war.

Scotland, then, was in dire straits.

The Bank of Scotland was established in 1695, and it immediately set about establishing trade with other parts of the world, including Africa and the indies. Regardless, Scotland struggled to compete for trade with the more successful English. Scotland had grand designs however, and the people desired to be as renowned as the English for their colonial endeavour and trading power. Raising money for such an endeavour proved challenging, with the English reticent to invest due to pressure from the East India company and from rivals Spain, who claimed the region.

Regardless, an enormous sum of money was raised from every echelon of Scottish society- this was their great hope. The money amounted to some £47 million today, an incredible sum when you consider the population of Scotland was far smaller then than it is today (1,265,380 in 1755- 5,313,600 in 2011). This represented around a 1/5 of all Scottish capital in circulation, underlining the enormous commitment from the Scottish people. Despite initially being billed as trade with Africa and the indies, the Scots were instead sold on an altogether different opportunity, something that was likely only given serious thought to because the English had rejected it weeks previously.

A map of Caledonia- note Fort St Andrews and New Edinburgh.

The idea was to create a colony at the junction of the Atlantic and the Pacific on the isthmus of Panama, a place where they could hold the lucrative key to unlock easy trade between the two oceans. It promised great riches, and the Scots were hooked.

Some 1200 set off on the first expedition in 1698, including soldiers and officers involved in the Glencoe Massacre (later to cause discord in the ranks), as well as families. Avoiding detection by English warships, they set sail in July and landed at Darien on the 2nd of November. In the most ancient tradition of the Scots, they proclaimed their new land to be ‘Caledonia’, and they were determined to become rich for their country.

They quickly set about constructing Fort St Andrew, armed with some 50 cannon to defend it from raiding parties and the troublesome Spanish, though it lacked fresh water. A watchtower was also constructed at the headland of the bay to give early warning of enemy attack. Work then began on ‘New Edinburgh’, which was supposed to be the capital of the new colony, and this is where it began to go horribly, horribly wrong.

Jungle in the Darien Gap- a tough environment by today’s standards, let alone the 17/1800s.

The colonists cleared land for agricultural purposes, but quickly found it challenging and perhaps unsuited for their crops. Even worse, they had planned to trade with the local native Indians, however they had no desire for the small trinkets the Scottish could offer. Crucially, passing traders had no interest in what the Scottish had to sell, putting paid to the plans for a great profitable colony. Despite this, letters home portrayed a colonial paradise, and this is understood today to have been a deliberate choice by the colonists to create a positive impression of the expedition. Evidently, this could not be further from the truth.

As summer arrived, the expedition began to fall apart. Malaria and other tropical diseases began to claim up to 10 settlers a day, whilst precious food gifted by local Indians fell victim to the greed of those who needed it least. The food they did have grew mouldy very quickly due to poor storage techniques, and only alcohol gave the settlers any respite from the terrible conditions they found themselves in.This in itself was a double-edged sword, as it accelerated the deaths of some, whilst drunkenness became commonplace.

An additional map showing the position of New Edinburgh on the isthmus of Darien, Panama.

In just 8 months, Scotland’s great hope had been extinguished, the colony being abandoned in July 1699 with just 300 out of 1200 settlers remaining alive.

There is one more tragic turn to this tale, however. The letters that have fawned over the prosperity of the colony led the Scots to send 2 resupply ships of some 300 people, arriving to find graves and the ruins of New Edinburgh as opposed to the thriving colony they had anticipated. When one of the resupply ships caught fire, the Captains decided to flee.

Worse still, news of the expedition’s failure did not reach Scotland before a second expedition of over 1000 settlers had departed for Caledonia. Again, they arrived to find a ruined settlement that needed to be rebuilt. Unsurprisingly, morale plummeted. At last, the Spanish attack materialised, laying siege to Fort St Andrew. Despite a stout defence organised by Alexander Campbell of Fonab, sent for that purpose by the company, the defenders were surrounded, heavily disease, running out of food and surrounded. The settlers finally surrendered, and the colony was abandoned once again, but for the final time.

Caledonia was no more.

The news came as an enormous shock to Scotland, and scores of lowland families from every sector of society were affected economically, not to mention the loss of family members on the expedition. The lack of English support for the expedition led to an unsavoury affair leading to the hanging of an English ship’s Captain in Scotland, as part of popular discontent towards them after the disaster surfaced. Nonetheless, this was a purely Scottish expedition, and Scotland had to own the Darien Scheme’s failure. It is interesting that centuries later, the Panama Canal would open trade between the two oceans for trade for good, yet the Scottish site on the Gulf of Darien remains largely uninhabited.

The Panama Canal is one of the world’s most important trade routes today, connecting the Atlantic with the Pacific.

The Darien disaster is believed to have contributed heavily to the union of Scotland and England, as Scottish elites saw the best chance of becoming a global power lying in partnership with the English, as well as an opportunity to rescue the economy of Scotland. The two countries united in 1707- and the rest, as they say, is history.

Today, the Darien Scheme is regarded as one of the greatest mistakes in political history. Whilst a few people continue to argue that the Scottish were the first to truly appreciate the strategic significance of Panama in the terms of trade, the reality is that Caledonia became the folly of the Scottish people, nearly bankrupting the proud nation with a loss of nearly 25% of all Scottish money. There is still a debate today over whether the colony could have survived had the English assisted, though I find this hard to believe. This area of Panama is still relatively unpopulated. The conditions would have been a nightmare for the 17th/18th century human, ill-equipped to deal with the ravages of insects, fever and the sun, and the surrounding jungle would only have slowed progress. The Spanish were never going to be in favour of the settlement due to the threat it posed to their silver trade, and thus a confrontation was always brewing- and the tiny Scottish Navy would have been no match for the mighty Spaniards.

Caledonia failed then, and it remained great only momentarily in the minds of its greatest promoters. It was a truly monumental disaster, precipitating the fall of a proud and independent Scotland- all because of a small stretch of land on the Panamanian coast.


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