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Listen to: The Darien Gap

Updated Monday 31st December 2007

An attempt to establish a Scottish Empire played a major role in driving Scotland closer to England.

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Darien

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Michael
Just over three hundred years ago the Act of Union was passed by parliaments in both England and Scotland. Of course the two nations had shared a monarch for a hundred years before that. And historians have argued that a closer bond was almost inevitable. So it was that from 1707 the two national parliaments, the privy councils and the customs and excise systems became one. And to mark that event here in Edinburgh you might expect me to be standing outside the new parliament building or speaking from a room where the Act of Union was signed. But instead I’m here at the dockside in Leith because it was from here that a venture that we’ve all but forgotten to remember was launched in 1698. The Darien Scheme was intended to win Scotland a place amongst the great trading empires of the world. Instead it cost hundreds of lives and plunged the Scottish nation into a financial crisis that only union with England would resolve.

READING
Darien will in a small time be the most flourishing colony and settlement in the East or West Indies.

READING
The country, though it be rich and fruitful on the surface is yet far richer in its bowels. There being great minds of gold.

READING
It’s not to be told you how joyfully it is received by all people. Our thistle yet I hope will grow green.

READING
They were sent to the back of God’s elbow where it could see nothing but death, starving and the Spanish minds before our eyes. Caledonia, where there’s nothing to be had but hard labour, sweat, hungry bellies and shallow graves.

Michael
The Darien Adventure is a story of courageous optimism, quickly succeeded by ignominious failure. I’d been invited to Leith by archaeological historian Dr Mark Horton and Jim Malcolm, whose former posting as Ambassador to Panama is a clue to the whereabouts of this failed Scottish colony.

Jim
Leith Docks is where the story starts. The story of the Scottish quest to establish a colony in Darien in what is now modern day Panama. And it is where William Paterson and his compatriots set sail in the five ships in 1698 to make the Atlantic crossing.

Michael
Mark, what did you encounter when you first went there to excoriate?

Mark
Well we went out there first in 1979. And his first sight a paradise on earth, a, you know you see the palm trees and the, and the coral and the blue sea and so forth. But actually immediately the sun goes down you just get eaten alive. The swamps come alive with the frogs, the mosquitoes, the sand flies. And the thick bush that covers everything. And in fact it took us quite a long time to even find the colony in the first place, to find out what the Scots had done. Everyone assumed they’d just been there for a short period of time and had, as it were, destroyed all the evidence. But actually over several months we found an awful lot that the Scots had left behind.

Michael
You’re battling with the wind with a map of Panama. Tell us where Darien is.

Mark
Well lay it out on the dockside here you can see. There’s modern Panama City here. And the canal which everyone is familiar with going North-South. And the Scots settled much further to the east, close to the present day border with Columbia. Just here, what is known as Punta Escosses, the Scottish Port. And you’ve got to understand the topography at this point. The continental divide is a ridge of mountains all the way along which run to several thousand feet. But the ... passes through that mountain chain to allow you to get to this flat plain on the other side.

READING
Trade will increase trade. And money will beget money. And the trading world shall need no more to want work for their hands but will rather want hands for their work.

Michael
The Scots would never have taken such a gamble were it not for the charismatic William Paterson, a man whose vision was to control the narrow isthmus that links the Atlantic to the Pacific.

READING
Thus this door of the seas and the key of the universe with anything of a sort of reasonable management will of course enable its proprietors to give laws to both oceans.

Jim
We know that he was born in Dumfries, at an early age came down to Bristol where he learnt financial and mechantalist skills and seemed to have inherited a bit of money. And went out to the Caribbean in around 1680. That was the high water mark of pirate and buccaneer activities. And he was in Jamaica and news came back of a great pirate expedition that managed to cross the Isthmus and raid Panama on the other side. And that must have excited him, the possibility that you could cross the Isthmus easily outside Spanish control. It was also a period of Dutch free trade. And he must have seen the protectionism of the Spanish, the English, the French and so forth and thought well maybe if we can create a free trade colony then this is where the prosperity could be made.

Douglas
Paterson was a character who divided opinion in the sixteen nineties. For some he’s a financial guru of the first rank. For others a complete block head. And that’s a quotation from a contemporary merchant.

