A current of thought amongst contemporary historians follows that empires have a life span. Like living organisms they grow, mature and begin to decay in a natural and seemingly inevitable process of decline. This has proven true for the greatest empires known to the world – Rome, Egypt, Spain, Britain and perhaps America today.
There is perhaps a claim to be made that Scotland’s Empire in the 17th Century was one of the briefest in history – it passed in a mere blink of the eye when cast against the more illustrious empires of history. Scotland’s imperial experiment did not survive its infancy.
The story of Scotland’s foray into empire does not lie immediately with the affairs of William Paterson and the Darien Company as so often thought. The Scottish venture and its eventual failure could be said to have its roots out with the country itself. Larger powers were moving within Europe that would at first facilitate the beginning of the colony and eventually crush it.
An empire in decay?
The story therefore must begin in Madrid, rather than Edinburgh, at the court of Spain under the rule of Charles II. The chronically ill and feeble Spanish King reigned over a vast and sprawling empire. From the Philippines in the East to Mexico and Peru in the West, Charles’ imperial holdings were something to be greatly admired and coveted.
While under the rule of the monarch, who was at best a pale imitation of the Habsburgs of the 16th century, Spain was perceived to have suffered through a steady period of decline. A Venetian ambassador commented in 1678:
“The ancient valour of Spain has perished. There are no navies at sea, no armies on land, the fortresses dismantled and unguarded, everything exposed, nothing protected.”
The decline of Spain coincided with an increase in foreign activity throughout its colonies in the Indies. The Spanish monopoly on trade had become a fallacy that was barely upheld. French, Dutch and English ships regularly stepped in to prop up the trade deficit with the American colonies that Spain could not satisfy. It was thus an opportune moment to be attempting to tap into the wealth of the Indies trade.
Charles II was also childless. Whether out of inability or lack of trying the King produced no heir to assume his throne after his death, something that was waited upon eagerly by the other dynasties of Europe in anticipation of dividing up the spoils of the Spanish Empire. Like vultures, they circled around Charles. The First Treaty of Partition was signed in 1698, which divided the Spanish lands between the Prince Joseph Ferdinand, France and Austria, while the King was still alive. The death of Ferdinand prompted the signing of another partition in 1699 between England and France which divided up Spain and its territories between the Archduke Charles of Austria and France. Each party to the second treaty complained of unfairness while Spain cried foul at having not been invited to the talks in the first place. Upon his death, Charles II complicated matters further by bestowing upon his French cousin Philippe, duc d’Anjou, the Spanish possessions in their entirety. Thus began the Spanish War of the Succession in 1701.
This complex web of European power politics was occurring above the head of a relatively small and insignificant power in the North Atlantic. But the perceived frailty of the Spanish Empire and the uncertainty over who would inherit the Spanish territories provides an important context for Scotland’s ambitious foray into the world of empire. It provides us with an additional motive for Scottish fervour in setting up the scheme and also points to the wider political schemes that flavoured the English response, which is – rightly or wrongly – considered to be elemental in the ultimate failure of the Darien colony.
The Darien Company
We return to Scotland and the life of William Paterson, the man who we can name as the founder Scotland’s imperial dream. Paterson was born in 1658 in Tinwald, Dumfriesshire. At the age of seventeen he left home to seek his fortune and travelled to the New World via England. It was in the Bahamas where it is said the idea of founding a trading colony which could span the Panamanian Isthmus came to Paterson, although this is disputed. He later returned to England and was instrumental in the founding of the Bank of England in 1694.
A year later he returned to his native Scotland and began lobbying the Scottish Government to authorise his scheme and begin preparations for the audacious journey. Like the people of Scotland after them, the members of the Privy Council were swayed. On 26th June 1695 the Company of Scotland Trading to Africa and the Indies, better known as the Darien Company, was founded after being given the blessing of the Scottish Parliament.
