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“Skintland”, Darien and the mythology of the BritNats

Posted on April 14, 2012 by

We’re probably all sick of the “Skintland” furore already. The sneering, condescending front cover of the Economist (coupled with a truly dreadful Photoshopped image of Alex Salmond inside which was oddly reminiscent of one on a campaign leaflet the Lib Dems had to apologise for and withdraw last year) achieved its aim of provocation, while the feature it purportedly advertised was an altogether more innoffensive beast, cobbling together some fairly bog-standard Unionist innuendo, supposition and misrepresentation amounting to nothing much that we haven’t heard a hundred times before, and which was excellently dismantled by Gerry Hassan.

The most interesting thing about the article was that it started with a preamble about the Darien Scheme, a 17th-century business venture which went horribly wrong and which anti-independence activists are very fond of bringing up as a stick to beat Scottish nationalists. This very week, for example, saw the publication (given much prominence by the Unionist media) of a report by Professor Malcolm Chalmers on the future of Scottish defence, in which the learned academic also felt it bafflingly necessary to cite the three-centuries-old events of the Darien adventure.

The Chalmers report was noteworthy not just for its politically-motivated conclusions, but also the emotive language and narrative of British nationalism running through it. We’ll deal with the report itself in more detail soon, but for this weekend’s in-depth feature we’re going to look at the theme of BritNat mythology, and in particular the re-writing of the story of the Darien Scheme to that end. Trust me, it’ll be fun.

In his report, Professor Chalmers writes:

“The failure of Scotland’s fleet to establish a colony in Central America in 1698-99 (the ‘Darien adventure’) was a key part of the chain of events that led to the Act of Union in 1707. For it convinced the business classes that they needed the military protection of the Royal Navy if they were to benefit from the new riches that colonialism promised. They were right. Scotland’s economy was transformed in the two centuries that followed, in large part because of the access to export markets made possible by the Union.”

But this account is a somewhat airbrushed one. The story of Darien is a tale of betrayal, power, and military and political might brought to bear against Scotland. Professor Chalmers is right in one regard however – it was indeed the Treaty of Union that gave us access to Commonwealth markets, and it was the Commonwealth (rather than the Union per se) that provided the opportunities for Scots. These opportunities were previously denied to Scotland, and amounted to far more than mere trade. Their opening swiftly led to the development of a large Scottish diaspora throughout the world, but most noticeably in Commonwealth countries and the United States.

Darien was a disaster, of that there can be no doubt, but it wasn’t the end result of any inherent flaw in the Scottish psyche, or an indicator of the inability to manage our own affairs. That’s just the position the BritNat mythology wants to portray.

So what IS the story of Darien? To find out, we first need to rewind a little further.

The relationship between Scotland and England in the 14th and 15th centuries was tempestuous at times, with one of the last major flare-ups arising in 1489 when Sir Andrew Wood was forced to clear the Scottish seas of English privateers, capturing five and bringing them as prizes into Leith. Aggrieved by this success, Henry VII of England fitted out three privateers in 1490 to exact vengeance, but after an extended battle ranging from the Forth to the Tay, Henry’s ships were all captured by Wood.

After that skirmish things remained relatively uneventful until the Union of the Crowns in 1603, with Scotland thereafter finding itself England’s ally and friend. Yet after the Union of the Crowns Scotland became progressively poorer, neglected by its King in London and dragged unwillingly into England’s wars.

In the 1620s, Scotland fought naval wars as England’s ally, first against Spain and then against France (despite the Auld Alliance), but refused to send conscripts to the Royal Navy, claiming that Scotland had no deep-water sailors. This was a bending of the truth on Scotland’s part, as several squadrons of Scottish warships (known as the “marque fleets”) put to sea, supported by individual privateers licensed with letters of marque and three sizeable ships of the Royal Scots Navy.

But Scotland didn’t want to send these resources away, as their intended role was defensive protection of the east coast trade routes, which led to them being mainly privately funded. Scotland’s naval priorities were the protection of national trade, and the pursuit of profitable raiding cruises against enemy cargos. They lacked the large, purpose-built warships of the Royal Navy, and didn’t share the English policy of building a heavily-armed royal fleet to project military power against foreign enemies.

Despite these efforts, Scotland quickly found itself drawn into the war, proving to be a very capable ally. The “marque fleets” replaced the Royal Navy as the patrol squadrons in the Irish Sea, and subsequently joined the private navy of the Lord Lieutenant of Nova Scotia in a force that for a short while made Scotland the dominant imperial power in Canada.

In 1632 Scotland lost Nova Scotia – her only colony – as a result of the English war against France. England’s Dutch wars subsequently compromised valuable trading privileges upon which Scottish merchants had previously relied. Scottish overseas trading activity was further hampered by the Navigation Act, which cut Scottish ships out of international trade by forbidding the import of goods into England or her colonies unless carried in English ships or ships from the goods’ country of origin.