Michael
Economic Historian Douglas Watts. Paterson’s other great venture was setting up of the Bank of England. But although he was a teetotaler if we conjure up the image of a staid banker we’d be very wide of the mark.

Douglas
I think at heart he was a skilled salesman. His key skill was communicating this new financial age. And he sold shares in a number of companies in London in the early sixteen nineties, including the Hampstead Waterworks, the Bank of England most famously and the Orphans Fund. He then joined with the Company of Scotland and sold shares to a huge number of Scottish investors in Edinburgh in 1696.

Michael
The Company of Scotland Trading to Africa and the Indies, to give its full title, had been set up in sixteen ninety five with plans to engage in world trade. But Paterson managed to persuade the directors that they should concentrate the company’s resources on a single project: the Darien scheme.

READING
They came in shoals from all corners of the kingdom to Edinburgh. Rich, poor, blind and lame to lodge their subscriptions in the Companies House and to have a glimpse of the man Paterson.

Michael
Well now I’m in the National Museum of Scotland joined by Doctor Dougie Watt and we’re standing by an enormous iron chest with the most elaborate lock which runs the entire length of the underside of the lid. Tell us about this Dougie.

Douglas
Well this is one of the cash chests of the Company of Scotland. There were a number of cash chests belonging to the company. This is the only one I think that survives. The capital raising of the Company of Scotland was an early example of financial mania by the South Sea bubble or the internet bubble or the China bubble we’ve got at the moment. So there was a real frenzy for joint stock investment in Scotland at the time. It was partly a reaction against the attempt by the Company to raise capital in London which was opposed by the English merchant interest and all the English joint stock companies. So there was a national or patriotic aspect to it. But I think it has to be seen it its financial context as well. The period after glorious revolution has been described as the financial revolution. And the creation of the Company was part of this. The first major bull market in British equities occurs during the sixteen nineties. And the flotation of the Company of Scotland is right at the peak of this bull market. It marks perhaps its most frenzied point. The Scots looked at the examples of the Dutch East India Company, the English East India Company which made huge dividends from trading to the Far East. And they thought if they could muscle into this business then you know the Scottish economy could be boosted.

READING
Come rouse up your heads, come rouse up anon. Think of the wisdom of old Solomon. And heartily join with our own Paterson to fetch home Indian treasure.

Michael
The ballads, verses and most of the records of the Company are now kept in the National Library of Scotland - a collection overseen by Nat Edwards.

Nat
So here you can see, you were asking about who was subscribing to the Company of Scotland and of course here you can see everyone really including the Faculty of Advocates who were the organization who set up what was to become the National Library of Scotland.

Michael
We’re looking at a list which in close type goes on for page after page. And they seem to be in order of subscriptions. Is that right? So Archibald, the Earl of Argyle fifteen hundred pounds, all the way down to, well lots of subscribers at a hundred.

Nat
Four hundred thousand pounds was raised in subscriptions.

Michael
By July the fourth sixteen ninety eight five ships were ready to set sail from Leith carrying over a thousand people, many of them Highlanders optimistic about trying their luck in a new land. Fearing competition or attack at sea the Company issued the ships’ captains with sealed orders to be opened on the voyage. Only Paterson knew that the destination was Panama. In spite of a long, hard journey the first reports of landfall in late October were positive.

READING
This harbour is capable of containing a thousand sail for the best ships in the world.

READING
It may be made impregnable and there is bounds enough within it if it were all cultivated to afford ten thousand hog’s heads of sugar every year.

Michael
Back in Scotland this was translated into a pamphlet enthusing wildly about New Caledonia:

READING
The country, though it be rich and fruitful on the surface is yet far richer in its bowels. There being great mines of gold. For the deputies were certainly informed that not above twelve leagues from new Edinburgh was a great mine of this precious metal.

READING
October 31st 1698. Little wind. But at four o’clock afternoon we got pretty near Golden Island and dropped anchor in twenty five fathom. At night one of our gentlemen named David Hay died.

Nat
This is a diary kept on the journey from Scotland to Caledonia.

Michael
Okay the numbers here are the dates are they?

Nat
These are dates. So here you can see November here, first here. This is when they arrive. “Our fleet anchored nearby us ..

