Early Modern Scotland Darien Company: A Necessary Disaster? The 1690's were a time of much unrest in Scotland. The Glencoe massacre had served to discredit the monarch somewhat. Recent crop failures had led to a famine which was affecting much of the country. There was also a serious downturn in Scottish trade which greatly affected the economy.

In the aftermath of this came the Darien Expedition. The Darien Scheme, as it is commonly referred to today, is one of the greatest failures in Scottish history. It was poorly planned, over ambitious and doomed, not from the start as one may think, but from the moment it was taken over by Scottish businessmen. The Scottish turned what could have been an extremely successful and lucrative company into a massive controversy which was to change the face of Scottish politics forever.

Despite its massive failure, it can be argued that it was a necessary disaster. This episode was the talk of Scotland from its conception until its failure. It was the controversy of the day, and it undoubtedly contributed to the necessity of the Union. As will be explained below this tragic, yet farcical, episode in Scottish history made it obvious for both the English and the Scottish, that a re-evaluation of their relationship was required.

While it would be an exaggeration to claim that the Darien incident alone led to the formation of the Union, it can be said to have been the icing on the cake, the straw that broke the camel's back or numerous other clich " es. Either way the importance of the Darien Company in Scottish history cannot be denied. As mentioned above, Scottish trade had seriously begun to deteriorate. Past trade links were hampered by new foreign policies. Scotland currently had no choice but to follow England's lead. As a result of purely English interests, the Scottish took part in wars to the determent of their own economy.

The Scottish found that two of their best customers; France and the Netherlands, were now their enemies. The three Dutch wars of the seventeenth century and the two more recent wars with France had made it difficult for Scotland to maintain friendly trade with either. This greatly affected the Scottish economy which was already fragile to say the least. Also England had drawn Scotland into their economic war. Since 1660 the English had forbidden foreigners to take part in trade with English colonies, under their Navigation and Staple Acts. Although this was meant as an attack against Dutch trade, it did affect Scottish colonial interests.

There was some trade with America at this time, however it was mostly smuggling, (large amounts of tobacco were being brought illegally into Scotland). Despite an extensive black market Scotland's survival relied on a complete dependency on England or the establishment of some new trade routes. Dependency on England was not an option for the Scottish. On top of this, a large amount of Scottish money had been spent in the search for grain throughout the famine years, this was a bad time for the Scottish economy and it was only going to get worse unless something was done.

It was in the aftermath of this that the Darien Scheme was concocted. Scotland had made numerous attempts to start a colony in America throughout the seventeenth century but all had failed. The Darien Company was set up as almost a last ditch effort to remedy this situation. In 1695 the Scottish Parliament passed an act allowing the establishment of a company, with the intention of setting up trade routes with Africa and the West Indies. Although it is widely known today as the Darien Company, when it was established it was called The Company of Scotland trading to Africa and the Indies.

It also had numerous other names, each of which reflected the ambitions the different people involved. Scottish investors often called it 'Our African Company' or 'Our Indian Company'. This reflected Scottish desires to have a company of there own involved in foreign trade. English investors, and there were many, often referred to it as 'The Scotch East India Company', this obviously reflected their ambitions to rival the English East India Company, who currently dominated the market in these areas.

Upon its conception, the Darien Scheme seemed to be a reasonably sound idea. The cost was to be spread evenly between English and Scottish investors and its headquarters was to be in London. This spread the risk while simultaneously ensuring that there would be directors involved who had previous colonial experience. In the early days of its creation it seemed as if this plan could be pulled off. However it was not to be so. As previously mentioned the Company's interests were in direct competition with those of the English East India Company (E.E.I. C).

In response the E.E.I. C launched a campaign against the Company. The E.E.I. C had such powerful contacts in the English Parliament that they were able to threaten any directors involved in Parliament with impeachment. As a result English subscription to the Company was refused and the English Parliament put pressure on William to prevent international subscription. This episode not only proved the power the E.E.I. C had in England, it also showed where William's loyalties lay. It was this above all that angered the Scottish, and perhaps made them all the more determined to carry on with the project. The Scottish, for the most part, managed to make up the lost English capital.

