Sunday, June 28, 2009

Darién Scheme

The recent post which name-checked the Darién Gap reminded me of a key moment in British history that stands all but forgotten today—namely, the Darién scheme. This was Scotland’s one and only attempt to get a slice of the exploration pie (later on, many British explorers of Africa like Mungo Park and David Livingstone were of Scottish origin), but it ended up much as one would expect Highlanders going to sea would. Except much more ruinous.

Without going into the intricate theological and political tensions in the latter part of the 17th century: many Scots held loyalty to the deposed, and Scottish, James II. Since James VI of Scotland ascended to the throne of England upon the death of Elizabeth I in 1603, the two kingdoms, still distinct at this point, had been led by one monarch (or Lord Protector, at times). While the Scottish Parliament and people continued to insist their kingdom’s independence, in reality, this was quite strained. Thanks to its lucrative overseas expeditions and good position, England was quickly rising to prominence and economic boom. Scotland, on the other hand, still consisted primarily of subsistence farmers and the like, not able to produce much or compete in the European economy.

So they decided to do something about it. In 1694, the Bank of England was established; the next year, a Bank of Scotland was created alongside it, with much the same goals but significantly less money. Around the same time, the Company of Scotland Trading to Africa and the Indies was founded by William Paterson. Paterson, a Scot, had come up with the idea for the Bank of England, and was now eager to make Scotland economically prosperous by getting a piece of the overseas trade pie. The Company of Scotland was granted a trade monopoly in Asia, Africa, and America—the first two, permanently. Paterson had hoped on some support from the English, but they got indignant at their northern neighbors’ attempt to enter the trade world, and refused to provide funds. Furthermore, the English went beyond that, going to foreign bankers and threatening an effective embargo if they helped the Scots.

The Isthmus of Panama, then also known as the Isthmus of Darién.

Paterson now needed a different source of money for his sally into Darién. None of the hardships had deterred him, because he believed so strongly in the isthmus’s ability to do Scotland good. So he went to the Scottish public. They were all too willing to help, fueled by a desire to see their nation succeed and stick it to the English. Soon, a good £400,000 had been raised. For comparison’s sake, the Bank of Scotland had only a quarter of that when it begun, and that total was nearly half of all the money circulating in Scotland.

In July 1698, five ships set sail. Only Paterson and the commander of the expedition even knew the final destination; the other 1,200 settlers were informed while on board. The trip was supposed to last six months, but somehow they had only brought food for six. Much of the rest of the room was filled with goods intended to be traded with the local tribes. Seventy people died on the voyage alone, and when Darién was finally reached in October, it wasn’t quite the ideal place as had been expected. Instead, it was pretty much a worthless piece of land, full of mosquitoes that began to kill twelve settlers a day. To make matters worse, the Spanish once more staked their claim to the region, and got belligerent. The Native Americans were friendly and helped out the pitiful settlers, but had no use for the goods that were brought for trading, and these remained unsold. In July 1699, the survivors returned, beaten and discouraged.

Caledonia Bay

If only the rest of the nation could have been so. In November of that year, another six ships set out; a third fleet, soon after the second. Although this third fleet was better prepared, it was nonetheless unable to overcome the Spanish and the hostile land. In April 1700, this last fleet prepared to go home. Four ships set out, but two were sunk and the other two were seized in foreign ports.

All in all, over 2,000 Scots died, and the profitless scheme left the country in financial ruin. The Bank of Scotland couldn’t survive, and went bankrupt in 1704. King William, monarch over both England and Scotland, was annoyed. Scots blamed England for the obviously doomed failure, as they had withheld financial support. England now saw their northern neighbor as an economic rival to be destroyed, even though the Darién scheme had already destroyed the economy already. There seemed to be but one option left: the death of an independent Scotland. England offered about £400,000 in a union agreement, and the Scots were left with little choice. In 1707, the United Kingdom was established, with Scotland in a very much weakened position to England. Later Scottish attempts to restore the Stuart line to the throne were unsuccessful—the second Jacobite rebellion (“the Forty-Five”) ended with the disastrous Battle of Culloden, in which Highlanders fighting for their honor were massacred by English with guns.

So if you’re a fan of the United Kingdom, you may want to turn towards Panama in thanks the next time you sing God Save the Queen.

Much of this was adapted from Arthur Hermans excellent book, How the Scots Invented the Modern World.


M. Milosz said...

I'm not sure if this is poorly adapted, or if it's your writing style (I think it's both)... but reading this post was laborious not only because it was dry compared to the other more colloquial posts, but because your sentences are deathly long and full of commas (maybe it's just me, though).

I guess I also didn't find the subject as interesting this time.

But well, it's a blog man. I think you could sound looser without detracting from the information. Otherwise, good job keeping up with posting :D

M. Milosz said...

Just posted on FP:

"A new poll commissioned by the BBC has shown that 58 percent of Scots want a referendum on independence in the coming year. Though only 38 percent believe that independence is likely, even the possibility of a looming vote indicates that ten years on from devolution the Scottish appetite for independence is all but satiated."