Beginning in 1651, the goal of the Act was to force colonial development into lines favourable to England, and stop direct colonial trade with the Netherlands, France, Scotland and Spain. This law was enacted despite the Union of Crowns, and effectively meant that Scots merchants were boycotted for trade in England and all her colonies. To make matters worse two powerful English trading companies – the East India Company and the Royal African Company – claimed monopolies on the rich trades with the East Indies and Africa and jealously guarded these territories.

This situation gave rise to the reasoning behind the Darien Scheme – access to trade. The architect of Darien was a man called William Paterson, who would the following year be instrumental in the foundation of the Bank of England. He devised a plan aimed at bringing financial prosperity to Scotland, proposing in 1693 that the Scottish Parliament should grant a Scottish monopoly on overseas trade to a trading company, enabling it to harness the lucrative and relatively available Far Eastern market in the same manner as the English had achieved with Africa and the Indies.

Key to the plan was the establishment of a Scottish colony in Central America, at a place called Darien (now part of Panama), so that goods could be transferred from the Pacific to the Atlantic without having to make the long and perilous journey around Cape Horn or the Cape of Good Hope. Instead, goods would be transported to the colony at Darien, on the Atlantic side of the Isthmus of Panama, and carried across to a port on the Pacific side, where ships with exchange cargoes from the East Indies and Asia would be waiting.

In 1695 the Bank Of Scotland was established and the Company Of Scotland was born, with its capital intended to be £600,000 raised by public subscription, of which half was to come from within Scotland and the rest from elsewhere. Investors in England, Amsterdam and Hamburg quickly raised their share, but the East India Company – fearing that their monopoly would be broken – used their influence on the king and English Parliament to persuade them to act against the venture.

The English government of King William III – anxious to be on good terms with Spain – didn’t need much persuading, as the proposed Scottish colony would be located on land the Spain had its own designs on. England was at war with France and hence didn’t want to offend the Spanish, who claimed the territory as part of New Granada. The East India Company threatened legal action on the grounds that the Scots had no authority from the king to raise funds outside the English realm, and obliged the promoters to refund subscriptions to the Hamburg investors, with English investors also quickly withdrawing their money.

This left no source of finance but Scotland itself, yet so fierce was the resentment at the duplicity of the king and English Parliament that Scots resolved to raise all the capital alone. Thousands of Scots put their own money into the enterprise alongside money from the nobles, and the Company raised just under £400,000 in a few weeks, with investments from every level of society and totalling roughly a fifth of the wealth of Scotland. This was an enormous sum for the time, amounting to about half the country’s available capital, despite it being a fully private venture.

Although the proposed location of the Company’s first colony was still a closely-guarded secret, preparations for the expedition were public and extensive. Ships, provisions and trading stock were bought in cities across Europe, crews were recruited and the expedition’s five ships assembled in the Firth of Forth.

The first fleet (Saint Andrew, Caledonia, Unicorn, Dolphin, and Endeavour) set sail from the east coast port of Leith so as to avoid observation by English warships, which they feared would capture or sink the traders. The plan was to make the journey around the north coast of Scotland, with the settlers below deck to hide the intent of the voyage. At a time when the total Scottish population amounted to only about one million, the amount of manpower committed to the venture was every bit as staggering as the financial commitment.

Even as they departed from Leith, the people on the expedition still didn’t know where they were going. It wasn’t until the ships had passed Madeira that the captains were allowed to open their sealed orders which revealed the ultimate destination. They were ‘to proceed to the Bay of Darien, and make the Isle called the Golden Island … some few leagues to the leeward of the mouth of the great River of Darien … and there make a settlement on the mainland’. The fleet made landfall off the coast of Darien on 2 November. The settlers christened their new home “New Caledonia”.

There they built Fort St Andrew and began to erect the huts of what they hoped would become their permanent town, New Edinburgh. They cleared land for farming, but successful agriculture proved difficult. The local indigenous people proved unwilling to buy the combs and other trinkets offered by the colonists, and no fleets of merchant ships arrived to use the trade route.

The lack of trade was not an accident, as the English colonies in the West Indies and North America had been forbidden to communicate with the Darien colonists or offer them any help or assistance, by order of William and his government in London. By the onset of summer the following year, the climate, disease and hunger had led to a large number of deaths in the colony. The settlement had intended that many of the settlers would be dispersed across the continent ferrying goods from coast to coast, not all holed up in one place. The confined living conditions combined with poor hygiene and little food led to an epidemic of dysentery. Eventually the mortality rate rose to ten settlers a day.

After eight months the colony was abandoned and the settlers began the journey back to Scotland. One ship, desperate for aid, arrived at the Jamaican city of Port Royal but was refused assistance in response to the king’s standing orders not to help the settlers. Dejected and betrayed by their own monarch, the settlers continued onwards with only 300 of the original 1,200 settlers returning on a single ship to Scotland. Those who managed to survive the journey and returned home found themselves regarded as a disgrace to their country, and even disowned by their families.

