The Winds of Change

Part 1

I’ve been dying to tackle Brexit and British politics ever since the process to hold a referendum began. An occasional tweet or Facebook post here and there won’t change anything. Nor do most blog posts, but perhaps- just perhaps- this little series will. 

Ever since the last shots in 1945, Britain has been stumbling forward, unsure of where it belongs. We were once the mightiest of nations, with an empire that spanned the continents and the oceans. We were explorers. We conquered the greatest of peaks and toiled in the most inhospitable of lands. We made quantum scientific leaps that changed the world. We created cultural tsunamis with our art, our music, and our literature. We fought on the beaches, in the landing grounds, and in the fields, and we never surrendered. We lit the flame of the industrial revolution, and watched our ideas spark off into distant skies. We watched a nation rise from the ashes we left behind, and grow mighter than all.

We like to remember those parts of our history, but we have a crippling amnesia of how those feats were achieved. We forget the piercing screams of the slaves who were the arteries of British development. We forget the Bengal famine and the terrible massacres in India. We forget the pillage of Africa. We forget that we established concentration camps, and used them to kill 10% of the Boers. We forget that we decided how to partition India during a lunch break, killing millions with the stroke of a pen. We forget that sons and daughters of the empire came to our aid during the wars, spilling more blood and making more sacrifices for us than could ever be repaid- and now we spit in their faces. We forget every murder, every robbery and every rape that we committed.

We forget that when we walk down Imperial London’s streets, they were paved by the blood and bone of cultures we didn’t try to comprehend.

For every brick, a bone. For every treasure, a theft. For every cobble, a crime.

We remember so little, and we have forgotten so much.

It is little wonder then, that in a time of such amnesia, of such little clarity and of such little knowledge, that a man conjuring memories of red coats, of gold, of glory and of Empire could leave the disillusioned, the elderly and those left behind enraptured? When no other orators are left, when men take dogmatic gambles, and when politicians forget they are the people, then who is left to man the barricades?

But the sun has set on the British Empire. 

Our problem is not our past. It is our future. We stumbled left and right after the war, but rarely forward. We watched our Empire be eroded by the winds of change, until there was nothing but the indelible mark left by us on the newest nations. We saw a staunch ally humiliate us in the Suez. We recaptured the Falklands alone. We fought like dogs for our government in the Middle East, and we made outstanding contributions to the environment, aid, and development after joining the European Community. We pioneered cutting-edge science and technology, and saw our universities rank amongst the best. Yet we’ve been fighting ourselves ever since the war. In Northern Ireland. In the black-coal pits of Wales and the Midlands. In the crushed metal and lost voices at Hillsborough. In Brixton.  In the communities of the immigrants who strived to rebuild a broken Britain. Today we are fighting ourselves again, divided as never before. Everything we know and are- as members of a United Kingdom- is under threat. What of Scotland, of Wales and of Northern Ireland?

It is time for the winds of change to gust across our nation.

Why have British politicians not stood at the altar of democracy and inspired our citizens with an exciting, radical new vision for a united Britain? We can no longer accept a vision that prioritizes London or the middle classes- we need a vision that will capture the imagination of the young adults of Ballymena, the veterans of Glasgow and the workers of Port Talbot. We need a vision that recognizes the struggles of the Cornish miners, that identifies the problems our newest citizens face, and that supports the homeless and that creates the social support infrastructure we so badly need. We need to recognise the value of our communities, of our shared kinship and of our shared home of Great Britain.

Politicians talk of a new ‘Global Britain’, but that is far from the truth. Their vision of a global vision is the ‘old guard’ returning to become a major trading bloc. Canada, America, Australia, New Zealand… India if we are lucky. Welcome back to 1970. Obsolete thinking from obsolete parties trying desperately to put a veneer of modernity on their creaking spines by pretending to engage with the public on social media. I’ll never forget being told to ‘stop talking Britain down’, because apparently political debate isn’t the province of us peasants- that is reserved for our feudal barons and overlords.

I hold them in contempt, and you should, too.

It is time to accept our own winds of change.

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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.

battle-of-killiecrankie
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.

caledonia-map
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.

darien-gap-jungle.jpg
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.

caledonia-map-2
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.

panama-canal-today
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.