READING
Our fleet anchored nearby us. Then our boats were sent to see what place they thought best for our settlement which they agreed upon about a league distant from Golden Island. Fifth November. All our soldiers and officers that were in good ..

Michael
Well what I’m seeing here is an awful lot of death. The printer’s boy died.

READING
All our sick men were carried ashore. At night one of our gentlemen named Clarke died. Ninth of November, one Mr Jenna servant to Mr Paterson died. Twelve November Mr Paterson’s lady died.

Michael
Meaning his wife?

Nat
Yes. So Paterson’s wife lasted less than two weeks in Caledonia.

READING
John Simm who was steward to the captain died. Nineteenth of November Mr Adam Scott our minister died.

Michael
Heavens, it’s just every day somebody dies virtually.

READING
Twenty fourth November our councilors gave orders that the Endeavour should be sent home for Scotland. But countermanded since for every day we were told by the Indians that the Spaniards were coming to fight against us.

Michael
Jim Malcolm believes the Spaniards were certainly taking the new colony seriously.

Jim
I think they saw it as an enormous threat. It was very much on the route that the Spanish used to transport silver. And I think that they seriously considered that this was an attempt to try to usurp the Spanish control in that region.

Michael
A more pressing problem was England’s short-lived alliance with Spain. King William punished the Scots for skirmishing with the Spanish, by stopping all trade with them, notably from nearby Jamaica. The several hundred remaining colonists toiled to fortify St Andrews - a redoubtable defensive position, but fatally flawed because it lacked a supply of drinking water. While disease claimed lives and sapped morale, back home Sir John Clark of Penicuik was celebrating the colonists’ triumphs by penning a cantata.

READING
Envious eyes surround our people. Fortune casts down the proud. May dear Scotland flourish in peace and may she possess happy Darien.

Douglas
It’s definitely an issue that grips everyone in Scotland. The total number of shareholders were perhaps three or four thousand and that’s a conservative estimate. But in a pamphlet the Company themselves argue that those who have a direct or indirect interest in the Company numbered two hundred thousand. This is a massive over reaction. But it does indicate the psychological investment of the Scots in this joint stock company. And it’s unprecedented in history.

Michael
Douglas Watt. Rumors of problems in the colony had begun to circulate when the next convoy of settlers set sail in sixteen ninety nine. Tragically they’d left the Glasgow port just days before definitive news reached Scotland that the settlement had been abandoned. Nat Edwards again.

Nat
You can see the tragedy of this here in that this letter was written by Captain Drumond, the only captain to successfully get his colonists back to Scotland. He’s writing from America where he’s just landed after taking several months to limp up from Panama. And he says “On the passage from Caledonia hither are sickness being so universal aboard and mortality so great that I ..

READING
That I have hauled overboard a hundred and nine corpse. I have buried eleven since I came here already. We have never heard so much as one syllable either by word or writing from any in Scotland since ever we came from thence.

Douglas
Gradually the reality began to sink in. The first expedition had to abandon the site after six months. And the second expedition after about seven months. The initial reaction is a storm of protest. The Company itself becomes closely allied to the political opposition and is gradually taken over by the opposition and becomes almost a propaganda weapon to be used by the opposition against the court interest in Scotland.

Michael
According to historian Catherine Armstrong the animosity between Scotland and England over Darien was fanned by pamphleteers, notably George Ridpath.

Catherine
George Ridpath was one of the authors of the pro Scottish pamphlets. He wrote two pamphlets actually. His second one, Scotland’s Grievances Relating to Darien was published in Edinburgh. And again was a virulent attack on those who said Scottish enterprise was destined to fail from the start. And he claimed again that it was the English fault that it had failed. And the publisher of his pamphlet Scotland’s Grievances was James Watson. Watson was imprisoned in the Toll Booth in Edinburgh and was released by the mob on the first of June seventeen hundred when they started a fire and battered down the doors. But I think it just goes to show the highly politicised nature of the print culture of the time.

