Friday, January 29, 2016

Fact: How A Failed Colony In Panama Led To The Formation of the United Kingdom

Rapacious, profit-seeking, bloody, Europe conquered the world with sail and gun. History is filled with the brutal successes of the European Imperialist project: the Dutch East India Company sewed up the lucrative spice trade of South East Asia; the British East India company began a process of conquest that would end with the entire Indian subcontinent under British control; Napoleon, at the head of the French army, proverbially shot the nose off Egypt's Sphinx; at the height of European Imperialism, most of the globe was claimed by some power or another.

But European supremacy was never inevitable. Indeed, most imperial adventures failed. There was the much-lamented British South Sea Company. Its promising prospectus to colonize the South Seas became one the first big stock market bubbles and nearly brought down the rickety British government. France's Mississippi Company, pushed by the financial Svengali John Law, left many of Paris' rich and famous poor and destitute. But perhaps the most quixotic of them all was the Darien Company of Scotland.

In the late 17th century Scottish entrepreneurs wanted to get into the imperial game for themselves: they would colonize the thin strip of land along what is now the Panama Canal in order to make money by hauling goods from one coast to the other, from Pacific to Atlantic and back again. This would save ships months that would otherwise be spent making the treacherous iceberg-filled passage south along the southern tip of South America. But the scheme was born under a bad sign. The land claimed by the Darien Scheme was not only already populated by Native Americans, it was claimed by another European Power--Spain, was an ally of the newly installed English and Scottish King William III. English commercial interests weren't happy with the scheme either--what did they want with an upstart competitor? This left the Scots adrift on their own. But the Scots doubled down on the plan--estimates are that a quarter to half of all Scottish wealth became tied up in the Darien scheme.

But once the scheme actually got off the ground, it was plagued with problems. The first fleet of settlement--some 1,200 people--sailed across the ocean and dutifully set up a fort and a city, New Edinburgh, right in the Darien isthmus. But the colony's crops of corn and yam failed, and malaria and dysentery steadily ate away at the ranks of settlers. Things got so bad that the only thing the Darien colonists could eat were the giant turtles padding around the coast. Then the settlers became too weak to hunt the giant turtles, and instead they just starved. After 8 months, the colony was abandoned. The ships returned home--with only 300 survivors.

But news of the failure didn't return home quick enough to prevent a new batch of about 1000 settlers, who lingered at New Edinburgh long enough to face Spanish siege, disease, and hunger before they too went home, in defeat and disgrace. Only a few hundred of the original 2500 colonists survived.

The area is mostly uninhabited today.

Because so much of Scottish wealth had been tied up in the scheme, this left many Scots destitute--and is one reason some historians say that in 1707 the Scots joined the English in the Act of Union creating the new political entity of Great Britain.

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