Back in Scotland, however, nobody knew that the colony had collapsed, and a second expedition with a further 1,300 settlers on board had set sail. The second expedition arrived at Darien to find the huts of New Edinburgh in disrepair and the jungle reclaiming the land, forcing the new settlers to rebuild the settlement. The persistence of the Scots prompted the Spanish to take measures to prevent the Scots from securing the land, despite the fact that the Spanish were not interested in settling the area themselves. Ships carrying supplies to the settlers failed to arrive and the ship carrying the settler’s food supply mysteriously caught fire and burned to ashes.

Hearing of Spanish intentions to complete the job with a direct attack, the exhausted and hungry Scots launched a pre-emptive strike on the Spanish fort. In retaliation the Spanish blockaded Fort St Andrew, with the Scots settlers bravely holding out for more than a month before eventually surrendering. Decimated by disease and hunger and defeated by the Spanish, the colonists left Darien for the last time in April 1700.

The failure of the scheme provoked tremendous discontent throughout lowland Scotland, where almost every family had been affected. Many held the English responsible, while believing that they could and should assist in yet another effort at making the scheme work. The company petitioned the king to affirm their right to the colony, but he declined, replying that although he was sorry the company had incurred such huge loses, to claim Darien would mean war with Spain. A prolonged, futile debate on the issue served to further increase bitterness.

After the failure of the Darien colony the Company of Scotland struggled on, attempting to establish trading links in Africa and the Far East. However, the capture of one of the company’s ships, the Annandale, at the instigation of the East India Company in 1704 led to an outbreak of Scottish anger towards England. Later that year the English ship Worcester was captured in a reprisal raid and its crew accused of being the pirates who had sunk another company ship, the Speedy Return, in 1703.

Although many in Scotland were delighted it soon became clear to the directors of the Darien Company that the charges were not supported by any solid proof, and it seemed that the men would be released. However, claims surfaced from the crew of the Worcester that the Captain had drunkenly boasted of taking the Speedy Return, killing the crew and burning the ship. The men were convicted and sentenced to death.

Queen Anne – who had succeeded William in 1702 – advised her 30 Privy Councillors in Edinburgh that the men should be pardoned, but the public demanded that the sentence be carried out. Nineteen of the Councillors made excuses to stay away from the deliberations on a reprieve, fearing the huge mob that had arrived in Edinburgh to demand that the sailors be put to death. The crew, who were clearly innocent, were duly hanged. Popular ballads of the time indicate that this was seen as direct revenge for the role of England in the failure of the Darien scheme.

For both William and Anne, the lessons of the Darien affair were clear. They were anxious to avoid war with Scotland, which was becoming increasingly likely, as this would result in the loss of their lands and associated rents. They also wanted to prevent the Scottish Parliament from granting conflicting trade privileges and interfering in England’s foreign policy by acting as a competitor. The result was the plan to undertake a union of the Scottish and English Parliaments.

And so the negotiations with the Scottish nobles began. With power concentrated in the hands of only a few men, the deal was far easier to swing, and a crucial part of the proposed Treaty was Article 14 – a direct bribe to the nobles. It granted £398,085 and 10s to Scotland, to offset future liability towards the English national debt. Scotland, it should be noted, had no national debt of its own at the time – the Darien Scheme having been entirely privately funded.

The payment of £398,000 (known as ‘the Equivalent’) was to be used to support Scottish industries and as compensation for Darien investors, but it ended up doing only one of those jobs – the latter. Some of the money was also used to hire spies, such as the author Daniel Defoe, whose first reports were of vivid descriptions of violent demonstrations against the Union.

“A Scots rabble is the worst of its kind… for every Scot in favour there is 99 against”

Sir George Lockhart, the only member of the Scottish negotiating team who opposed the Union, noted that “The whole nation appears against the Union” and Sir John Clerk, an ardent pro-unionist and Union negotiator, observed that the treaty was “contrary to the inclinations of at least three-fourths of the Kingdom”. Public opinion against the Treaty as it passed through the Scottish Parliament was voiced through petitions from shires, burghs, presbyteries and parishes. The Convention of Royal Burghs also petitioned against the Union and not one petition in favour of an incorporating union was received by Parliament.

On the day the treaty was signed, St Giles Cathedral rang its bells in the tune ‘Why should I be so sad on my wedding day?’ As the nobles signed the Act of Union of 1707 the Scots people rioted in the cities. The Act was signed in secrecy so as to avoid the mob baying for blood in the streets.

