In 1314, King Robert the Bruce led Scotland to a heroic victory over the English at the Battle of Bannockburn. The unlikely trouncing of one of the world’s mightiest armies boldly proclaimed Scotland’s arrival on the scene as a powerful force of contention.
Although the Scottish people would go on and play defining roles in all areas of life, the once-promising international power is now a part of the United Kingdom. When many of its contemporaries went on to develop colonial presence around the world, the geographical boundaries of Scotland are little different today than they were 700 years ago.
Why does the world not tremble in awe of the mighty Scottish Empire? The answer lies with one king’s ambitious — if unrealistic — plans to build a Scottish Empire, beginning with Panama.
The decade of the 1690s had not been good for Scotland. They were the coldest years the kingdom had experienced in 750 years. The resultant impact on agriculture and other contributing factors cost Scotland 10-15% of its population in that time.
Scottish morale was at a low point. While neighboring England prospered due to international trade and the support of its colonies, Scotland stagnated. It had thus far been unsuccessful in establishing overseas footholds like so many of its sister countries did.
England had experienced great success funding its growing empire with the East India Trading Company. Scotland sought to replicate that success by creating the Company of Scotland. A creation of the Parliament of Scotland, the Company was given a monopoly in trade to India, Africa, and the Americas, as well as exemption from taxes for 21 years.
The Company of Scotland faced problems from the beginning. As with many of Scotland’s problems over the years, England had a lot to do with them. The Company of Scotland was in direct competition with English merchants and the East India Trading Company. The well-funded East India Trading Company brought legal pressure against the Company of Scotland, arguing that it had no authority to raise capital from other countries. The Company of Scotland was forced to return the foreign money it had raised and to seek all of its funding from within Scotland itself.
Promising rich return on investments, the Company raised £400,000, the equivalent of about £91 million (US $126.5 million in 2021). This amounted to about 20-25% of the gross domestic product (GDP) of Scotland.
Flush with capital, William Paterson, a trader and financier, began building support for a project he had long envisioned: a colony on the Isthmus of Panama that would become the gateway between the Atlantic and Pacific. Specifically, the territory he had in mind for the beginning of the great and glorious Scottish Empire was the Darien Strait.
King William II (William III of England) gave his assent to the plan, destined to be remembered as “The Darien Scheme.” He commissioned Paterson to establish the colony with five ships and 1,300 settlers. In 1698, they claimed the territory, naming it New Caledonia, and established New Edinburgh as its capital. The colonists immediately set to work building a defensive fortress named Fort St. Andrew, thinking they would need to fight off Spanish colonists who were vying for the same real estate.
As it turned out, the biggest enemy was nature. For one thing, Scots are not accustomed to the relentless heat and humidity of Central America. On top of that, oppressive insect infestation, disease, and relentless flooding robbed the settlers of their optimism and started to take a toll on their numbers. Insects, climate, flooding and disease demoralised the settlers. It didn’t help matters when the English government forbade its American and Caribbean colonies from aiding the Scottish endeavor. Among those who might be willing to trade with the colonists, even more failure abounded. The Scots attempted to entice local tribes with the thick woolen fabrics for which Scotland has become famous. Unfortunately, few had much interest in such material in the hot and humid climate.
Ominous reports started to make their way back to increasingly-worried investors, but it was too late to stop two more expeditions to fortify New Caledonia. The first of these brought 300 colonists, and the second one arrived with 1,000. When the new settlers arrived, they did not see what they expected. Instead of a vibrant new start to the Scottish Empire, they found an abandoned, overgrown settlement. Of the original 1,300 settlers, 400 died at New Caledonia. The rest abandoned the colony for Jamaica and the American colonies. Many of these refugees died during their retreat.
Faced with this dismal development, most of the colonial reinforcements gave up and left. Five hundred brave Scots remained, determined to complete what their predecessors started. They rebuilt the fort and managed to repel a Spanish raiding party. Before they could get much more than a foothold on the colony, however, nature again commenced its relentless attack. By the time the Spanish returned in 1700, the few remaining settlers surrendered without even trying to put up a fight.
The curtain fell for the final time on New Caledonia. The cost was far greater than the loss of a colony. The death rate among the colonists was a whopping 71%. Having sunk between one-fifth and one-quarter of the kingdom’s GDP into the Darien Scheme, thousands of Scottish investors were wiped out financially.
What had started as an effort to increase the size and power of the kingdoms of Scotland had the exact opposite effect. Seven years after the demise of New Caledonia, Scotland accepted the terms of the 1707 Act of Union with England. The part of the deal that enticed Scotland to give up its hard-earned independence was Article 15 of the Act that guaranteed to repay all investors of the Darien Scheme, with 42% interest.
The choice was continuing independence or indemnification for bad investments. Those who wanted their money back carried the day, officially putting an end to all dreams for a great and glorious Scottish Empire.
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