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43325.  Thu Jan 05, 2006 3:20 pm Reply with quote

One of the last acts of Scotland, before the 1707 Act of Union joined it to England and Wales to form Great Britain, was an attempt to colonise Darien, an isthmus in Panama.

The idea was that of William Paterson, one of the driving forces behind the Bank of England. He saw the opportunity of a trading post in Central America which could act as a precursor to the Panama canal, and the idea of annexing the isthmus soon caught the Scottish imagination.

The English were at war with France at the time, and did not want to get the Spanish back up (who already had claims on Panama), so when the government heard of the scheme it barred Englishmen from investing; as a result Paterson turned solely to the Scottish people, and before too long they had raised £400,000, approximately 30% of the assets of the people of Scotland

In 1698 the first fleet set sail for Panama, arriving at what they named New Caledonia, and setting up their colony, however before long it turned out that they were woefully under prepared. What they had hoped to be a perfect area to settle was actually a mosquito-infested scrap of land, and by spring 1699 more than 200 of the 1200 settlers had died. Power-fuelled arguments ensued, and if that, the loss of life, and the swampy conditions were not bad enough, worse news was on its way. The English colonies in the region were forbidden from trading with the new settlement, and the Spanish were about to attack.

One settler wrote of his living on mouldy flour:

'When boiled with a little water, without anything else, big maggots and worms must be skimmed off the top... In short, a man might easily have destroyed his whole week's ration in one day and have but one ordinary stomach neither... Yet for all this short allowance, every man (let him never be so weak) daily turned out to work by daylight, whether with the hatchet, or wheelbarrow, pick-axe, shovel, fore-hammer or any other instrument the case required; and so continued until 12 o'clock, and at 2 again and stayed till night, sometimes working all day up to the headbands of the breeches in water at the trenches. My shoulders have been so wore with carrying burdens that the skin has come off them and grew full of boils. If a man were sick and obliged to stay within, no victuals for him that day. Our Councillors all the while lying at their ease, sometimes divided into factions and, being swayed by particular interest, ruined the public... Our bodies pined away and grew so macerated with such allowance that we were like so many skeletons.'

It wasn’t long until the settlers gave up the venture, less than 20% of the original party setting sail back to Scotland. A second ship-full fared just as badly, and by the early 1700s the country was financially reeling from the debacle. The country was massively down on the deal, and just 7 years later it was forced to concede to the Act of Union and give up its independence. Part of this deal involved England paying off £398,000 worth of debt, all of which could be attributed to the failure of the Darien scheme.

43350.  Thu Jan 05, 2006 4:07 pm Reply with quote

That's a cracker, eggshaped. Do you think there's any kind of a case for us to say that this is why the Act of Union was enacted? Scotland went bust in a speculative venture and had to be bailed out in a White Knight corporate raid?

gerontius grumpus
43364.  Thu Jan 05, 2006 4:49 pm Reply with quote

Wasn't Darien where 'stout Cortez' first saw the Pacific Ocean?

The poem was mentioned quite a lot in some of Arthur Ransome's stories.

43387.  Thu Jan 05, 2006 5:47 pm Reply with quote

Flash - alternative reading; King William and the English Parliament deliberately encouraged Scotland into a desperate gamble, knowing it was likely to lead to bankruptcy, and then refused to help, in order to weaken the smaller and aggravating country for a take-over which would leave it in a subordinate position for the foreseeable future.

White knight? Huh!

43395.  Thu Jan 05, 2006 6:18 pm Reply with quote

Sorry - technical corporate finance-speak.

43421.  Thu Jan 05, 2006 11:59 pm Reply with quote

Gerontius - yes, in Keats' sonnet 'On First Looking Into Chapman's Homer':

On first looking into Chapman's Homer

MUCH have I travell'd in the realms of gold,
And many goodly states and kingdoms seen;
Round many western islands have I been
Which bards in fealty to Apollo hold.
Oft of one wide expanse had I been told
That deep-brow'd Homer ruled as his demesne:
Yet did I never breathe its pure serene
Till I heard Chapman speak out loud and bold:
Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken;
Or like stout Cortez, when with eagle eyes
He stared at the Pacific—and all his men
Look'd at each other with a wild surmise—
Silent, upon a peak in Darien.

John Keats. 1795–1821

However, it was in fact Balboa, not Cortez, who first sighted the Pacific, although he did do it from a peak in Darien I believe.

43467.  Fri Jan 06, 2006 7:07 am Reply with quote

That's a cracker, eggshaped. Do you think there's any kind of a case for us to say that this is why the Act of Union was enacted? Scotland went bust in a speculative venture and had to be bailed out in a White Knight corporate raid?

Thanks Flash, as you may have noticed, I alluded to that fact, but kinda skirted the issue (rather neatly I thought). The fact is that most sources I have read mention the Act of Union as a direct consequence of the Darien venture, however I am sceptical, much more likely is that it was one of a number of contributing factors. I’ll have a more detailed look this weekend, but in the meantime I wonder if anyone else has an opinion?

I think it’s a great story (similarly, a deception occurred in the early 1800s, Gregor MacGregor selling imaginary bonds and land on the Mosquito coast) but was unsure whether it was too well known to be useful. I had never heard of Darien until yesterday, but wondered if it was maybe just a gap in my history knowledge. Was half-expecting a “…well, dur…” response.

43470.  Fri Jan 06, 2006 7:15 am Reply with quote

You can have one of those, if you ask nicely

43503.  Fri Jan 06, 2006 8:53 am Reply with quote

The Darien venture is quite well known in Scotland. BBC Scotland have even produced documentaries about it ( Not sure how widely it's known in the rest of the UK, though.

I remember hearing (no sources, though I'm sure other people here will be able to fill in the actual facts) that one of the main reasons for the Act of Union was the terrible state of the Scottish economy at the time. Whether this was entirely caused by Darien, I don't know. It seems that England was imposing some pretty stringent trade barriers with a view to hastening the decline of the Scottish economy at the time. Certainly Darien didn't help matters.

43551.  Fri Jan 06, 2006 11:45 am Reply with quote

I think Charles Dickens might have had the Darien Venture in mind when he wrote 'Martin Chuzzlewit'.


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