These were the events which Robert Burns would decades later bitterly sum up in the famous and oft-quoted lines “We’re bought and sold for English gold, sic a parcel of rogues in a nation”. Defoe would go on to document many more objections:

“Seeing, by the articles of Union, now under the consideration of the Honourable Estates of Parliament, it is agreed that Scotland and England shall be united into one kingdom; and that the united kingdoms be united by one and the same Parliament, by which our monarchy Is suppressed, our parliament extinguished, and in consequence our religion, church government, claim of right, laws, liberties, trade and all that is dear to us, daily in danger of being encroached upon, altered or wholly subverted by the English In a British Parliament, wherein the mean representation allowed for Scotland can never signify in securing to us the interest reserved by us, or granted to us by the English.”

The Treaty was nevertheless enshrined in law and ‘the Equivalent’ was released. The men appointed to distribute the compensation money were known as Commissioners of the Equivalent, and they set up in The Company of Scotland’s old offices in Milne Square, Edinburgh. Only part of the Equivalent had been paid in cash; the rest was issued to creditors in the form of debentures. Two societies of debenture-holders were formed – one in Edinburgh and one in London.

(Even more direct bribery was also said to be a factor, with a further £20,000 dispatched for distribution by the Earl of Glasgow with James Douglas, 2nd Duke of Queensberry, the Queen’s Commissioner in Parliament, receiving £12,325.)

In 1724 the two societies united to create the Equivalent Company. Three years later this company sought a royal charter to allow it to offer banking services outside its own membership. When the charter was granted, the new bank it created was called The Royal Bank of Scotland.

And so Darien brought about the Union, and the rest is history? But how does all of this play into the BritNat mythology we discussed back at the beginning? Well, ask yourself this: having read the events surrounding Darien, the subsequent neglect of Scotland by its own king and the malicious manoeuvrings of the English Government, would you consider the Union as an act of rescue from England towards Scotland?

It is, I’d venture, more akin to having your neighbour beat you with a baseball bat in order to gain access to your home, only to chastise you and claim you should be grateful for the first-aid they administered after they’d got your keys.

To describe the Union, as Professor Chalmers did this week, as a benefit that had “convinced the business classes that they needed the military protection of the Royal Navy if they were to benefit from the new riches that colonialism promised” is to stretch the truth to breaking point. In reality Scotland’s nobles were bullied and bribed into signing the treaty by their more powerful neighbour, and when they none-too-reluctantly acquiesced it wasn’t for the benefit of the people of Scotland.

Scotland was not bankrupt and could have continued on as an independent nation. But being in the Union benefited Scotland by removing the impact of the Navigation Acts (allowing the Scots to trade with the colonies) and removing the threat of English privateers commandeering or destroying Scottish shipping. Access to trade – the same goal pursued by the Darien Scheme – was what brought Scotland into union with England, not some mythological pride in “Britishness”.

The relevance of this knowledge today is not as a symbol of some fundamental national ineptitude or – as the Economist would have us believe – the inherent perils of independence. Rather, it’s a reminder that it was the simple mundane realities of trade, and trade alone, which originally bound us to the Union.

In today’s globalised free-market world, however, there are no English privateers roaming the North Sea, and we no longer require the permission of the monarchy to conduct international business. So why do we still need to be in the Union? And perhaps more to the point, what is it that The Economist is so scared of?

The failures of a private venture over 312 years ago have no bearing on the future prosperity of Scotland, however many time the Unionists drag them up. We are not bound by the mistakes of the past – we can learn, improve and adapt, as all nations must. Darien is not a monument to failure, but a testament to the ambition and drive that the Scots people can muster against overwhelming odds and adversity. This time, though, the odds are not so stacked against us.

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36 to ““Skintland”, Darien and the mythology of the BritNats”

  1. Peter A Bell

    The most informative and enjoyable history lesson I've ever had. Thank you!

  2. Longshanker

    Nice article with some excellent background history regarding trade pre-1600s. Like the Bay of Pigs article, it's overly long – reader fatigue kicks in about half way through.
    You said:
    "We are not bound by the mistakes of the past – we can learn, improve and adapt, as all nations must. Darien is not a monument to failure, but a testament to the ambition and drive that the Scots people can muster against overwhelming odds and adversity."
    I agree with you, but with a proviso. Darien's open to as many interpretations as there are people on the planet.
    And the warnings, pre and post, which you articulate well, still have relevance to today's thinking on independence.
    If a full recce (SWOT analysis?) of potential dangers had been undertaken by the Scots and some foresight added, things may not have gone so lamentably wrong in the scheme.
    There was, undoubtedly, a collective hubris which blinded many of the major participants to the potential perils, and it led to the, arguably foreseeable, disaster which unfolded.
    That's my worry about out and out independence. Like Darien's potential, it could lead to great riches. Like Darien's repercussions, it could be disastrous and potentially impoverishing due to many of the variables (some covered in the piece by Professor Chalmers) not being given consideration.
    To believe in out and out independence at this moment in time requires a leap of faith in Sun King Salmond and his party which, judging by the arguments and actions so far, just isn't there.
    Genuinely liked this piece though. Hope you do more like it.

