In 1698, the nation of Scotland had the ambitious dream of becoming one of the global players in the world. In order to step out of the shadow of their big neighbour England and gain economic independence and prosperity, Scotland tried to establish its own trading colony ‘New Caledonia’ in Darien on the Isthmus of Panama. This attempt failed disastrously and was one of the reasons for Scotland’s loss of independence in 1707 (Prebble, 2002). Today, the question of independence emerges once more, and critics point to Scotland’s last attempt in Darien to be an independent global player and suggest learning from history. The incomparability of context and time of the two situations is one of the arguments which can be held against this comparison. Nevertheless, arguments in favour of this comparison, are the fact that it is about getting independence from England or the risk involved for Scotland’s future, both in 1698 and today. This essay first outlines the historical context of the Darien scheme and then critically discusses whether this part of Scottish history has any significance for the Scotland of today, before it finally draws the main arguments together in a conclusion.
Scotland suffered hard times at the end of the 17th century after forming part of a composite monarchy with England, Ireland and Wales. The population and the county were threatened by famines, and a weak economy due to king William of Orange’s war with France and his trade embargo. There were also crop failures and the exclusion from colonial trade by the English (Prebble, 2002). In order to gain economic independence, Scotland’s representatives decided to establish their own trading colony ‘New Caledonia’ in the new world (Thomson, 2014). Initial royal support was soon withdrawn, as this attempt would directly challenge the powerful East India Company and antagonise England’s important ally Spain. Nevertheless, the founders of the scheme including William Paterson succeeded in convincing the people of Scotland to finance the expedition (Watt, 2007). Paterson, a successful Scottish merchant and one of the founders of the Bank of England, raised approximately 400,000 pounds, a quarter of Scotland’s wealth, from organisations and individuals for ‘the most noble undertaking’ (Little, 2014) and two expeditions were sent out in 1698 and 1699 (Maley, 2005).
What began as a patriotic attempt to enter the global economy quickly turned into one of the biggest disasters in Scottish history. Neither expedition succeeded in establishing a self-sufficient colony and trading activities, but a great number of settlers were lost to tropical diseases and Darien had to abandoned within months (Prebble, 2002). Today the main reasons for the failure of the Darien project are seen as the lack of provisions, illness, poor planning of terrain and trading commodities. There were also two major misjudgements contributing to the failure of the project. Firstly, the assumption that Spain, the original occupier of Darien, would not mind the Scottish in close proximity to its key strategic harbour Portobello, and secondly, that the nearby English colonies would help in case of emergency. However, the English denied any support and the Spanish fought until the Scottish surrendered (Paul, 2009). In conclusion, the attempt of establishing a trading colony in Darien resulted in great losses in lives and capital. The resulting economic situation was so severe that it led Scotland close to bankruptcy and, amongst other things, triggered the ‘Act of Union’ in 1707, only a few years later. As one of the terms of this union with England was the reimbursement of those who lost their investments in the scheme with what was called the ‘equivalent’, many Scotsman felt betrayed (Watt, 2007). Robert Burns wrote at the time: “bought and sold for English gold - Such a parcel of rogues in a nation” (Burns, 1791).
In 2014, Scotland had to decide whether to stay in this union or not, and by a slight majority voted to stay (Mitchell, 2018). Today, however, with Brexit on the horizon, the question of independence arises once more. When facing arguments against independence that refer to the ‘Darien Disaster’, proponents of independence emphasise the difference of the two situations and thus, their incomparability (Graham, 2014). To begin with, back then, Scotland and England were only united by a composite monarchy and not politically or economically. Therefore, England had no liability for Scotland and was able to deny any help (Watt, 2007). Up to this day, however, the UK still forms part of the European Union (EU) and would, in case of an emergency like the debt crisis in Greece, help an independent Scotland in surviving a crisis.
Furthermore, it can be argued that the risk involved today is not as high as in the Darien Scheme. The failure caused countless deaths and almost Scotland’s bankruptcy, whereas today, there is international alliances such as the EU, which would help an independent Scotland (Graham, 2014). Additionally, today’s Scotland is not as underdeveloped and poor as it was in the 17th century. With revenues from the oil industry, tourism sector and others, Scotland is much more prepared for independence and is not at risk from famines and bankruptcy (‘It’ll cost you’, 2012). In conclusion, there is reason to argue that the contexts of the two situations differ substantially, and thus, deny any direct significance of the Darien Disaster for today.
However, opponents of the idea of an independent Scotland argue that there are great similarities, and thus that the Darien scheme has a strong impact on the modern day question of independence (‘It’ll cost you’, 2012; Thomson, 2014). The most striking similarity is the simple fact that the question of independence is argued upon again. On both occasions Scotland has been to a certain part dependant on England, but many have felt pushed around by the government in London and therefore have sought to get independence. During the composite monarchy after the Union of the Crowns in 1603, the king ruled from London. Additionally, Scotland was not allowed to trade with England’s colonies, and at the same time had to stop trading with important markets in France, with whom England was at war. However, after the scheme Scotland had to rely on England not to fall into bankruptcy (Prebble, 2002). Today, Scotland has to live with many decisions made in London too, such as the upcoming Brexit (Mitchell, 2018). Independence could prevent them from following such policies, but no one can predict, whether an independent Scotland would not have to get bailed out again from someone else such as after the Darien Scheme.
Additionally, in both situations, the risk involved for Scotland and its people has been unpredictable. In the 17th century, the Scottish had to rely on the optimistic dreams of Paterson and most of the settlers did not even know where they were heading to until they reached Madeira (Paul, 2009). Some claim that the same applies for today’s longing for independence. The Scottish National Party advocates leaving the UK but to predict what would really be the consequences of independence lays beyond their capacities to forecast. As in both situations, lives and the country’s economy and overall welfare are at stake, the colonial idea as well as the idea of independence today present high risk regardless of the security assured by the EU (‘It’ll cost you’, 2012).