13 September 2014

Scotland's first disastrous overseas colony ....in Panama 1698

Difficult European projects in Central and South America, of interest at least to historians, are not new to this blog. Consider for example the French scandal in building the Panama Canal and the ultimate failure of the Australian socialist utopia in Paraguay. But the story of Scotland’s brave overseas colony in Panama is suddenly very relevant to everyone, given Scotland’s upcoming vote on independence.

Scotland at the end of the C17th was not a happy nation. Decades of warfare and poor agricultural returns caused Scottish citizens to leave the land and to struggle in the cities. Scotland's trade had been crippled by England's continual wars against continental Europe, and its home-grown industries were not doing well. So a peculiar form of Scottish colonialism had evolved. The first documented Scottish settlement in the Americas was of Nova Scotia in 1629.  The colony's legal charter made Nova Scotia a part of mainland Scotland.

Later other colonies mainly inhabited by Scottish settlers had been established in New Jersey (1683) and in South Carolina (1684) . Scottish merchants were also key players in trade with the Americas. There was a concerted effort at Scottish economic expansion into the New World.

Minute book of the Company of Scotland, 1696
The coat of arms reflected the company's broad ambitions and international horizons.
Photo credit: National Library of Scotland

A solution was to be found in The Darién Project. The dream was articulated by William Paterson, a Scottish founder of the Bank of England. Paterson described the Darién colony, situated on the isth­mus of Panama, as a free trade heaven for merchants of all lands.

Scotland would become the major broker of trade across the Pacific Ocean. Dangerous trips around Cape Horn would become unnecessary; goods could be ferried from the Pacific across Panama and loaded onto ships in the Atlantic from there. And the Scottish Company directors would make money from the traffic.

Many Scots subscribed to the Company of Scotland Trading to Africa and the Indies, founded in June 1695; but it was not going to be easy. Firstly the Spanish felt threatened by the new Company. Secondly the English East India Company, fearing the loss of its monopoly on British trade to the Indies, successfully lobbied the English Parliament. The result was a proclamation, in January 1699, from the English Governor of Jamaica: "His Majesty's subjects are not to hold any correspond­ence with the Scots, nor to give them any assistance of arms, ammunition, provis­ions or any other necessaries." This in turn forced its English investors to withdraw from the new Scottish Company. 

Darién was a hot, humid tropical rain forest, situated to the west of the river Darién in eastern Panama. Nonetheless Scottish families were keen to emigrate.  And the promise of 50 acres of land per man had attracted many potential colonists. Public subscriptions had raised a huge amount of money, enough to fit out five ships which were quickly filled with ex-soldiers, merchants, clerics, sailors, dissatisfied Highlanders and the unlanded sons of the landed gentry.

In July 1698, the fleet set sail from Leith's port and “the hopes of all Scotland sailed with it”. They were carrying 1,200 settlers embarking on a new adventure. When they made arrived at Darién 4 months later, the settlers christened their new home New Caledonia. Sadly the exp­ed­ition met with nothing but chaos. How did they not know about Panama’s heat and intense rain? How did they not underst­and that European-style farming was impos­s­ible in the tropics? Trade was doomed because no supply lines had been established for the colony. And worse, the rations were totally inadequate.

Disease and starvation soon took over. The ships sent out to trade for food returned with news that all English ships and colonies were forbidden to trade with the Scots, by order of the King. Of the 1,200 colonists, a third succumbed to yellow fever and malaria, including William Paterson's household. In June 1699, a little over six months after their arrival, the surviving settlers abandoned Darién and boarded their ships for home. Only one of the fleet completed the voyage.

Back in Scotland little news had been received of the colony, so two relief ships set out in May 1699 with 300 new settlers. By the time the new ships arrived that July, half of the second lot of settlers were already dead of fever and the remainder found Darién deserted. After a hopeless attempt to rebuild the settlement, they set sail for the nearest English colony, Jamaica, and died there of disease. NB that Darién was still cut adrift by England; no supplies could be given to the Scots by English colonies in the West Indies.

Isthmus of Darian and Bay of Panama
in Central America

A third and final expedition sailed in Sept 1699. The largest of the three, with four ships and 1,300 settlers and supplies, the colonists found the site abandoned and some elected to resettle it. Some preferred to cut their losses and set sail for Jamaica. The return voyage of the third fleet was disastrous. The Rising Sun and Duke of Hamilton lost their passengers to disease and then to ship wreck off Jamaica. The Hope was lost with all hands off Cuba and the Hope of Bo'ness was sold as scrap to the Spanish. Only 300 settlers survived. Scotland's colony, on which the hopes of the nation had rested, was a total catastrophe. It had cost the lives of some 2,000 Scots and wasted all the funds invested. Of the 11 ships that left Scotland, only one ever returned home.

A massive Spanish fleet and army besieged Fort St Andrew, which finally surrendered in March 1700. The surviving colonists, the last stragglers, were permitted to vacate the fort on board their remaining ships. Only a handful ever made it back to Scotland. Darién reverted to Spanish rule that same year (in 1700).

Despite poor financial planning at home, administrative incompetence in Panama and Spanish hostility everywhere, the principal cause of the Panama disaster was seen in Scottish minds to be English opposition. There was widespread anti-English rioting in Edinburgh and Glasgow.

Yet … yet … Scotland's nobles were almost bankrupted by the Darien fiasco and Scotland was finally incapable of surviving independently. So it is ironic that the Darién Project ultim­ate­ly sped up the eventual union of the two countries. In England the possible consequences of Scotland's continued independence would have been intolerable. For the Scots, they knew that to prosper as a nation, they had to gain access to England's greater trade and capital. Just 7 years after Darien, Scotland was forced to concede to the Act of Union, joining with England as the junior partner in 1707. England paid off Scotland's debts!