  3. Angus McLellan

    Scotland was not independent at the time of Darien. The Scots Parliament's powers did not run to declaring war, making peace or framing foreign policy. We have a name now for not-independence like that: Devomax.

  4. Philip Thomas

    Angus, who had those powers and how were they derived? 

  5. Seasick Dave

    And why would you want to live in a country that operated under those rules?
    Not for me, thanks.

  6. Angus McLellan

    But what makes you think that I want to live in a country like that?
    I'm only trying to clear up some confusion. C17th states didn't do very much apart from fight wars – no economic policy to speak of, no social policy, and so on – so those powers which the monarch had – before and after the "Glorious Revolution" – mattered more then than they do now.
    And if Scotland had been independent it would have been able to look for friends and allies. As it was, its only "ally" was England and England had a very different set of priorities. Devomax again.

  7. Angus McLellan

    Apologies for digressing…
    Synchronicity – not just a Police album from 1983 ("King of Pain" is good).
    Yesterday Mark MacLachlan posted up some BBC School of Journalism videos on the Scottish independence debate. They're at  I'm not suprised or appalled by the content. In fact I was impressed by much of what Nick Robinson and Stephanie Flanders had to say. One aside from our Steph was to the effect that whatever dire threats are uttered about the currency today, post-independence everyone would want to make it work. A dangerous idea that.
    The synchronicity comes in with a story in the Guardian on Wednesday. Apparently Charles Hendry will be heading off to the North Korea of the Atlantic – Iceland to you and me – to discuss an undersea HV cable to bring green Icelandic geothermally-generated electricity to these islands.
    That makes me think. All those scare stories about rUK/England not buying Scottish wind, wave and tidal electricity as it would be too expensive and here's Hendry discussing a 1000-1500 km long undersea power cable from Iceland. (And look carefully at that map in the Guardian. Is someone hedging their bets on the referendum result?) Looks like Ms Flanders really could have a point.

  8. Dave Beveridge

    Brilliant article that holes a few myths below the waterline.  It's sad that we still have the descendants of the Parcel o' Rogues around today – those who are only interested in the benefits to themselves and not their country.  They know who they are.

  9. R Louis

    Thanks for this excellent article.  It is perhaps one of the best presentations of the historical facts surrounding Darien I have seen.  However, what I particularly like with this piece, is  that the author uses his quite considerable grasp of the facts, to explain just why the failure of Darien is a nonsense argument to use against independence.
    The fact that unionist commentators too numerous to mention slavishly regurgitate the same, tired, overly simplistic nonsense regarding Darien is yet another sign of the fragility of the unionist cause.  For them to suggest that the failure of a scheme over three hundred years ago, is somehow indicative of a strange genetically pre determined inability on the part of Scots to run their own affairs isn't just tenuous, it's daft.
    I note that some have complained your essays are too long, however, like many others I enjoyed this piece, and I think most right minded people will not find skilfully written prose of this length to be challenging in any way.   We need more writing like this, not less.
    Please keep it up.  10/10

  10. Craig P

    A very interesting article. However trade was not the only reason for the union. England also had two strong reasons of its own to support the union. One was securing a Protestant succession, as the Scottish parliament in the years following Darien claimed the right to decide the next monarch of Scots. The English government feared that this would mean the return of the Catholic Stuarts and division within England. 

    The second English reason for the union was the war with France, which didn’t end until 1713. England did not want another front to the north and union helped close that possibility off. (The union with Ireland was enacted a century later for a similar reason). 

    When you look back at the reasons for the union – access to international trade, a Protestant monarch, war with France – not one of them remain relevant today. 

  11. Scott Minto (Aka Sneekyboy)

    @ Craig P
    I have no interest in the reasons for Union that existed for the English nation at the time.  The issue is that only one existed for Scotland, and it no longer exists.
    Its about what is positive about the union to Scotland from Scotlands Perspective.

  12. Matty

    Interesting stuff. I'm amazed that anyone would bring up the Darian Scheme in relation to the modern relationship between England and Scotland, it's like insisting that the United States have more border troops with Canada because of 1812.
    Small historical point:

    "Beginning in 1651, the goal of the Act was to force colonial development into lines favourable to England, and stop direct colonial trade with the Netherlands, France, Scotland and Spain. This law was enacted despite the Union of Crowns, and effectively meant that Scots merchants were boycotted for trade in England and all her colonies."
    There was no Union of Crowns extant in 1651 because England had become a republic and the English crown no longer existed in law or fact (I think it had been melted down and used to make gold coins or something). If my memory serves me correctly Scotland had recognised Charles Stuart's son as Charles II of Scotland in 1650 which the English Commonwealth would have seen as a direct threat which explains the hostility to Scotland in the Navigation Acts; Scotland was invaded by the English under Cromwell later in 1650 and forcibly incorporated into the Commonwealth (albeit as a virtual colony under Cromwell's governor, George Monke); Scottish independence (on a Parliamentary level at least) was only restored following the collapse of the Commonwealth in 1660 and the restoration of the Stuart monarchy in England.