Douglas
There was the perception amongst large groups of shareholders and politicians that the English were involved in the disaster and therefore had some obligation to make compensation. And this issue emerges in the negotiations over Union in 1702/3. And this is where an equivalent, the term equivalent first emerges into Anglo-Scottish relations. At this time the figure that’s been put forward is only ten thousand pounds Sterling. And it’s to be paid out of the Scottish revenues. A number of years later in seventeen sixty seven the figure has risen to four hundred thousand pounds, a huge escalation, to be paid by the English government immediately.

Michael
If you doubt whether the Darien adventure was critical to the negotiations preceding the Act of Union, consider this.

READING
Article fifteen whereas by the terms of this treaty the subject of Scotland ..

Michael
Article fifteen of the Act itself sets out the payments that the English will make – the so-called Equivalent - recompense the shareholders of the Company of Scotland. It was a generous settlement indeed.

READING
... for raising the said sum of three hundred and ninety eight thousand and eighty five pounds ten shillings, the said company ..

Michael
For those whose money had been sunk into Darien the English would pay a hundred and forty two pence for every pound invested. Daniel Defoe, spying for the English government in Edinburgh at the time was in no doubt of its importance.

READING
Without this it had been impossible to bring this union to a conclusion. And after all this to find the whole money should come in again with interest for the time was a happy surprise to a great many families and took off the edge of the opposition which some people would otherwise have made to the Union in general.

Michael
Lockart of Carnwath, a fierce Jacobite and anti-unionist, was rather less phlegmatic about what he referred to as a ‘distribution’.

READING
A sum of money was necessary to be distributed amongst the Scots. And this distribution of it amongst the proprietors of the African Company was the cleanliest way of bribing a nation to undo themselves. And alas it had the designed effect.

Douglas
It was very well targeted because a key group of major shareholders in the company were an important group within Scottish Parliament, the so called New Party or squadrone volante who ultimately voted in favour of Union. The Scots were given a number of things in 1767 – free trade with England and the plantations, a separate act preserving the Presbyterian structure of the church. I think vitally this large lump sum of money which would re-liquefy the Scottish financial system was key to getting the Treaty through the Scottish parliament.

Michael
I’ve just entered the New Scottish Parliament building on my way to see Michael Russell and there’s a display here covering key events in Scottish history. 1707 the Scottish Parliament agreed to the Treaty of Union with England on the sixteenth of January. The Union of Scotland and England as the United Kingdom of Great Britain under one parliament sitting in Westminster came into effect on the first of May. But no mention there of the Darien Scheme.

Michael Russell of the Scottish Nationalist party is the Minister for the Environment in Scotland. He’s well versed in the Panamanian adventure and the subsequent Act of Union. I wondered whether his electorate also remembers Darien.

Michael Russell
I suspect most don’t. I don’t think it lives in the Scottish psyche in the way that the clearances tend to live. Although even that is changing I think. But it is there. And I think it’s there when you probe a little. Because people do remember that there was something shady about the Union in 1707. That’s, I think people recognise it was a shady deal. And people then begin to understand that the nature of the shady deal lay in the Darien disaster as it was. And the fact that Scotland frankly could no longer afford to go it alone.

Michael
Do you believe then there would not have been an Act of Union in 1707 without Darien?

Michael Russell
I believe there would have been an Act of Union at some stage but not perhaps in 1707. I think the political imperative was there for the Act of Union after the Union of the Crowns. I think what happened at Darien made the Scottish people say to themselves was it possible to go on alone. They felt bullied and cajoled into the Union I think as a result many of them. We know that the popular feeling was against a Union. And because the loss had been caused, not just by Scottish incompetence – and I think you have to say there was complete incompetence in certain parts. It was the wrong place at the wrong time with the wrong goods done in the wrong way. But also because there had been some pretty nasty state craft applied to force the Scots essentially into bankruptcy on this matter. It was, I suppose it was a fiscal example of a Scottish trade that perhaps sometimes stopping the reserved bank manager attitude and becoming completely uncontrollable in your enthusiasms. And the example is probably Ally’s Tartan Army in the World Cup in South America. Well this was another South American World Cup that went wrong.

Michael
If you went into a venture which was in the wrong place at the wrong time and badly mismanaged and then you were paid out a hundred and forty two pence for every hundred pence you put into it and then you moaned about it at the end of all that wouldn’t some people say that was being a bit whingey?

