Okay, you’ve all heard of the colonization of the New World and all of that: a bunch of Spanish spreading their germs in a quest for gold, and the resulting power struggle as England and France wanted to get in on the act, right?

Well did you know that Scotland tried to get in on that action before it was cool?

Sorry, sorry, re-looked at my notes: 200 years AFTER it was cool, but, hey, let’s not blame the Scots for being late to the party, because around the end of the 17th Century they had a lot on their minds.

“But wait!” I hear you exclaim, “Scotland?” Ah, I can see it, your brain drifting to Mel Gibson, blue paint for days, “Freeeddooommmm!,” men in kilts, haggis, and bagpipes. “Isn’t that the same as England?”

The Darien Venture

Ooooh, Jimmy, I’m going to have to stop you there. No, no Scotland is not the same as England. In fact, if you said that in Scotland. Or, well, anywhere in the world within earshot of a Scottish guy, well you’d likely get a caber to the face.

The Darien Venture

And you don’t want a caber to the face.

Caber to the face

This is a time way back when Scotland’s economy was something akin to three men having a quick whip-a-round for a bag of chips; they had limited exporting capabilities (the world wasn’t interested in man-skirts and haggis, who would have thought?), and its neighbor – England – was a right royal DICK. This was an era of economic rivalry across Europe, and on this particular battlefield Scotland had nothing to bring to the table. Well, they had lots of Scottish spirit, but this wouldn’t be marketable until the Napoleonic wars.

The Darien venture

Basically, if something could be bought by Europe, then most countries preferred to get it from England, and this left Scotland all kinds of out there. And all of this was hot on the heels of ruinous civil war, widespread crop failures, and famine in the late 1600’s.

It was basically screwed and something had to be done.

A few acts were passed to try and kick the economy in the goolies, but it was the Company of Scotland we’re most interested in. The Company of Scotland, aside from having a very grandiose name, had an even more grandiose charter: trade with Africa and the Indies.

But there’s one problem with that: England’s East India Company already kinda had that buttoned down, so having Scotland trying to do exactly the same thing was inconvenient at least. England was not chuffed at the prospective competition.

Worse, England was at war with France (this was sort of a thing between these two countries), and if Scotland started to trade around colonies already held by Spain, then Spain could get all kinds of miffed … which could bring them into the war on France’s side.

Whatever Scotland was brewing, England had to stop it.

This is 100% how England Enforced Shit

England sent in the heavies and forced all of the potential backers and investors to withdraw from Scotland’s trading scheme, thus meaning that there was only one source of finance for the Company of Scotland: Scotland itself.

Amazingly, especially for a country on the edge of poverty, within a few weeks, the Company of Scotland raised £400,000 sterling (47 million by today’s standard), and did so from every level of society. It amounted to a full fifth of Scotland’s wealth – let that sink in for a moment – and is, as far as I’m concerned, the first successful crowdfunded kickstarter.

Darien venture

They put the money in a box and started to giggle with excitement.

The raising of capital had been so successful, that the original plan to form an East India-like trading company was dropped and an even more balls-out scheme was taken off the shelf and dusted off: The Darien Venture: a colony on the Isthmus of Panama to be used as a gateway between the Atlantic and Pacific (the same principle which, much later, would lead to the construction of the Panama Canal.)

It was genius.

In a caber-to-the-face kinda way.

Darien venture

A colony, here, would be perfectly placed for Atlantic and Pacific trade. Imagine, if you will, a bustling port into which thousands of tons of trade pours in and out on a daily basis. The harbors throng with the buzz of merchants, ships loading and unloading, and the land-passage bustles with merchant caravans plying a trade in rich metals and spices. Ahhhh, now to be the nation that could tax that.

Darien venture

But this is a long way away, right? How do you even get a brand new colony off the ground with such an ambitious goal in mind?

Well, it just so happened that a local gent knew the area – a certain Lionel Wafer – and he knew it well. Unfortunately, he knew it from being on Henry Morgan’s pirate crew, so this probably tells you something of his character. He told Scotland about how the land was super fertile, basically just waiting to vomit up all manner of crops the minute seed touched the ground, and how the natives here were super friendly, only caring about their hair (I’m not kidding), and if a couple of ships sailed over there with a crate of combs, the natives would fall over themselves to be buddies with the Scottish colonials. Nope, still not kidding.

Spoiler: Wafer was wrong on all counts.

Darien venture

Five ships were hastily pulled together – Andrew, Caledonia, Unicorn, Dolphin, and Endeavour – and they set sail from the Port of Leith in July 1698. 1,200 souls were onboard, all promised 50 acres apiece, all eager for the new life (‘cos home was kinda shitty), and to blaze this trail on which the hopes of a nation rested upon them, they took a ten thousand combs, some wigs, and a crate of bibles. Because nothing says “we’re setting up a colony in a foreign land” more than whapping the locals over the head with the Good Word of God.

Now, if you are paying attention, you might have noticed that their point of embarkation was about as far from the final colony as they could get – for Scotland. They did this to avoid English shipping patrols, but, well, that part of the sea journey was so rough, was so traumatic, that the poor people kept below decks were to later report that it was the worst part of the whole experience. Which is saying something, because it was about to get a whole lot worse.

