Bits & Pieces

December 9, 2011

The Scots In Darien

Aye, yes! The Scots did try their hand at colonizing Panama also.  I only found this out recently while researching the history of Panama outside the sphere of the Canal.

As it turns out, the Scots located their colony near the abandoned location of the Spanish town of Acla (1515 - 1532) and in the same bay in which Sir Francis Drake established a temporary secret port he named Port Pheasant (Puertofaisanes) in 1571.  In 1572, after one of his raids, he proceeded to this port as described by one of his sailors: "...thence directed our course for a place called Port Pheasant for that our captain had so named it in his former voyages, by reason of the great store of those goodly fowls which he and his company did kill and feed on in this place . . ."  The harbour was carefully described: "... which is a fine round bay of very safe harbour for all the winds lying between two high points not past half a cables length over at the  mouth, but within eight or ten cables every way having ten or twelve phantoms water more or les . . ." (1)

Esso Map of Panama, 1969. Enhanced by LRC

The Scottish experience began in June 1695 after seven years of famine brought on by crop failures.  On that date, the Scots Parliament passed an act authorizing the establishment of the Company of Scotland Trading to Africa and the Indies. (2).  It was an act that gave the company very wide powers to establish and defend the colonies as well as a monopoly on trade between Scotland and Asia, Africa and America for 31 years and freedom from duty for 21 years. (3).

Photo: National Library of Scotland. Source: The Darien Adventure, Jim Malcom, OBE

The idea of the colony in Darien (now San Blas Province) came from William Patterson, a Scottish merchant who had spent most of his life outside of Scotland.  While his childhood years and his departure from Scotland appear to be a mystery, he must have been a very intelligent fellow, for he is given credit for founding the Bank of England in 1694.  Prior to this feat, he had spent some 20 years trading in the Caribbean and working out of Jamaica.  During this time he appears to have been involved in the attempt to resettle the volcanic island of Providence off the east coast of Nicaragua.  Providence Island was home to a Puritan colony from 1630 until 1641 when the Spanish ran them off the island. (4)

The new Scottish trading company was founded by two Edinburgh merchants; Robert Blackwood and James Balfour. With Patterson as director of the Company, the first expedition was put together and sailed from Leith, the port of Edinburgh, on July 14, 1698, on five ships -  Saint Andrew, Caledonia, Unicorn. Dolphin and Endeavour.  There were 1200 men with a few boys and women with Patterson as head of the expedition. (5)

Unwelcoming Shore Of Punta Escoces (Point Look Out)
Source: The Darien Colony, www.angrypict.co.uk/dariencolony

After 16 rough weeks at sea, the vessels, under the command of Captain Robert Pennelcult, reached the bay, which they named the Bay of Caledonia (Caledonia being Latin for Scotland), on October 31, 1698, with the loss of only 70 lives.  Full of optimism, they named the peninsula that made the bay New Caledonia, and set to work building a settlement.  However, their first choice of site was, as Patterson put it; "A mere morass, neither fit to be fortified nor planted, nor indeed for men to lie upon . . . ".  After two months of struggle, it was recognized that a new site, now called Fort St. Andrew, was "a more proper place for us".

Left: Darien Chest, Royal Museum,Edinburgh.
Right: Darien House, Edinburgh, 18th Century.

Within the fort stockade, they began to erect the huts of New Edinburgh.  However they soon found out what the Spaniards had found out in the previous century:  that the land was not suited for planting, the natives were indifferent or hostile and that the torrential rains brought disease.. By March 1699, more than 200 colonists had died and the death rate had risen to 10 per day.  To make matters worse, they found out that the King of England had forbidden all trade with the colonists and the Spanish, hostile to the infringement on their territory, captured the Dolphin and imprisoned the crew.  They were the lucky ones.

Roger Oswald, who had joined the venture full of hope, wrote a harrowing account of what life was like that Spring on New Caledonia.  They lived on less than a pound of mouldy flour a week:  "When boiled with a little water, big maggots and worms must be skimmed off the top. . . "  Yet, the men continued their daily work  looking like skeletons.  William Patterson's wife died on the peninsula, along with his dreams.  The last straw was news that the Spanish were planning an attack on the colony.  Panic spread and the settlers took to their boats abandoning the settlement completely.  Of the four ships that fled, only the Caledonia made it back to Scotland with 300 on board.

Meanwhile, a second expedition had left Scotland in August 1699 totally unaware of the fate of the first expedition.  Consisting of the ships Rising Sun, Duke of Hamilton, Hope of Bo'ness and Hope, 1302 new settlers made the crossing, during which 160 perished.  Finding the colony abandoned, they set about rebuilding it; but this second effort fared no better than the first. 

It was obvious that the colonist of both groups had been totally unprepared for the harshness of the territory they were trying to conquer;  rampant disease, the  total lack of support from the English colonies, the hostile natives and the continuous threat from the Spanish led to the collapse of discipline.  One young officer, Captain Alexander  Campbell of Fonab, persuaded the colonist to remove the Spanish threat by attacking their forces massing at Toubacanti on the mainland and the Scots were outrageously successful.  However, this only stirred up the hornet's nest and shortly, under Governor-General Pimiento, a massive Spanish fleet and army besieged Fort St. Andrew which surrendered on March 1700.  The Spaniards allowed the survivors to leave but only a handful ever made it back home.

The Darien Venture had been a complete disaster for Scottish morale as well as economically.  Scotland would not recover from this experience and was now unable of going it alone.  Just 7 years after the debacle, Scotland was forced to concede to the Act of Union, joining Scotland with England as a junior partner in the United Kingdom of Great Britain.

William Patterson found himself forced to defend his actions and died a deeply disillusioned man. (6)

Sources: (1) "An Early Spanish Reference To Drake's Port Pheasant", by John Thrower;
(2) "Darien Experience", www.kinnaird.net/darien.htm;
(3) "The Darien Adventure", Museo del Canal Interoceanico de Panama, August 2005, compiled by His Excellency, Jim Malcom, OBE, Her Britannic Majesty's Ambassador to Panama, 2002- 2006;
(4) In Search Of The Scottish Colony, By Matthew Atlee, Nov. 2005, www.escapeartist.com
(5) South American Explorer, No. 79, Summer 2005, "The 300th Anniversary Scots-Darien Expedition" by Dr. Stewart D. Redwood, a Scot living in Panama;
(6) "The Darien Venture", by Dr. Mike Ibeji, Feb. 2, 2011, www.bbc.co.uk/history.

- Luis R. Celerier
Longview, Texas