  13. Matty

    A quick glance at wikipedia says Scotland was legally integrated into the Commonwealth in 1652 which makes sense in relation to the Navigations Act (after 1652 the English presumably didn't have to worry about Scottish shipping all that much as they basically controlled it).

  14. Craig Gallagher

    In general, I think the thrust of this argument is excellent. It reflects pretty broadly the argument I made in my post on Darién on Better Nation last month, about the misappropriation of the Company of Scotland's flagship endeavour as a lens through which to judge Scottish economic competency.
    A few quibbles in terms of detail, though. Nova Scotia was not a "Scottish colony" in any meaningful sense of the word. Though it was led by the Earl of Stirling and received its patent from Charles I as King of Scotland, the English Privy Council were heavily involved in financing and planning the expedition, while most of the settlers were actually English. The colony was traded in a treaty with France in 1632, which was quite common amongst imperial nations in the Atlantic world in this period. Dutch Surinam, for example, was English twice, while English Montserrat was frequently French.
    Secondly, Allan MacInnes of Strathclyde University (formerly of Aberdeen) has pretty much debunked the John Prebble line that half of Scotland's capital went into the venture. In terms of hard cash, only around 20% was actually subscribed, with the remainder being invested in shares in the Bank of Scotland, the Baltic Sea trading houses in Leith and particularly in the burgeoning tobacco houses in Glasgow. You make the point that Scotland wasn't bankrupted by Darién and it's true, the whole expedition had little bearing on our most lucrative industry: tramp trading under Dutch and English patents, which was done both legally and illegally.
    Lastly, as has been pointed out above, Scots were specifically included in the Navigation Acts of 1651, because they were part of the Commonwealth. It was Charles II's first Parliament of 1660 that excluded them and the Dutch, largely because of the economic threat they presented to English interests. The Scots were probably the most adept peoples at avoiding them for the next forty years, however, and lots of new research is suggesting therefore that an economic argument for the Union may not tell the whole story. There may have been other reasons why the Scots were keen to enter the Union. Indeed, T.C. Smout's article on Glasgow merchants in the 17th century, written as long ago as 1968, made the very significant point that the Union of 1707 only accelerated trade with the colonies in that city: there is no reason to believe that it would not have increased on its own, given how exponentially it advanced in the years prior to Union.
    All in all, a well-written piece that I would describe as a historical polemic, rather than an outright work of history. I'd like to see your sources (John Prebble looms large) and to see less of the "BritNat" straw man you think you are arguing against. One of the great challenges of modern Scottish historiography isn't so much the sneering condescencion of Unionist commenters, but the very sophisticated, factually robust historical tracts that they produce which present convincing epistemic conclusions. There's rather a lot of them, and to challenge their prevailing interpretations takes rather a lot of pluck.

  15. Donald

    @Craig you comment that the Unionits present sophisticated, factually robust historical tracts that they produce which present convincing epistemic conclusions. Is factually Robust being the outright lie peddled by the Unionists that Scotland was completely bankrupt in 1707 and England signed the Union to generously bail out Scotland?

  16. Melanie McKellar

    A very well written article with some excellent comments that followed.
    'The present is rooted in the Past and it is through these roots We draw nourishment and strength'
    :- Master Po

  17. Craig P

    As you wish Scott. But it serves to illustrate further to the thrust of your article that the union was not, as some might believe if they read some of the other interpretations of Darien out there, a case of generous England coming to the aid the the skint Scots.

  18. Craig Gallagher

    @Donald, I wasn't referring to Unionists as a whole. I'm referring specifically to those in the Scottish Historical community that write the type of history that has come to be dominant. And I am afraid your reaction is misplaced, and plays into their dichotomous hands. It's not that Scotland was bankrupt, nor was it that she could have survived on her own and prospered because of it. The truth, as ever, was somewhere in between.

  19. Suth

    I know in the pre-union period there were great concerns with the movers and shakers about many a London or English business moving up north to Scotland to set up their business or head office there instead as they felt it a better business envirionment or more suited to their needs as far as available labour and skills. Scotland then had a rosy future. Oddly enough it’s the opposite of what happens post-union as it all drains south.

  20. Swiss_Toni

    Remarkable that this article does not mention the primary factor for the failure of Darien – the location itself. The settlers chose the worst possible place in the whole of the Americas to settle. The modern Trans-American Highway links Alaska to the tip of Argentina and it only skips one area – Darien. Darien remains a inpenetrable location of swampland and mountainous rain forest.
    Basically whoever had planted themselves at Darien would have faced disaster, the territory is completely unsuited for settlement. Perhaps this is why it was one area that the Spanish had not colonised. And it was the Spanish that the Darien settlers were competing with, not the English.