They increased investment and were determined to see their plans to fruition. However the Scottish had lost a lot more than money, they had also lost the leadership and experience of the English investors. It is from this point on, that an economically viable scheme becomes an unmitigated disaster. Now under the leadership of William Patterson the Company became void of common sense. The original plan to open trade routes with East Indies with the permission of the colonial powers already established in that area was abandoned and replaced with the Darien Scheme.

The new plan was to create a trading colony in the Darien in Central America; this would have left them conveniently placed for trade with the Atlantic and the Pacific as well as north and South America. Economically it was a good spot, however technically it was suicide. Disaster was unavoidable. The area chosen was renowned for its heavy jungle, much of which was almost completely unexplored, it was also ripe with disease. Much like the Panama Canal Scandal in the same area, two centuries later, the organizers failed to appreciate the dangers of the jungle.

As well as this, a colony of this nature would come in direct conflict with the Spanish whose colonial interests in this area were long established. The resulting expedition was for obvious reasons, a complete and utter disaster. In 1698 and 1699 over 2500 Scottish left for America, very few returned. By the time the first expedition had realised their mistake and had sent word home, it was too late, a second and third expedition had been launched.

The Scottish found themselves under attack from the Spanish and although they managed to defeat one such force in 1700, they soon realised the Darien Scheme was not to be. The Spanish attacks coupled with lack of provisions and rampant disease forced the settlers to admit defeat in 1700 and to return to Scotland. On the return journey, as if total failure had not been enough, the vast majority of the Scottish died on the way home. With this in mind it seems somewhat harsh that Mitchison claims that "the loss in men was not great but the money loss was over lb 150,000 sterling". Indeed this loss put a terrible strain on an economy which was already headed for a complete collapse. Strangely enough the Scottish people did not blame the Spanish or the poor organisation of the expedition.

Instead they blamed William. The Scottish were outraged that he had looked after English interests while completely ignoring Scottish. What really angered them was the fact that instead of coming to the aid of the Darien colonists when the Spanish were attacking them, he chose to ignore it in favour of his foreign policy. A policy which relied on friendly relations with Spain. In fact William even went so far as to forbid English settlers in the area to help the Scottish, effectively William let them die.

This just proved that when it came down to it William was driven by English interests. This problem was perhaps described best by Pryde, "Since the Revolution both assemblies had claimed to be sovereign bodies, able to offer the monarch advice which he was bound to accept. What if the advice tendered to the king from the two bodies was opposite and irreconcilable? How could William follow two divergent policies at the behest of his Parliaments?" . The answer was obviously that he couldn't, the Darien Scheme had made that clear, the solution however was the real problem. The Darien episode had left the Scottish with fewer prospects than ever, a scheme which was supposed to allow Scotland a greater degree of independence and open up more trade links was instead driving them towards a greater union with England.

The Scottish economy was about to fall apart and they had only one chance to save it. As well as economic problems, this episode had highlighted the political problems associated the regal union. Other than abandoning all ties with England and establishing their own monarch, Scotland had little choice but to enter into a complete union with England. Only a few years in 1707 Scotland and England entered into a complete union to the benefit of both countries.

Thus ended any possibility of Scottish colonial expansion, from that point on Scotland had to make do with those colonies already established by England. While it cannot be successfully argued that the Darien Scheme led to the Union, it can be said that it was an extremely important factor in its creation. While the seeds for just such a step were already in place it took a major disaster to push the Scottish into accepting such a move. It is unlikely the Scottish Parliament would have entered into an arrangement of this kind unless it was absolutely necessary. In fact even after the Darien Scheme there was a large amount of opposition to the Union in Scotland, despite the economic problems. The Darien Scheme was a crazy, farcical and altogether tragic affair, however sometimes; just such a disaster is needed in order to expose the errors of an existing system.


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Scotland - From 1603 to the Present Day - (London, 1962) o T.
C. Smout - A History of the Scottish People, 1560-1830 - (London, 1969) o T.
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