Michael Russell
Oh yes of course, absolutely. I mean and what’s more that encourages a dependency approach which has bedeviled Scotland for almost three centuries. And I think it would be far better to take responsibility for your own mistakes but it would have led to enormous suffering.

READING
The shame it brings to our country is the worst thing in it. For after we had made such noise abroad and been the envy of Europe we will not become the scorn.

READING
A sorry poor nation which lies as full north as a great many lands which are wiser was resolved to set up as a people of worth, that the loons who laughed at her might prize her.

Michael Russell
The Equivalent arrived in Edinburgh in August 1707 on twelve wagons guarded by a hundred and twenty Dragoons. And the wagons trundled their way up to Edinburgh Castle to deposit their load where the Equivalent was to be kept. On the way up they were stoned by a waiting mob still furious at the recent Union.

Michael
It’s easy to see why both the English and Scots were happy to forget Darien. English behaviour was underhand, maybe perfidious. The Scots can be accused of hubris, incompetence and venality. But one Englishman, Mark Horton, believes it should be remembered; and its main protagonist, William Paterson, remembered positively.

Mark
Here we’ve got a financial genius, William Paterson. His other great monument the Bank of England is still the cornerstone of our national economy. And his notion of free trade and across the, across the Isthmus which after all was actually realised in the nineteenth century, the canal and the railway, wasn’t a mad idea at all. Many colonies in that period were being mismanaged. That in itself wouldn’t cause the failure of the colony. If the Scots had delayed their departure for just two years the war Spanish succession would have been in operation and almost certainly the English would have supported them and allowed the colony to flourish. So it was the political problems and to some extent the personal problems but the idea itself was not mad.

Michael
Indeed in Panama Paterson is celebrated. On the memorial to the builders of the Panama Canal Guillermo Patterson, colonizador escoces, that is William Paterson, the Scottish colonizer, is even credited with having thought of the canal, and with having told the English as early as 1694 that it would give its owners las llaves del universo - the keys of the universe. If Paterson’s investors emerged well, the voyagers themselves paid a heavy price. Some historians have put the final death toll at two thousand. By the time of the surrender to the Spanish in March seventeen hundred the survivors fitted onto a single vessel. She sailed up the coast of America only to sink during a hurricane. Nat Edwards showed me a letter taken ashore just hours before it went down.

Nat
You can see how sort of scruffy and scratched out and blotted this hand is and you can understand these are people absolutely exhausted. They’ve been through everything.

Michael
By what is said you may judge of our hard circumstances not withstanding where our God in his infinite mercy has brought us this length – yes? Our men were fatigued with pumping the water, being six foot above the keel all the night and next day after our misfortune and at writing – and then it stops.

Nat
Yes. That was it. The last words home from the colony.

Michael
Very moving.

READING
Who cannot but remark and see a holy and sovereign god signally appearing and fighting against this undertaking. As if men should say this design shall succeed and God say it shall not prosper.

READING
We shall appear so despicable to the world. It seems God Almighty sees it not time yet to deliver us from our misery.

READING
We were bought and sold for English gold ... a parcel of rogues in a nation.

Douglas
I think that that certainly would be the popular view of Union, bought and sold for English gold. Obviously poetry has more power than history in the long term. And if you come up with a great phrase like that then that lives on within the public imagination. And there is some truth in that interpretation.

Michael
Douglas Watt. Politician Michael Russell is wary of reading too much into the ‘bought and sold for English Gold’ version of the Union memorably articulated by the Poet Robert Burns.

Michael Russell
I don’t think Burns was consistent enough to take a lead from him. Did he recognise an injustice that had been done? Yes he did. And perhaps that’s what you look to poets for. They’re the people who can tell you when other people are being treated badly.

Michael
Do you think looking back on all that there are things that we now tend to forget to remember?

Michael Russell
Oh absolutely. The Scots are, and I think people generally are not fully aware of their history. And if they were they would know a great deal about where they were going. And that’s why remembering is a good thing. I think those of us who are interested in history and the history of one’s own country particularly are cursed with the ability to remember the things, even the things we don’t want to remember. But Darien is a thing that we should remember.

This edition of The Things We Forgot To Remember was originally broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on 31st December 2007

 

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