  21. Scott Minto (Aka Sneekyboy)

    It is obliquely referred to:
    There they built Fort St Andrew and began to erect the huts of what they hoped would become their permanent town, New Edinburgh. They cleared land for farming, but successful agriculture proved difficult.
    The persistence of the Scots prompted the Spanish to take measures to prevent the Scots from securing the land, despite the fact that the Spanish were not interested in settling the area themselves.
    However the site was, in the end, the least of the settlers problems.

  22. Bill Dryden

    King William…..Scotland’s enemy..

  23. Ian MacQuarrie

    Fantastic article. The 16th Century was slightly more eventful than you suggest, with James IV’s invasion of England ending in defeat/annihilation at Flodden in 1513…

  24. Scott Minto (Aka Sneekyboy)

    “The 16th Century was slightly more eventful than you suggest, with James IV’s invasion of England ending in defeat/annihilation at Flodden in 1513”
    In fairness I was meaning fairly quiet at sea… and have been brought up on that point already BTL. I’m afraid my meaning got lost in translation somewhere…
    Im not suggesting anyone skip 16th Century history as its quiet… it’s not 🙂

  25. Steve

    Does anyone remember a documentary about the Darien Scheme called “Darien: Disaster in Paradise”, that was shown on BBC2 circa 2003? I remember it was very eye opening for me at the time and really made me a little more ‘independence minded’. I think it should be shown again now in order to educate people on this story, but I can’t find any trace of it online except a few advertising mailshots from the time. I’m fairly sure it wasn’t some dream but I can also understand why the BBC would have no interest in showing it again in the near future!

  26. Prof. Dumb Down

    Nice and informative summary article of current scholarship, though to academic historians this is old hat now, the economic interpretation of the Union of 1707 having been demolished some time ago and with it we have witnessed a significant period of revisionism re Darien. This article quarries this historiography pretty well. There is nothing original here, but for the general reader this will no doubt prove informative, not least because most Scots through no fault of their own are woefully misinformed about our national history and rely on many outdated assumptions.

    Nevertheless you are right to point out the Britnat ideology is one which adheres to the most negative interpretation possible of Scotland’s economic position pre-1707. I remember wincing when I was marking an undergraduate history essay when the student concluded what was otherwise quite an original discussion of Scottish identity in the eighteenth century with the statement that…”Scotland, led by the hand of Mother England, was growing into maturity by the end of the eighteenth century.” During oral feedback I pushed the student, who was english, on this statement and to my horror they had uncritically accepted the normal narrative that before the Union Scotland was some sort of economic basket case and its Union with England had dragged it into modernity. It was especially cringeworthy because this was a very bright student. I sent them away to do some reading, and no doubt they reached a more balanced conclusion.

    For those of you who aren’t quite in the front line of academic scholarship there has been a lot of very original work done on the Scottish economy in the eighteenth century recently with a string of doctoral theses (a couple of which are now published) produced by students mainly at the University of St Andrews. This work has pretty much blown apart most of the traditional negative assumptions about the nature of Scotland’s pre-1707 trade and economy more generally. No doubt many people felt that Union offered economic opportunities, but 1707 was by no means a Union of economic necessity.

    If you want to learn more about the Union of 1707, the best starting place is all the books that came out at the tercentenary, the best of which by far is C. Whatley and D. J. Patrick, Scots and the Union (2007).

    If this has peeked your interest in Darien, then take yourself off and read:

    D. Watt, The Price of Scotland: Darien, Union and the Wealth of Nations (2007)

  27. Flooplepoop

    Thank you for the splendid explanation, i will no go and shove it down some no voters throat who use it as an excuse to stay in the union.

  28. Guttermouth

    Bringing up the Darien Scheme as a reason against independence, as it’s considered a monumental balls-up, is fair enough I think…

    …So long as Unionists don’t mind Scottish people, who are pro-independence, citing the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq as ‘British’ monumental balls-ups!
    These, unlike the Darien Scheme, have cost ‘taxpayers’ far more money (without their say), and, more importantly, have been responsible for a ridiculously greater number of deaths – or murders, I should say – of innocent people. If we’re being truthful.
    We all now, despite the massive opposition to these wars, have blood on our hands – thanks to the powers that be in Westminster.
    This is a horrible, grubby stain that will last in ‘British’ history.

    I now can’t help but think of ‘The British Isles’ as ‘The Shittish Isles’.
    I don’t wish to be associated to anything ‘British’. I don’t like saying the word, ‘British’, and I even dislike the flag and what the ‘British’ flag reminds me of every time I see it – which is mainly imperialism, racism and snobbery.

    Here’s a wee poem to sum up a personal view of Westminster and ‘British’ politics:

    I hate politicians, they’re so full of shit.
    Corrupt, greedy, lying, cheating, fucking hypocrites.
    Trying to run the world, as they see fit,
    but I wouldn’t trust them if my life depended on it.

    Rich men in suits,
    – the ruling elite.
    How can they represent the man on the street?
    They’ve never had to struggle to afford to eat.
    You don’t need them as your shepherd,
    – unless you are a sheep.