Their orders were “to proceed to the Bay of Darien, and make the Isle called the Golden Island … some few leagues to the leeward of the mouth of the great River of Darien … and there make a settlement on the mainland”.

And, let’s face it, when it comes to setting up a new colony in a very, very foreign land, those orders are probably a little on the thin side. Just saying.

Darien venture

The settlers fell out of their ships (they’d been in them for the best part of three months!), rammed a flag into the ground, and immediately smashed a beer bottle on a nearby rock and dubbed it “Caledonia.”

“… we do here settle and in the name of God establish ourselves; and in honour and for the memory of that most ancient and renowned name of our Mother Country, we do, and will from henceforward call this country by the name of Caledonia; and ourselves, successors, and associates, by the name of Caledonians.”

The colonials immediately got busy by digging a ditch through the neck of the land that divided one side of the harbor from the ocean, and – for good measure – threw a fort up on a nearby hill. And nothing says “fort” more than the 50 cannon they dragged up onto its walls. Throw down some huts, call it “New Edinburgh,” toss some maize on the ground like a boss!

BOOM! Colony! Settled! Easy!

Let the cash come rolling in, bitches!

*Record Skip*

There were going to be problems.

For starters, the land wasn’t as fertile as originally touted.

Darien venture

Secondly, while the harbor appeared to be a good, natural place for ships to come in to port, it actually proved to have terrible tides which threatened to wreck any ship trying to leave. Now, I’m not a merchant-expert, but that seems like it could go against the whole “goods leaving port” thing.

Darien venture

The locals were also not friendly. It’s not like they were hostile, but they sure as heck didn’t want anything to do with the wig wearing weirdos sporting spiked bits of wood.

And nor did they care about their hair. Well, they might have, but they certainly didn’t give a flying fig about the crate of combs.

Nor the bibles.

Darien venture

This whole colony thing was proving to be hard.

Trading failed to really stick, as passing merchantmen didn’t want anything the colony had to offer.

And then it got even worse.

Malaria set in, for starters. People started to die, and die rapidly. The mortality rate rose to ten settlers a day.

As the colony got sicker, doing any work proved harder.

Food started to spoil due improper storage.

Drinking became rife, and drunkenness became common, even though it sped the deaths of men already weakened by dysentery, fever and the rotting, worm-infested food.

Things were looking grim.

But despite all of this, there was a chance of success – no matter how slim – if a little support from England could be forthcoming. You know, England, the place that already had settlements around these parts. They could send food, medicine, and all sorts of support.

Except they didn’t.

Still fearing that  if they showed any support to Scotland, that Spain would get pissed off, England avoided any contact with New Edinburgh.

Darien venture

July 1699, less than 8 months after settling the colony, it was abandoned. Six men – too weak to move – were left behind, and the deaths continued onboard the ships on the way home. Disastrously, word of the failure of Caledonia had not reached Scotland in time, and a SECOND EXPEDITION had been sent: 1,000 more souls arriving at the abandoned, overgrown New Edinburgh on November 30th, 1699.

This also failed, particularly because these 1,000 colonists had set off to join a colony, not build one – which is what they faced upon arrival – but it was the Spanish who really put a nail in this coffin. Finally done with the pesky Scots and their endeavors at colonization within their turf, the Spanish Empire besieged the beleaguered colony and face punched it into submission.

Darien venture

Out of BOTH expeditions, less than 300 survived.

Amazingly, perhaps, the survivors were shunned by their countrymen. They were seen as failures, as dropping the ball that was “the Scottish dream,” and – ultimately – failing to see through on the massive investment the entire country had made a year earlier.

The English were blamed (there’s probably some fairness in that), and massive discontent spread across the lowlands of Scotland.

Hoping to recoup some of its capital by a more conventional venture, the Company of Scotland sent two ships to the Guinea coast laden with trade goods. Except the captains got in with some buccaneers, got tangled up in the slave trade and ended up losing both ships. Neither captain was heard from again.

Another ship was sent out … and lost at sea.

And finally another headed to the Spice Islands, only to be seized by the East India Company.

Let’s face it, Scotland should have walked away from the craps table well before all of this happened.

The Darien Venture was a complete disaster. The blow to Scottish morale was incalculable.

“Since it pleased God that I have preserved [my life], and had not the good fortune (if I may term it so) to lose it in that place, and so have been happy by wanting the sight of so many miseries that have come upon myself… I never intended, nor do intend, to trouble my father anymore.”

It was, of course, an economic disaster. The company had lost over £232,884, made up of the life savings of many of the Scottish people, and Scotland was now completely incapable of going it alone. Just 7 years after the failure at Darien, it was forced to concede to the Act of Union, joining Scotland with England as the junior partner in the united kingdom of Great Britain.

As part of the deal, England paid off Scotland’s debts with the ‘Equivalent’, a sum of £398,000, most of which went to cover the Company of Scotland’s losses. Rather than accept payment in cash, the main shareholders formed themselves into a Company of Equivalent Proprietors, allowing their share of the fund to remain in the hands of the government in return for an annuity of £10,000.

By 1727, these Equivalent Proprietors began to undertake banking and obtained a charter as ‘The Scottish Banking Company’, which later became ‘The Royal Bank of Scotland’.

Bank of Scotland

Read More:

A History of Britain, Volume II, Simon Schama











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