And there was another irony. No amount of money could make up for the nation's sense of betrayal, and many Scots continued to believe that their chance of trading success and independence had been deliberate­ly sabotaged by the English. Historians have suggested that the resentment this fostered played no small part in the Jacobite rebellions which were soon to plague the Union (1715 and 1745).

Darien: The Scottish Dream of Empire by John Prebble was published by Birlinn in 2000.


Parnassus said...

Hello Hels, What a sad waste this story documents, with lingering recriminations. Now I will always think of Scotland's fiasco when "Looking into Chapman's Homer" comes to mind. "Silent upon a peak in Darien" is the perfect epitaph for the doomed colony.

Hels said...


you are spot on!

Do you know if Keats had an interest in Scottish history? He certainly placed stout Cortez in Panama's Darien, gazing at the Pacific for the first time. So I wonder if Keats was writing about awe, joy and unhindered expanses, ironically on the very same site where the Scottish colonists found disease, misery and death.

Communal memories seem to last for ever!

Flying Scotsman said...

My family is still in Scotland, but I am living in Australia for a while. They have a vote while I do not.

Hels said...

Flying Scotsman

The rules on who can vote in the referendum are strange. Whose decision was it to include teenagers (16 year olds) and workers from EU countries who are not citizens?

Can you vote by proxy?

Andrew said...

Absolutely fascinating. What will happen to an independent Scotland if oil and gas run out or aren't required in such volumes? A yes vote will be very short sighted.

Hels said...


every national group wants to be independent, but there is no way of knowing if it will go smoothly or end in suffering. When the Austro-Hungarian Empire was breaking up into small sovereign nations, it ended in WW1. Yet when Czechoslovakia split into two quite separate countries, all went peacefully.

What about Quebec, right in the centre of Canada? What about the Catalans who have always wanted to separate from Spain?

Andrew said...

I think an amount of autonomy is appropriate for those who don't feel identity with the place they are part of. Scotland has this and perhaps it could go further, Quebec has and I believe the Catalans do now too. Some will always want more, and that is for negotiation, but small countries are generally not very successful unless there is something special about them.

PS Can you implant in my brain your knowledge of Europe?

Hels said...


I was a plodding psychologist until 1990, making heaps of money but not enjoying myself a lot. So I went back to uni and started again...doing European art and history. The perks were brilliant - 6 weeks travel every northern summer, free books and history journals. But the pay was less than dismal.

Re small countries breaking away, they are becoming very small indeed. Not counting islands, the smallest countries are Luxembourg, Puerto Rico, Lebanon, Israel, El Salvador, Kuwait etc. It takes me longer to drive from St Kilda to Dandenong than it takes to drive from one border of Israel (Tel Aviv) to the other (Jerusalem). How can people survive in such tiny spaces?

Elephant's Child said...

This is fascinating, and largely new to my ignorant self. Thank you - and Andrew for pointing me here.

Hels said...

Elephant's Child

you are not the only one. For quite a long time I was writing and lecturing on the history of the Panama Canal. Out of the blue someone said "The French weren't the first to fail in a major project in Panama, you know". I did not :(

diane b said...

Thanks for the History lesson. I never knew Scotland had a colony in Panama. When you pointed out how ill prepared the Scots were to start a new colony, I couldn't help thinking that the English were not a lot better when they sent the First Fleet. The colony nearly failed through starvation due to their lack of knowledge of growing crops in the 'down under' environment.

Hels said...

diana b

that is so true about Australia! And elsewhere. When my grandmother moved from snowy Russia to Israel, no-one had warned them about malarial swamps. None of the new farmers brought equipment to clear the swamps, successful medicine, hardy animals or suitable clothing. What a disaster :(

History Today said...

The disaster in the Scottish colony did nothing to dampen interest in the dream of a transisthmian canal. Among those gripped by the idea were Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson. One wanted to ensure world peace through enhanced commerce and communication while the other wanted southward expansion of US power. But it was France who sent a number of explorers to the isthmus in the 18th century.

Hels said...

History Today

Many thanks. Of course I knew where the colony was located. But I had not thought of the connection between the Scottish colony in 1698-1700 and the eventual French canal building from 1880 on. The two projects seemed too far apart in time.

Hels said...

Matthew Parker

no wonder the colony failed!! As you noted, when Scots landed in the New World, there were fierce protests in London from the Spanish ambassador and from English merchants. In response, William III issued orders to the Governors of Virginia, New York, New England, Jamaica and Barbados, forbidding them to trade with or supply provisions to the Darién colonists. For a settlement established as a trading station, this was a fatal blow. And relations with the Indians cooled when it became apparent that the new arrivals were preparing no blow against the common Spanish enemy. *sigh*

Tom C said...

Dear Helen,

I just read your article about the Panama Canal. Ever since reading Matthew Parker's book "Panama Fever," I have been horrified at the number of people who died from Yellow Fever in the 1800's, including the family of Jules Dingler (Lorient, 1836-Paris, 1901). In particular, I wondered if there are any photographs of 18 year old Louise DINGLER, who died of Yellow Fever in January, 1884. In this period, Dingler's son, Louise Dingler's fiance, and his wife all died of yellow fever after the daughter died.

In my sporadic/intermittent search I saw but cannot remember the name of the local newspaper during the French years and wonder if you know or can find out what newspaper was prominent at the time. Since the Dingler family was often in the local news, this now seems to be the best option of finding such a photograph.

I have asked both the US and French National Archives for photographs of Louise but to date I have had no success. Any ideas?

Tom C

Hels said...


I found plenty of material about Jules Dingler, including his talents, pleasures and problems. But nobody seemed to care very much about his wife, daughter, son and future son in law. Yellow fever was an equal opportunity killer, wasn't it?