    Fuck David Cameron
    Fuck the State
    Fuck Great Britain – it’s in no way ‘great’.
    It’s turning to shit at an incredible rate,
    better get out now – before it’s too late!

    The funny thing is I’m actually Chinese and live in Sweden.

  29. Jim Innes

    Have arrived a bit late . . . thoroughly enjoyed tho, high standard stuff IMO thanks to original author and the Craig chap who knocks down some nonsense. Let me add that the 16th century, that ‘quiet’ gap between 1490s and 1700s, also included the events known as the Reformation. In ‘geopolitics’ – and especially in Scotland-England relationship – surely the Reformation DWARFS/dwarves all other factors? Scotland reformed, England reformed, Holland reformed, France and Spain [the latter divided and broke by 1707?] now the Most Catholic nations . William of Orange’s tactical alliance with Spain, to defend his souther border against Louis X!V, notwithstanding. Add that to Cromwell, and between 1490 and 1707 Scotland has changed utterly. No?

  30. Bigdrone

    I’m of an age when in my school the history that was taught was almost entirely English as was the literature. It was only as an adult, and as a potential SNP member (blame Margo in Govan!) that I took and interest in Scottish history. I find the above article so very informative and bolsters my scant knowledge of Darien and of that time.

    ‘Of that time?’ I also, like others contibuting, see so many similarities to the present day situation, lies, international collusion, the real reasons for the retention of Scotland etc!

    Jim Innes ….. ‘Scotland has changed utterly. No?’ ….No!!

  31. Chic McGregor

    Many of the historical events at that time were driven by the truly huge national debt which a continually warring England had amassed.

    The squashing of Darien and the enlisting of national debt free Scottish taxpayers to take on a proportion of the English debt by virtual annexation was pretty much a side-show event.

    The creation of the Bank of England, in which William Paterson was also involved and its subsequent consolidation of government debt was a much larger attempt to deal with the problem.

    The massive disaster that was the South Sea Bubble rarely gets a mention yet the losses incurred amounted to many millions of pounds and totally dwarf those of the Darien scheme.

    Unlike the Darien scheme, which had a viable business model, commercially and ethically, the South Sea Company’s business model was known to be flawed, by those in the know, from the outset.

    Although a deal was eventually struck with Spain (which the UK reneged on) that the SSC should have a monopoly on trade in South America, the valuations of the share price were always unrealistic even at the outset.

    But hype, especially by politicians and the extending of its interests into the slave trade plus the political blocking of any enquiry into its viability, lead to a ridiculous level of share price, 10 times the already questionable starting price.

    In effect, it was the first British national Ponzi scheme which benefited from large scale collaboration between politicians and speculators (inner sanctum, not joe bloggs).

    It took on a large part of the government debt, like the Bank of England.

    Although some made a lot of money from it by getting out before the bubble burst (the usual political and inner sanctum speculator suspects and some other lucky or astute individuals like Handel, who was an English resident at the time), millions were lost compared to the £600,000 of Darien.

    And this happened only 12 years after Union. So by then Scots had two chances to lose their money, the first Union dividend.

    Should mention that, yet again, some claim that William Paterson was an architect of the South Sea scheme.

    If true, then he really was the Gordon Brown of that era.

    And that is not the only parallel with today’s pile of corrupta.

  32. Heather

    Fantastic article for those who may require a bit of education regarding Darien.

    @Prof. Dumb Down

    I studied Scottish History at university, and admittedly I took some of the stuff they had to say on Darien with a large pinch of salt. I remember my lecturer grin when she said we were bought and sold for English gold, in a way that said ‘see, we’re not to be trusted’. It made me wince then and I was really uncomfortable that our own people had such an establishment point of view.

    I went to study in the Celtic department rather than the History department and the culture there was astonishingly different. Although they dealt with the politics of history, they also dealt with the human impact to a large degree and it was a point of view that you never got in the History department, and it appeared to be something the books never dealt with either to any real extent, which in turn tended not to be questioned by many of the students. So it’s hardly surprising that students believe the Mother England line.

    Thank you for the reading material.

  33. Heather

    Oh never noticed the date on this post. Ignore!

  34. David

    Chic McGregor. I’m sorry, Darien did not have a viable business model. s has been written elsewhere, the chosen location is to this day totally unsuitable for habitation or land cultivation. The selected ‘harbour’ was extreemely difficult for windpowered ships to exit for much of the year due to the prevailing winds. Without an ability to feed themselves, to remain healthy, or provide safe naviagtion the project never stood a chance.

  35. Casper1066

    I really enjoyed that Stu, you should pick a topic like this each week, great to learn something of which is banded around like a virus…

  36. Jamie

    An excellent post.

  37. Tinto Chiel

    Some corrective reading for those Unionists peddling the old, comforting Darien “Skintland” myths:

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