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The Darien Expedition: Scotland’s Downfall

From Epics of History: More Prisoners of Eternity.

By the end of the seventeenth century Scotland was a nation in crisis. Decades of social strife and civil war had left the country divided between the predominantly Catholic Highlands and Protestant Lowland South. Seven consecutive years of failed harvests, known as the ill years, when it was said the sun never shone, had led to famine, farms being abandoned, and the cities being choked with the destitute and starving. With one source of income destroyed what remained of Scottish trade was unable to compete with its more powerful English neighbour. Questions were beginning to be asked whether or not Scotland could continue to exist as an independent sovereign State. One man believed that he had found the solution.

William Paterson, was born in April, 1658, in Tinwald, Dumfries and Galloway. Though he was Scottish by birth and parentage he was mostly raised in England. When still only seventeen he emigrated to the Bahamas where he made his fortune in the cross-Atlantic commodities trade. Returning to England in 1694, he co-founded the Bank of England which was created to service the growing national debt. Whilst in London he came up with the idea that he believed would reverse Scotland’s fortunes. The Darien Scheme, as it was to become known, would make Scotland rich and restore its national prestige. 

Darien was situated on the Isthmus of Panama and provided the perfect geographical location for Paterson’s scheme. Trade with the Pacific markets was extremely lucrative but could also be ruinously expensive. All merchant ships had to make the long and hazardous journey around Cape Horn on the southern tip of South America. Many ships were lost, insurance costs were high, and the distances travelled added months to the sea voyage. A Scottish colony established at Darien could circumvent all this. Goods could be unloaded on the Pacific shoreline and ferried the 40 miles overland to Darien on the Atlantic coast where where they could be loaded onto ships waiting to make the Atlantic crossing. For this service the Scots would charge a substantial commission.

The scheme, as imagined by Paterson, was pure genius. Alas, he had done little homework and his only source of information regarding Darien was a sailor named Lionel Wafer who assured him that he knew the area well. It was a paradise, he informed Paterson, it had a sheltered bay, the climate was mild, the land fertile, the rivers clean and abundant with fish, and the natives were harmless and vain. Paterson took Wafer at his word. He may not have known much about Darien but he could find it on a map, and it was perfect. The fact that it was already claimed by the Spanish seemed not to have crossed anyone’s mind.

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