Magazine article Americas (English Edition)

Disaster in Darien

Magazine article Americas (English Edition)

Disaster in Darien

Article excerpt

In the late seventeenth century, before union with England, the Scots ventured to carve out a colony in the New World--with fateful results

There is a remote point of land on Panama's southeastern coast that still bears the name Punta Escoces, or Scots' Point, on Spanish maps. But unless a person travels to this rain forest on the Darien coast not far from the Colombia border, this is about the only trace one will find of one of the most bizarre and tragic episodes in the colonization of the Americas.

How was it possible that two expeditions of Scottish colonists had involved themselves in such a disastrous failure? And, even stranger, how did William Paterson, the founder of the Bank of England, lose his wife, fortune, health, and reputation in such an ill-planned venture?

At the end of the seventeenth century, a newfound peace between England and France fostered renewed interest in trade throughout Europe and the New World. Eager to recover from hard times, many Scots emigrated to English colonies and elsewhere. Many who remained were desperate to improve their lot. Responding to trade fervor, the Scottish Parliament established the Darien Company and authorized Paterson--who dreamed of a Scottish colony to follow the pattern of England's successful East India Company "in trade with Africa and the Indies"--to lead the colony. As a young man, the entrepreneur had made a fortune in the Caribbean, although he had never been to Darien.

The fact that Spain and Portugal had held title to America for centuries, however, did not seem to bother Paterson or the Scots. And, as Francis Russell Hart notes in his history of the Scots' colony, The Disaster of Darien, peace was tenuous: "It did not need the quarrels in Europe to arouse antagonisms in the Caribbean; the situation itself was fitted to breed jealousies, disputes, raids, and reprisals."

Paterson was enlightened, a man of vision, who had conceived of Darien as a free port for trans-shipment of goods from one ocean to the other, a need he foresaw more than two hundred years before the building of the Panama Canal. From the beginning, however, the project brought him bad luck. A contemporary, none other than Daniel Defoe, would write of Paterson that he lived in an era of "great crisis of our political history--a time when our commercial character was struggling out of feudal corruption, and when it was assuming its just equality with legitimate property in the soil, [he] was one of the boldest advocates of free trade, without undervaluing fair territorial claims."

The Darien Company's directors had given Paterson funds to buy ships on the continent, but a fellow officer, James Smyth, absconded with [pounds]17,000. Although Paterson himself was never involved in any dishonesty and eventually was able to repay [pounds]19,000 of the loss, his position with the company was ruined, and the direction was taken over by less competent men. Paterson was forced to travel to Darien as one of the twelve hundred ordinary colonists chosen from thousands of enthusiastic volunteers.

Five ships were ordered built in Hamburg and Amsterdam. When ready, they were stocked with a wide assortment of goods--medical supplies for fifteen hundred persons for two years, foods such as biscuits, beef, pork, prunes, as well as tobacco, pipes, periwigs, bolts of cloth, and, by all accounts, a staggering amount of brandy, claret, and rum.

In July 1698 "five stout ships"--the St. Andrew, Unicorn, Caledonia, Endeavour, and Dolphin--set sail under secret orders from Leith, Edinburgh's port. In his memoir of the time, Sir John Dalrymple recorded their departure:

the whole city of Edinburgh poured down upon Leith to see the Colony depart, amidst the tears and prayers and praises of relations and friends, and of their countrymen. Many seamen and soldiers whose services had been, refused, because more had offered themselves than were needed, were found hid in the ships, and, when ordered ashore, clung to the ropes and timbers, imploring to go, without reward, with their companions. …

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