History Files
 

The Americas

Central American Colonial Settlements

 

New Caledonia / Darien Venture Colony
AD 1698 - 1700

The English crown made its first tentative efforts to establish overseas settlements in the sixteenth century. Maritime expansion, driven by commercial ambitions and by competition with France, accelerated in the seventeenth century and resulted in the establishment of settlements in North America and the West Indies. With the Spanish very active in South America and the Gulf of Mexico, and as far north as their newly-founded colony in Florida, early explorative efforts from the British Isles were generally either aimed at islands or much further north, mainly towards Newfoundland and the New England coast of the modern USA.

What was virtually unheard of though, apart from some settlement of the West Indies following the English seizure of Jamaica in 1655, was British settlement in Central America or South America. The site of the 'Darien Venture' colony, on the isthmus of Panama, close to the modern Gulf of Mexico border with Colombia, had in 1502 been the first colonial base in the Spanish founding of Panama. A garrison of eighty men was placed here but the region was far from hospitable. It was replaced in 1519 by Panama City on the Pacific coast and was then abandoned.

Scotland at the end of the seventeenth century was in a state of crisis. Decades of warfare, seven years of famine, and the nation's trade apparently crippled by England's continual wars against Continental Europe all combined to choke home-grown industry. Financial adventurer William Paterson came up with the answer: turn Scotland into the major broker of trade across the Pacific Ocean. This would start with the settling of a wonderful paradise on the isthmus of Panama, with a sheltered bay, friendly natives, and rich, fertile land.

On 3 November 1698 the now-abandoned site of Darien became the location for the ill-fated Darien Venture colony. The native Kuna people generally welcomed the Scots, preferring them to the more belligerent Spanish, but the region was largely inhospitable. It was named New Caledonia, not to be confused with the still-extant French collection of islands in the South Pacific which are referred to collectively under the same name.

For the Panamanian New Caledonia, a 'capital' was founded at New Edinburgh and a sheltered harbour location with a supply of fresh water was defended by Fort St Andrew. Overall the ambitious scheme foresaw the start of a new life outside the British Isles, but it ended in loss of life and financial ruin. Between a quarter and half of Scotland's entire available wealth had been spent on the venture, and its failure may have forced Scotland to agree to closer union with England and Wales when that came in 1707-1708. In that union agreement, the English government agreed to pay a sum of money to the Scots to compensate the Darien investors for what they had lost: the payment being known as the 'Equivalent', or the 'Price of Scotland'.

(Information by Peter Kessler, with additional information from The Jacobites: Britain and Europe, 1688-1788, Daniel Szechi (Manchester University Press, 1994), from To Get Rich for Our Homeland: The Company of Scotland and the Colonization of the Darién, Dennis R Hidalgo (Colonial Latin American Historical Review, No 10, 2001), and from External Links: Royal Stuart Society, and The Caribbean colony that brought down Scotland (BBC).)

1698

A fleet of five ships sails from Leith Docks near Edinburgh in Scotland, carrying 1,200 settlers to found a colony in Panama. The Scots find a large, sheltered harbour with a supply of fresh water. They go ashore and build an entrenched fort which they name Fort St Andrew, but people are already dying, due to malaria, yellow fever, and 'bloody flux'.

Map of the Darien Venture Colony
The Darien Venture colony was based around a Panamanian isthmus which was heavily forested both then and now, but the attempt was a disaster for the settlers and backers alike

1698 - 1699

Sir William Paterson

First governor of New Caledonia.

1699

The settlers find that their land in Panama is unsuited to agriculture. Torrential rain and disease kill more than two hundred colonists by March 1699, with a death rate now standing at over ten a day. The ships that are sent out to trade for supplies return with news that all English ships and colonies are forbidden to trade with the Scots by order of King William III.

Those few settlers who have survived the diseases are forced to abandon the site on 20 June 1699 when it is attacked and burned by the Spanish. The colony is only reoccupied on 30 November by the people of the second expedition, who know nothing of the fate of the first.

1699 - 1700

Alexander Campbell of Fonab

A leader of the second expedition.

Rampant disease again kills many of the colonists, most of whom are entirely unprepared for the harshness of the territory they are occupying. The Spanish are massing to attack from the Panamanian mainland but a Scottish pre-emptive attack routs them. Further Spanish forces arrive and besiege Fort St Andrew, which surrenders in March 1700. The colonists agree to leave on 11 April, but only a handful ever make it back to Scotland.

The ruins of Fort St Andrew, Darien, Panama
The Scots built Fort St Andrew overlooking a large sheltered harbour with a supply of fresh water, with a trench they had dug to provide the fort with a defensive moat still being visible today

Today the site of New Caledonia is largely overgrown jungle, although the fort's trench can still be made out. Somewhere beneath the tangle of undergrowth in the area is the Scottish cemetery in which hundreds of the dead had been buried. It has yet to be rediscovered. The area is still known as Caledonia.