The Darien Disaster: Scotland’s Failed Colonization of the Isthmus of Panama

Boyfriend and I have spent the first two weeks of the new year in a flu-induced haze. Neither of us has been this sick in a long time – six years in a place like Chicago, where even the toughest spores probably freeze to death, can give you a falsely elevated estimation of your body’s immunity. Then you move to California, where the perennially tepid climate acts like a witch’s cauldron for flu and cold viruses, and your notions about your superior immunity come crashing down, as you gather your legs up under the blanket and lie on the couch all day, sipping warm vegetable broth and feeling sorry for yourself.

But that’s just me. Boyfriend, despite what he says, seems to be enjoying this violent cough/mild fever/severe headache riddled hiatus like a school kid who’s been allowed to take the day off because of a made-up stomach ache. For the last week he has been getting out of bed at 8, eating breakfast, showering, and then settling down before the television for a marathon of Doctor Who. Honestly, at this point I have passive-watched so much of that show, David Tennant’s crazy eyeballs, which probably move along a space-time continuum of their own, have become a leitmotif in my Tylenol-induced dreams.

Yesterday, as the Doctor frittered away yet another episode trying – but failing – to figure out the problem, and then trying – but failing – to save the world, until someone else, usually a young woman with a potentially bright future, sacrificed herself to save his sorry ass, I remarked on what, to me, was the most interesting thing about the show.

“Hmm. David Tennant is speaking with a very snotty English accent. But he’s Scottish, isn’t he? With a very broad Scottish accent?”

“Yes, but the Doctor always speaks with a snotty English accent.”

“Why? Because a man with a Scottish accent can’t save the world? (Not that he’s doing a great job of that anyway…) That’s some typical English colonial attitude, don’t you think?”

Obviously, Boyfriend ignored this comment. Or I thought he had, until he paused the show for a few seconds, to tell me this:

“Did you know that Scotland tried really hard to be a colonial power in the Americas, back in the day? They even established a colony in Panama, but it ended in total disaster.”

Don’t bother. You’ll probably bungle it up anyway.

Back in the seventeenth century, when colonization was all the rage, every European power – even those which were actually parts of larger entities, and ceased to exist soon after – scrambled to acquire a colony of their own. Africa, large parts of Asia, and the pacific islands, were all fair game. The Americas, of course, were prime real estate, and if you could claim ownership of a piece of land on one of the two American continents, you were considered in European society as having truly arrived. The French, the Dutch, the English, the Germans, the Portuguese, and even the Russians, had all claimed – or attempted to claim – parts of the Americas as their own.

Obviously, Scotland wanted to play as well. In the seventeenth century the Kingdom of Scotland was in a really bad way. It’s growth was stunted under the shadow of England, with whom it was engaged in a bunch of very lopsided trade agreements. Compounding the problem were a string of civil wars throughout the 1600s, the decline of the shipping industry, and the onset of several years of famine following large scale crop-failure. Desperate to find a stable and steady source of economic prosperity, the Kingdom of Scotland established the Bank of Scotland to regulate finances, and the Company of Scotland to trade with Africa and the Indies.

Along came William Paterson, A Sottish trader who had traveled to other parts of the world, and had devised a wonderful and fool-proof plan of pulling the Scottish economy back out of the doghouse: The Darien Scheme – a Scottish colony in Darien, on the isthmus of Panama, which would act as a point of connection between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. It was a great idea on paper – the Scottish colonizers would carry shipments back and forth between ships docked on the Pacific side of the isthmus and the Atlantic side, earning a commission for their work. The ships, in the meanwhile, wouldn’t have to go all the way around the southern tip of South America every single time they wanted to buy – oh, I don’t know – coffee. Or horses. Or gunpowder.

The plan needed 400,000 pounds sterling to get off the ground, money that wasn’t easy to find. England, which saw the Company of Scotland and this plan as a threat to the operations of the East India Company, refused any kind of help. Eventually, Paterson opened out a subscription to fund the plan, and Scots from all over the kingdom, rich or thoroughly impoverished, subscribed with whatever they could spare. The 400,000 pounds – one-fifth of the total wealth of Scotland – was raised within six months, and in 1698 the first batch of 1200 settlers set sail to Panama, with dreams of crop-harvesting, song-singing, and hair-combing ‘Indians’, with whom they would coexist, and to whom they would sell combs. (No, really. They took a shipment of combs and mirrors to sell to the native Americans.)

But the land of Darien, with fertility famed to grow castles and ships and dreams from the soil, turned out to be very different from everything the Scottish settlers had expected or prepared for. They found it impossible to erect houses on the morass of Darien, the fertile soil was in fact a rich breeding ground for insects and diseases, and the ‘Indians’ just weren’t interested in the shiny objects the Scots had brought along in the hope of mesmerizing them. On top of that, England, miffed at the idea that a country so inferior to them could dare to take up a business enterprise that challenged their own, banned all the countries it had any influence over (which was mostly everyone, really) from trading with Scotland. Oh, and the Spanish colonizers, who’d claimed Panama before the Scots got there? Yeah, they weren’t happy either. In their trademark let’s-massacre-everyone fashion, they launched multiple attacks on the Scottish colony, and captured one of Scotland’s ships, taking all the crew members prisoner.

By 1699, only a quarter of the original 1200 settlers were still living, and even they were under constant attack from the climate, the Spanish, disease, and the lack of trade. Unfortunately, news of their suffering did not reach Scotland in time, and a second set of settlers set out on sea for Darien, with dreams in their eyes and, I’m guessing, some more combs and mirrors for the ‘Indians’ in their pockets. This second group of about 1300 settlers were greeted by a few hundred sickly survivors, and had to start from scratch on Darien, facing the same problems as their predecessors.

Eventually, Scotland had to abandon the Darien Disaster, as it came to be known, and the few hundred survivors returned home sick, defeated, and penniless. In a classic demonstration of why all of a hen’s unhatched offspring should not be placed in the same woven container, the people lost almost all of the 400,000 pounds they had raised. In 1707, after years of resistance, Scotland found itself in a position so desperate, it accepted the Acts of Union with the Kingdom of England, thereby forming the United Kingdom of Great Britain.

Unlike other occasions when I have derived great pleasure from reading about the shenanigans of colonial powers blowing up in their own faces, I actually have a fair bit of sympathy for Scotland. Obviously, like all other colonial ventures, this attempt too was predicated on the idea that it’s acceptable to walk onto a continent and claim a piece of it as your own, regardless of the indigenous people who have been living there for centuries. But that said, unlike most other European colonizers, who decimated local populations, and wrung the natural resources of the land dry, the Scots actually went to Darien with a business plan borne from desperation, and one that included living peacefully with the native populations. If it had succeeded, Great Britain would probably not exist like we know it today, and Scotland may have been a world power. Instead, William Paterson didn’t do his research, England got all insecure and petulant, and more than 2000 Scots died of disease and hunger.

Oh, and the native people ended up with a bunch of combs. Which they hadn’t asked for in the first place, but as colonization goes, that’s hardly surprising.

Want to know more? Go here. And here.


2 thoughts on “The Darien Disaster: Scotland’s Failed Colonization of the Isthmus of Panama

  1. On that note ..

    “All of Scotland’s debts will be guaranteed by the UK if it goes independent, ministers announced today.

    Talks would then begin with Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond to persuade him to take on a “fair and proportionate” share of historic debts of £1.4billion.

    The Government said that the guarantee was needed to end uncertainty on the money markets which threatened to drive up interest rates – and mortgages – across Britain.”

    Yup. 500 years later.


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