The Honest Truth: How doomed Scots tropical mission to colonise Darien led to the Act of Union

William Paterson raised the cash needed for Scotland’s bid to colonise Darien in Panama (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

GLASGOW-BORN historian John McKendrick tells Laura Smith the Honest Truth about how a daring 17th Century attempt to colonise Darien in Panama led to trouble in paradise – and a pivotal moment in Scottish history

What’s your background?

I was born and brought up in Glasgow. I’m a barrister, a QC and currently the Attorney General of the beautiful Caribbean island of Anguilla.

What’s your book about?

It’s about the failed attempt by The Company Of Scotland to settle a trading colony in Panama in Central America in the late 17th Century.

I had to write about it as it’s the most romantic but doomed tale of misplaced confidence with a little heroism thrown in.

I lived and worked in Panama in 2004 and began my research then but didn’t finish the book until 2016.

How did you first learn about this episode of Scotland’s history?

I remember my granny telling me about attempts to establish a trading post and colony in Darien by the fireside in her house in Knightswood, Glasgow when I was a boy.

Who spearheaded the campaign?

William Paterson, the man who founded the Bank of England, was the visionary. He raised a huge sum of money in Scotland to settle the colony to trade between Europe and the Americas and from there to Asia.

John McKendrick

Where is Darien?

It’s in modern-day Panama, close to Colombia in the Caribbean. It’s very green, hot and a little dangerous.

I spent several days down there, stranded trying to get help from the local indigenous people.

One tribe tried to keep me prisoner on their island but another lovely tribe helped me and I made it to the site of the colony, which was very moving.

What difficulties did the Scots face?

They set off from Leith in late 1698 and there was a second crossing in 1699. The first took around two months and was so unpleasant many died before they even arrived. On land they faced terrible diseases, hunger and humid, difficult conditions.

What was the colony like?

The colony was called Caledonia and the capital was named New Edinburgh. It was located on an estuary which jutted out from the mainland and provided them with a large protected bay. They built a fort in New Edinburgh and defensive positions around the town to protect themselves from the Spanish.

Everyday life was pretty basic. They repaired the ships, tried to build wooden homes, cleared the jungle and attempted to trade with anyone who passed by.

Why did the project fail?

It could have been a triumph, but inadequate preparation and organisation ensured it was a catastrophe. The Scots miscalculated by thinking the land they colonised was free. It was not.

It was in the beating heart of the mighty Spanish Empire, who used Panama as the transit point to bring all their gold and silver from South America back to Spain.

What about the heroism you mentioned earlier?

The Spaniards were very keen to dislodge the Scots. The King of Spain sent instructions to ensure the removal of the Caledonians. Arms and men were scrambled from Mexico, Colombia, Venezuela and Panama to defeat the Scots.

One Spanish contingent appeared on the hills above the colony and a brave soldier of the second expedition, Alexander Campbell of Fonab, led a detachment of the Scots up into the hills and defeated the Spaniards and their Indian allies at Tubuganti.

Edinburgh was cheered by this news and a special coin was cast to celebrate the great victory.

It was short lived, however, and the Spaniards sent the Scots packing some weeks later, ending their tropical dream.

How many survived?

Of the 3000 settlers who set sail, only a few hundred returned to Scotland. Many others were left in Jamaica and the USA.

What were the consequences back in Scotland?

Scotland was effectively bankrupt, so the Act of Union in 1707 was negotiated to return the money that was invested in the Darien scheme as part of the prize for the Union of the Parliaments.

Did you uncover any new or unusual information during your research?

Much history of Darien always blames the English but I discovered correspondence from the Spanish navy which demonstrated the great English sailor, Admiral Benbow, had used his fleet to protect the Scots.

What is Darien like today?

The Spanish were eventually ejected in the early 19th Century and today it is under the control of the local Indians. It looks just like in did in 1699 when the first Scots arrived.

Darien, A Journey In Search Of Empire is published by Birlinn (£12.99)