Apr 7, 2014
The Scots are a proud people, and before the Acts of Union in 1707, they were a proud nation. The last half of the 17th Century was rough on them, however. After a series of civil wars and several years of famine devastated the population, things were looking pretty bleak. The Scots felt that they needed something with some zing to put them back on the map.
The 1600s were the hay day of the great mercantile chartered companies such as the British East India Company and the Dutch West Indies Company. The same Scots that felt they needed more zing thought, ‘Hey! We ought to make ourselves into a colonial power like England.’ So in 1695, the Scottish Parliament created the Company of Scotland Trading to Africa and the Indies.
The Company of Scotland was given more power and perks than most chartered companies were given. For one thing, they had a 30-year monopoly on all trade between Scotland and the Americas, and a permanent monopoly on trade with Africa & Asia. Its directors were to establish Scottish colonies in Africa, the Americas, and Asia, and none of their ships had to pay an income tax. The idea was to work like the East India Company and bring back a lot of money and exotic goods by trading with the Indies and Africa.
This plan began to metamorphose after William Paterson, a trader who had spent a lot of time in the Caribbean, began to hype up a plan to colonize the Darién region of Panama. The Darién Colony would be a port open to all ships. Cargo from both the Atlantic and Pacific could be hauled across the isthmus, and Scotland would become the number one trading Empire.
'The time and expense of navigation to China, Japan, the spice Islands, and the far greatest part of the East Indies will be lessened more than half, and the consumption of European commodities will soon be more than doubled. Trade will increase trade, and money will beget money, and the trading world shall need no more to want work for their hands, but rather want hands for their work. Thus, this door of the seas and the key of the universe, with anything of a sort of reasonable management, will of course enable the proprietors to give laws to both oceans and to become arbitrators of the commercial world, without being liable to the fatigues, expenses and dangers or contracting the guilt and blood of Alexander and Caesar.'
There were many people who weren’t keen on the Scots’ gumption. The Scots went to the Netherlands, England, and several German states to raise funds. They were highly successful in getting investors until the East India Company started convincing the investors to stop.
Meanwhile, King William III was also displeased by the idea. He was at war with France, and worried that the Spanish might attack /him/ if some uppity Scots decided to counter claim a chunk of New Spain.
Undaunted, the entrepreneurs returned to Scotland to raise money for the colony. Nearly everyone contributed: nobles, farmers, merchants, clergy, servants, and labourers. In under six weeks, the Company collected around what today would be $73.2 million - a fifth of all the wealth in Scotland.
On 12 July 1698, the first expedition set out. The colonists mostly consisted of former soldiers who had fought in the civil wars, and Highlanders who had suffered through years of famine. 1,200 colonists altogether on board five ships set sail from Leith in East Scotland, and sailed around the North coast to avoid the English. The emigrants didn’t even know where they were going until halfway through the trip when they stopped at the Portuguese island of Madeira.
On 4 November, the small fleet arrived at (what we call today) Puerto Escocés in Panama. The first order of business was constructing a fort, which they named Fort Saint Andrew, and outfitted it with four dozen cannons. Nearby, they began to build the settlement, which they named New Edinburgh.
What the colonists didn’t yet know is that the Darién region is one of the most inhospitable and oppressive regions of North America. The settlers began clearing land for crops, but the rainforest would start reclaiming it. The jungle was filled with mosquitos carrying malaria. Additionally, the hot, humid conditions were nothing like what the Highlanders were used to. Despite this, letters home were optimistic and encouraging.
Supplies began to run low. The local tribes were uninterested in trading with the colonists, and the foreign traders that everyone expected never showed up. A supply ship from Scotland was shipwrecked, and in addition to disease and starvation, infighting began to develop. Death rates soared until, on average, ten people died per day.
Finally after months of wretchedness, they abandoned the colony. What they didn’t yet know was that King William III had forbade all English colonies from helping the colonists, lest they provoke Spain. At every port in the West Indies and Americas, they were turned away. Only 300 colonists and one ship survived and returned to Scotland.
. . . Unfortunately no one in Scotland had learned of the colony’s failure before a second expedition went out. 1000 new colonists arrived on 30 November 1699. They found remnants of the settlement and began to rebuild. Many complained because they thought that all the /hard/ work had been done. The colony’s leaders, Thomas Drummond & Alexander Campbell knew that the Spanish would attack soon and led the settlers in rebuilding Fort Saint Andrew.
Sure enough, the Spanish attacked and laid siege to the fort for a month. Finally the Spanish commander offered to let the Scots leave before they attacked. Crippled by disease and starvation, the Scots surrendered and returned to Scotland.
No one in Scotland was pleased by this disaster. Animosity grew towards the English, who they felt responsible for not helping. Only one of the ships to sail to the colony made it back, and of the 2,500 colonists, only around 500 survived. Further, a fifth of Scottish wealth had been gambled on the colony and lost. The country was now bankrupt.
Less than a decade later, realizing that they would never be a world power, the Scots signed the Acts of Union which formed Great Britain. Under the agreement, England compensated the investors and their money was regained.
Resources for Social Studies Students & Teachers