Silent, Next to a Swamp in Darién: How Scotland Lost Independence [1698 CE– 1707 CE]

The English takeover of Scotland did not result from the defeat of William Wallace in 1305 CE, nor from the overwhelming English victory at Flodden in 1503, nor even the accession of James VI of Scotland to the English throne following the death of Elizabeth I in 1603, which provided only a dynastic connection.

The Scots maintained enough independence to mount serious and sometimes successful invasions of England through the 17th century, causing the downfall of the Stuarts during the English Civil War and the lasting impoverishment of much of Scotland through vain attempts to re-establish that family thereafter.

It wasn’t by defeating wild Highlanders or jihadist Cameronians that England took control of Scotland. It was an unfriendly financial takeover following the debacle of the Darién Plantation.

In the 1690s, when Scotland was still suffering the effects of several unsuccessful military adventures and repeated widespread crop failures, a banker named William Paterson whipped up a frenzy of support for a scheme to colonize Panama. He had previously failed to win backing for hs plans in England, the Netherlands, and the German states of the Holy Roman Empire. Paterson had been born in Scotland, had helped found the Bank of England, and was willing to move to Panama with his family. A huge proportion of Scotland’s wealth was invested in the project: plausible estimates range between 25% and 50% of all the coinage circulating in the nation.

The site chosen for the colony was one of the unhealthiest locations in a disease ridden portion of the planet. Outside of a tiny settlement and town, the area remains virtually uninhabited today. The colonists brought with them in 1698 bitter highland feuds, excessive quantities of alcohol, and, perhaps deadliest of all, censorious and meddlesome representatives of the Kirk. Only some 300 of the original approximately 1,200 settlers survived. A second attempt to settle in November of 1699 was abandoned in February 1700.

The financial managers of the effort tried to recoup their losses by outfitting four trade ships. The first two were lost when their captains ignored their orders and experimented in the slave trade and buccaneering; the third was lost at sea; the fourth, hired in London, was seized by the East India Company for attempts to violate its charter. The Scots hung three innocent English merchant seamen as revenge.

Facing bankruptcy, Scotland’s leaders petitioned London for help. The English stabilized the Scottish pound, and granted £398,085 10s sterling to Scotland as part of the 1707 Act of Union. The whiff of contempt for the penny wise pound foolish Scot who insisted on his 10s can still be discerned more than 300 years later.

Paterson, whose wife and child died in Darién, survived serious illness to return from Panama and become a vocal proponent of Union with England. The subsequent activities of the sea captains who turned to slave trading and piracy are lost to history.

Further Reading:

• Douglas Watt’s The Price of Scotland: Darien, Unity and the Wealth of Nations properly emphasizes Scottish financial mania and mismanagement.

• John Prebble’s Darien: The Scottish Dream of Empire [The Darien Disaster] provides a lively narrative.

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