Financial difficulties loomed ahead for the Company as English investors were dissuaded from continuing to fund the venture. Foreseeing a potential threat to its extensive and lucrative trade links the East India Company pressured William II of England (III of Scotland), and as a consequence many investors cut ties with the fledgling venture and cast its future into uncertainty. To understand the actions of William we must keep in mind the broader context: it was important to maintain on good terms with the Spanish Empire while the issue of the imperial inheritance began to hasten. Paterson’s plan involved carving out a part of the Spanish territory, a relatively tiny chunk, but nonetheless William did not wish to risk damaging his relations with the Iberian power.
Dismayed but not beaten, Paterson broadened his appeal for funds to the Scottish people.
Scotland at this time was an impoverished nation. Economically prostrate, many people were scraping by under difficult conditions. Paterson’s idea offered a potential way out for Scotland’s economic straits. His idea was bold, it was ambitious and in time it captured the imagination of the Scottish people who became key investors in the project by pouring their fortunes into the venture in the hope that Paterson would see it good. By the end of 1695 the Company’s target of £400,000 had been reached, a phenomenal display of national solidarity.
By 1698 the plans had come to fruition. Ships had been bought and fitted out, supplies sourced from the European continent and colonists mustered from all over Scotland. On 4th of July 1698 five ships, the Unicorn, St Andrew, Caledonia, Endeavour and Dolphin set sail towards their Caribbean destination.
Paterson’s wife and child, as well as hundreds of others, would not survive the trip of their new home.
New Caledonia and the failure of Paterson
Alexander Shields, a crew member of the second wave of colonists described the events upon his arrival in the Panama colony:
“Arriving at this bay, we found the nest was flown… The little fortification standing waste their batteries and huts all burnt doun (which some said was done by a Frenchman, others by an Englishman) and nothing of shipping there but two little sloups from New England and New York. They told us the Colony had deserted the 20th of June last for sickness (having destroyed themselves by working excessively on the fortifications) and for fear of want of provisions, that the St Andrew with her men was gone to Jamaica and the Unicorn and Caledonia to New York.”
First the climate and geography of the Darien region was completely alien to the Scots. Paterson had never travelled to the area himself. During the cool months the situation was stable and the Scots succeeded in setting up a small fortification and laying the base of their would be settlement. However, fortunes began to turn and in a series of catastrophic events the colonists were reduced in numbers and in willpower.
The Dolphin was captured by the Spanish in 1699 in a severe blow to Paterson’s plan. While hunger, disease and sickness began to spread amongst the colonists and nearly two hundred people perished in a matter of months.
However, recent research has suggested that the venture was not as hopeless as so often thought. Professor Mark Horton has suggested that the location was actually well chosen as the “the rivers were navigable and would have allowed the settlers to explore the interior without having to clear swaths of jungle.” In terms of trading links, therefore, the Scots chose well, but they were woefully unprepared for the trials of building a colony on the fringes of the jungle. It may have succeeded had the European context been different.
No succour was provided to the Scots by traders in the Caribbean who may have been able to sustain the colony until the second wave of colonist’s arrived in 1700. Under strict orders not to assist the New Caledonians, English ships did not trade with the Scots. They were squatters on Spanish claimed land at a time when maintaining a good relationship with the Spanish was of the utmost importance for England. Posing a threat to the larger game which was afoot in Europe and the trade of the East India Company, the Scots were left and eventually would be forced to flee New Caledonia.
The ending of Scotland’s brief imperial foray was painful and devastating to national pride. It cast Scotland into a state of retrospection. Hundreds fell into bankruptcy as a result of the failure of the Darien Company and many questioned whether their leaders had the ability to lead them any longer; the failure paved the way for the Union with England in 1707.
It was an imperial dream that carried the hopes of a nation for the briefest of moments. In the end it succeeded in ensuring that Scots would become builders of an even larger and more illustrious imperial domain, they would be partners in this empire rather than founders. Thus the Scottish imperial dream ended and thus began the British Empire.