Magazine article History Today

Founding of the Darien Colony

Magazine article History Today

Founding of the Darien Colony

Article excerpt

November 3rd, 1698,

On July 12th, 1698 five ships carrying 1,200 eager colonists left the Port of Leith in Scotland to a rapturous send-off. Most of the ill-fated emigrants did not know where they were going and did not find out until the sealed orders were opened at Madeira, but they were brimming with enthusiasm anyway.

A voyage of three months took them across the Atlantic to a harbour on the mangrove-studded Caribbean coast of Panama. On November 3rd, they took formal possession of their new territory, confidently naming it Caledonia and laying the foundations of the settlement of New Edinburgh. But it all went horribly wrong. Hundreds flied of fever and dysentery before the colony was abandoned.

The idea was to establish a colony in Darien, open to ships of all countries, and to carry the cargoes of the Atlantic and the Pacific across the narrow isthmus of Panama, cutting out the long voyage around Cape Horn. Holding the key to the trade of both oceans, the colony would be hugely profitable and would make Scotland one of the richest nations on the globe. This scheme was the visionary brainchild of the brilliant Scottish financier William Paterson, who made a fortune in London arid was the leading founder of the Bank of England in 1694, while still in his thirties. A year later; the Company of Scotland Trading to Africa and the Indies was authorised by tire Scottish Parliament. It was meant to be a rival to the East India Company, but powerful interests in London did not want a competitor and obstacles were put in the new institution's way. So fierce was resentment at this treatment by the English that thousands of Scots put their own money into the enterprise. Fervent national pride was aroused and a crowd cheered to the echo as the ships -- Caledonia, St Andrew, Unicorn, Dolphin and Endeavour -- sailed from Leith. Scores of stowaways who hoped to go along had to be ejected tearfully from the ships before sailing.

The first passenger rightfully on board was William Paterson, with his wife and son, neither of whom would survive the expedition. Many of the others would not survive either. The promoters had failed to allow for the Darien climate, the insuperable difficulties of transporting cargoes through mosquito-infested tropical jungle and the fact that the Spanish considered the territory their own and were not about to tolerate intruders. …

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