The Darien Scheme: Scotland’s disastrous attempt to colonize Central America

New Edinburgh, the Sottish settlement
on the Gulf of Darien.

Before becoming part of the United Kingdom, Scotland entertained notions of becoming a powerful colonial power equivalent in might to England. In order to achieve this, plans were formed to create a state-sanctioned monopoly similar to the British East India Company, and use this company to colonize the Isthmus of Panama, thereby making the nascent Scottish empire an important trade link between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.

The result was two expeditions in 1698 and 1699, both of which proved disastrous. New Edinburgh was formed in 1698, but hopes of forming a large trading network in Panama quickly dissipated. The Kingdom of Spain was furious at Scots’ interference with their geographical sphere of influence in the Americas, and the Kingdom of England, in order to avoid confrontation with the still-powerful Spanish, forbade trade between English and Scottish colonies. Local Amerindians also displayed little interest in trading with the Scottish settlers.

The first expedition ended after eight months; only 300 out of the initial 1200 settlers survived. Famine had become widespread, with giant turtle hunting becoming the primary means of sustenance in the colony. The second expedition fared even worse. This time, settlers faced a siege by the Spanish that led to a final abandonment of the Central American colony. Twenty percent of Scottish currency had been sunk into the colonization project, and its failure led to tremendous economic hardship. Only a few years later, in 1707, a now-bankrupt Scotland entered into a formal political union with the Kingdom of England. Without Scotland’s failed escapade in Central America, it is possible that Scotland would have retained its independence to this day.