• Reuters


A few years before giving up its independence, Scotland took a bold gamble to secure a brighter future, founding a colony on the isthmus of Panama to corner trade between the Pacific and Atlantic oceans.

The 1698 venture ended in tragedy, helping to push Scotland into political union with England and form the United Kingdom. But had it succeeded, Scots might have no need to vote in the referendum on independence this coming September.

Named after the gulf where modern Panama and Colombia meet, the Darien scheme was hamstrung from the start by poor planning and English opposition. In less than two years, disease and attacks from the Spanish Empire had wiped out more than half the 2,800 Scottish settlers, and the colony was abandoned.

Barely a shadow of it lingers in the bay known locally as Puerto Escoces (Scottish Harbor), where the Scots founded the colony of New Caledonia with an initial contingent of 1,200 people.

“There’s nothing there now. Nothing,” said Amalio Hackin, 47, a former resident of Puerto Escoces and ethnic Kuna, an indigenous people that in 1700 fought with the Scots against the Spanish, then the dominant colonial power in Central America.

Mangroves and mud flats have devoured the site. Among the spider webs and giant palms that fill the jungle, mere hints of forgotten dwellings appear in clearings.

After the colony failed, Scotland in 1707 signed the Act of Union with England, swapping independence for shared trading rights, representation in Westminster and money — much of it to compensate the shareholders of the Darien scheme.

Few seriously argue the Sept. 18 vote on independence called by the separatist Scottish National Party (SNP), which runs Scotland’s devolved regional government, implies the same risk.

But that has not stopped some SNP critics from raising the specter of Darien to flag the perils of independence, which all the main parties in the British parliament oppose.

Time, and Scotland, have moved on, the SNP says.

In 1979, archaeologists uncovered relics of the colony, including tools, musket balls and a well during an excavation of its old fort. But the jungle soon reclaimed the site.

Today, even in Caledonia, an island village a few kilometers offshore that is also known as Coedub, local Kuna know nothing of how their forebears fared with the Scots.

Seated on hammocks in their congress hall, Caledonia elders mixed up Edinburgh with Hamburg, were unsure where Scotland is and chuckled at a description of kilts.

But Caledonia’s chief, Aristoteles Cabu, and the elders listened closely to the tale of why the Scots came. “Thank God for sending them home again,” the 71-year-old Cabu said finally.

Darien’s mastermind was William Paterson, a Scot who helped found the Bank of England in 1694. A year later, Paterson helped create the Company of Scotland Trading to Africa and the Indies to run the colony he hoped would be a “door of the seas and key of the universe” for a nation hit by economic crisis, famine and trade curbs.

English investors were initially due to take part in the venture. But, worried it would hurt England’s trading interests and upset Spain, King William III pressured them to withdraw.

His opposition angered the Scots, whose crown — but not parliament — was united with England in 1603 when William’s great-grandfather, James VI of Scotland, became king of England.

Still, Paterson was an astute salesman and the Company of Scotland raised funds from a broad range of investors ranging from landowners to merchants, said Douglas Watt, author of “The Price of Scotland,” a 2007 book about the Darien scheme. Though the sum fell short of the amount initially pledged, it was probably equivalent to about 20 percent of the liquid wealth in Scotland at the time, Watt added.

Problems began before the Scots had even left for Darien, with the Company of Scotland overpaying for ships and losing a large sum to fraud. By the time the first five vessels arrived, disease had claimed dozens of lives and the toll soon mounted. Upon arrival, food proved scarce and trading their goods difficult. Spanish attacks added to their woes.

King William dealt the final blow, ordering nearby English colonies to deny any assistance to the Scots. In June 1699, the exhausted survivors left New Caledonia for New England.

Very few of them ever saw Scotland again.

“It was the wrong location,” said Watt. “Scotland was a minor power, it didn’t have the naval backup to control areas in Central America. And all the capital was put into this one venture. It’s a very early example of a huge corporate cock-up.”

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