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Scottish Colonization of the Americas


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The Darién scheme was an unsuccessful attempt by the Kingdom of Scotland to establish a colony on the Isthmus of Panama.

The late 17th century was difficult economically for the Scots. A number of remedies for the desperate situation were enacted by the Parliament of 1695. The Bank of Scotland was established. The Act for the Settling of Schools established a parish-based system of public education throughout Scotland. Given the late development and deplorable state of public education in England this gave a substantial advantage to Scots for centuries to come. The Company of Scotland was chartered with capital to be raised by public subscription to trade with “Africa and the Indies.”

In attempts to expand the Scots had earlier sent settlers to the English colony of New Jersey and had established an abortive colony at Stuart’s Town in what is now South Carolina. The Company of Scotland soon became involved with the Darién scheme, an ambitious plan devised by William Paterson to establish a colony on the Isthmus of Panama in the hope of establishing trade with the Far East – the principle that led to the construction of the Panama Canal much later. The Company of Scotland easily raised subscriptions in London for the scheme. But the English Government was opposed to the idea, being at war with France and not wanting to offend Spain, which claimed the territory as part of New Granada, and the English investors were forced to withdraw. Returning to Edinburgh, the Company raised 400,000 pounds in a few weeks, with investments from every level of society, and totaling roughly a third of the wealth of Scotland. Three small fleets with a total of 3000 men were eventually dispatched to Panama. It was a disaster. The colony was sold to prospective colonists as a tropical paradise with friendy natives eager for trade. The colonists instead arrived in Darien to find a harsh, unforgiving and pestilent jungle with poor soil and natives uninterested in the trinkets the colonists had packed instead of good farming equipment. Poorly equipped, beset by incessant rain, under attack by the Spanish from nearby Cartagena, and refused aid by the English in the West Indies, the colony was abandoned, and most of the colonists died of starvation or disease. Only 1000 survived and only one ship managed to return to Scotland. A desperate ship from the colony which called at Port Royal was refused assistance on the orders of the English government.

The failure of the Darién scheme has been cited as one of the motivations for the Act of Union 1707. The English agreed to cover the Scottish Government’s debt to its people, and this was likely one of the main reasons the Act of Union was not resisted by the people of Scotland as they had with other English attempts to amalgamate the two countries.

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