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Timeline of Scottish History

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Darien Adventure

After the horrors of the Massacre of Glencoe, King William of Orange realised that he would have to do something to quell widespread anger in Scotland at the way his government had behaved towards the clans.

His answer was to give the reluctant go-ahead to a venture so tragic and disastrous that it ended up making the slaughter of the MacDonalds look like a tea party - a disaster to which his own policy was to contribute.

The Darien adventure was meant to create prosperity for Scotland through a glorious trading empire which would reach across the world. However, it quickly became an expedition to Hell which left investors broke, caused thousands of needless deaths and finally helped push Scots into full union with England.

By the end of the 17th century, Scotland's economy was in a dire state. A series of bad harvests had caused a famine so severe that one in six people were forced to beg to keep themselves alive. Thousands were found dead from hunger and disease and people were even urged to eat cats to keep themselves alive.

Further problems were caused by England's wars with France and Holland - Scotland's allies and main overseas trading partners - which cut off exports out and supplies in. And the English made a bad situation worse by refusing to allow the Scots to trade with their own colonies in North America.

If Scotland was to engage in international trading, it was felt, then the best way to do it was for the country to set up its own colony overseas. The idea was first discussed by the Scottish Privy Council in 1681 and in 1693 the Scottish parliament, the Estates, passed an act allowing foreign trading to take place.

There was plenty of enthusiasm for the scheme. Wealthy Scots living in London had seen the success of the English east India Country, and saw a similar operation run by their own country as a chance to make a profit.

The plan had particular appeal to one Scots businessman, William Paterson, who had helped to found the Bank of England and had become one of its directors. Paterson spotted the value of the Scottish trading plan and saw its opportunities.

Darien, he felt, would be the ideal spot for such a venture. It lies at the bottom of the Isthmus of Panama, on the border with present day Colombia and at the very northernmost point of South America. Because the spit of land between Atlantic and Pacific is extremely narrow at that point, Paterson saw the potential for carving a highway between the two coasts, linking trade from the two great oceans together.

On paper, it was a brilliant plan. A new company, the Scottish Africa and India Company, was set up and its directors persuaded to back the scheme. Despite the efforts of the English government to thwart the scheme - even though King William had given it a reluctant blessing - nearly #400,000, an immense amount at the time, was raised to fund it.

A major problem was that the Spanish already had claims on the area, but this was ignored in the fever of enthusiasm at the time. In the frenzy of excitement about the venture, no-one really thought about the problems and the dangers.

Everyone from nobles to commoners, it seemed, was behind the plan. Hundreds of people, ranging from the sons of the landed gentry through to soldiers from the Scots regiments, volunteered to become pioneers and make the trip to establish a colony.

Four ships were built and fitted out for the long journey across the Atlantic. They were loaded up with a range of trading goods from brandy and biscuits to bagpipes, Bibles, pipes and needles. Even tartan plaid and wigs were taken, on the assumption that someone, somewhere would buy them.

However, problems with the journey began almost before it had properly started. The biscuits onboard were soon found to be mouldy and the beef rotten,. It was am miserable three-month journey across the Atlantic to Darien. However, the 1200 men, women and children who made the journey were not put off, and were beguiled by their first sight of Darien, which they thought was a paradise on earth.

It soon became clear, however, that it was anything but. For nine months of the year, rain thrashes down, and the hot, humid jungle is a breeding ground for disease. Yellow fever and malaria quickly struck the settlers, and in less than a year half of them were dead.

The planters attempted to restock by sending a vessel to the West Indies. It returned empty, with the grim news that King William, who did not want to provoke the Spanish or threaten the monopoly of the East India Company, had ordered English colonies to have nothing to do with the Scots venture.

Then the settlers received word that the Spanish were about to attack them. They panicked and decided to abandon the colony altogether. However, only one of the four original vessels, the Caledonia, made it back to Scotland. Three out of every four of the original colonists had perished.

But this was not the end of the disaster. Back in Scotland, where no-one was aware what a hellhole Darien really was, enthusiasm for the venture continued to grow. Absurd stories about it being a gold prospector's paradise quickly spread. Another three ships and 1300 colonists set sail across the Atlantic.

When they finally arrived after another dreadful journey , a desperate sight awaited them. They found only an empty wilderness, with the encampment of the original settlement burnt, ruined and choked with weeds. Something, they quickly realised, had gone very wrong.

Undaunted, they set out to rebuild the plantation, working themselves into the ground to create a proper settlement. Once again, however, disease started to take its toll.

They, too, quickly learned that the Spanish were plotting against them, and that they would receive no help from the English. The inevitable military clash with the Spaniards came in 1700 and, incredibly, the Scots beat them off. But it was already clearly that there were too few of the planters to hang on to the colony for long.

The next month, under another threat from the Spanish and with 600 people ill with fever, the Scots recognised the inevitable and capitulated. They abandoned the colony and put to sea. One of the three vessels sank on rocks off Cuba, while the other two were destroyed in a hurricane off South Carolina. Everyone on board was lost.

Initially, Scots at home accused the original settlers of cowardice, and the few who did make it back from the first expedition found themselves the subject of vilification and abuse. But the mood quickly changed and the English were blamed for the disaster.

An intense hatred of the English quickly set in, leading to riots against King William breaking out in Edinburgh. After hearing the colony had been completely destroyed, William felt able to be magnanimous - he asked Spain to free those who had been captured during the first expedition. As in the case of the Glencoe Massacre, he was having to extricate himself from a mess which his own anti-Scottishness had foisted on him.

Once again, however, he got away with it. Incredibly, the Scottish Africa and India Company survived the disaster, and continued to trade with the African continent and the Far East.

However, Shareholders had received no return on their investment, and anger throughout Scotland was widespread. People were talking again about bringing back a Stewart king.

William realised that the answer was to buy off the investors and compensate them for their losses by finally uniting the parliaments of Scotland and England. By doing so, he could remove the threat to his throne and finally bring the unruly, independent Scots under control.

William was to die before his plan would see the light of day. By then, however, the case for union between the two countries had built up an unstoppable momentum. For good or ill, it was soon to be put into effect.


  • 1693 The National Debt begins in England
  • 1693 Kingston, Jamaica, is founded
  • 1695 Guillame Amontons invest the pendant barometer
  • 1697 China conquers western Mongolia
  • 1698 A tax on beards is introduced in Russia
  • 1698 - Paper manufacturing begins in North America

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