John McKendrick’s Darien charts the rise and fall of the Scottish Empire

McKendrick's book is part travelogue, part history ' the author stood on the Punta Escoc�s and traced the defensive ditch the colonists dug
McKendrick's book is part travelogue, part history ' the author stood on the Punta Escoc�s and traced the defensive ditch the colonists dug
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Present day Panama and descendents of the first Scots settlers give a new twist to the Darien affair

Darien: A Journey In Search Of Empire by John McKendrick | Birlinn, £20

Why, at the end of the 17th century, did the Scots try to establish a colony on the isthmus of Darien in Central America?

Many reasons have been given. It might have been imperial ambition – after all, the Dutch and the Portuguese, other small countries, had extensive overseas dominions. It might have been for sound and greedy economic reasons. Although Darien was notoriously a “failure” which precipitated the Union with England by some accounts, the success of the Panama Canal shows that the idea of an entrepôt linking the Pacific and the Atlantic was not inherently flawed.

But in John McKendrick’s engaging and lucid account of the Darien Scheme, I suddenly realised another possible reason. It was maybe culinary. Imagine yourself in late 17th century Scotland. The country is enduring a famine, and even in more prosperous years the diet is predominantly kale, turnips and oats. Then you read about a tropical paradise with an abundance of “plaintains, bonabos, mammee, sapadillos, pine-apples and prickle-pears”. Who wouldn’t be tempted to chance their fate on the other side of the world?

The outlines of the Darien story are well known, but McKendrick brings a lot of new material to his telling. He has had access to Spanish primary sources in Panama which have not hitherto been used. He is also astute on the wider geopolitical context. According to one version of the Darien story, William III’s refusal to help the Scottish colonists, blockaded by Spain, was motivated by pique and jealousy at a potential commercial rival. But as McKendrick shows, in William’s wider view, keeping Spain as an ally against France was more important than a group of Scots attempting to sell wigs in the Americas.

More importantly, McKendrick’s book is as much a travelogue as a history. He has actually stood on the Punta Escocés and traced the defensive ditch the colonists dug; all that remains of “New Edinburgh”. Some of his interactions with the locals are almost Graham Greene-esque, as the indigenous people take every opportunity to fleece and harass him, showing considerably more commercial nous than the Scots who once attempted to build their Empire on those malarial shores.

Because the past is fixed it can also seem inevitable. Assuredly, there were numerous failings to the Darien Scheme. Departing from Edinburgh rather than Glasgow seems ill-omened from the outset; most of the colonists seemed to be perpetually drunk. But it did have its moments of inspiration. The legal code drawn up for the colony was markedly more liberal than that in Scotland at the time – only a few years after Thomas Aikenhead was hanged for blasphemy. The relations with the indigenous peoples seemed more respectful and open-minded than those of the barbaric conquistadores.

One of the most ingenious aspects of McKendrick’s book is to look at the afterlife of Darien. When the colony was abandoned, the Rev Archibald Stobo eventually settled in South Carolina. His great-great-great-great-grandson was the future President Theodore Roosevelt, who “took the isthmus, started the Canal and left Congress not to debate the Canal but to debate me”. There is a peculiarly melancholy irony in the descendant of one of the colonists achieving the aim his ancestors had so singularly failed to do, to capitalise on “this door of the seas and the key of the universe”. McKendrick’s account of the segregation still functioning in the south of America sits uneasily and ironically with the more Utopian ideals of New Caledonia.

The Stobo family fought for America and against Britain during the Revolutionary War. Did a lingering grievance against English treatment of the Darien Caledonians motivate their decision? In discussing Darien, the whole question is frequently reframed as a question about nationhood and Union. Did it show Scottish incompetence or English perfidy? It was, one suspects, rather easier to blame William III than accept that parts of the plan were mismanaged and naïve. Whatever the truth, Darien was engraved on the national consciousness, as a kind of proto-cultural cringe. It is therefore no surprise that when Gregor MacGregor was conning many Scots into losing their lives attempting to found a Scottish colony in Poyais, part of his pitch was to claim he was a descendant of one of the original Darien settlers. The idea that Scotland’s attempt at a colony was unfairly undone, that it was a good idea but badly handled, that it had “bounced” the nation into Union, was a compelling one.

McKendrick’s book is both measured and wry. And that Panama in some ways only exists as a country in order for the Canal to be carved through it adds another level of complexity to this tale of national pride and international relations. n