How Britain Became Great

With the vote for Scottish independence coming very soon, I thought this little tale was timely.

In 1707, the parliaments of England and Scotland voted to dissolve themselves and create a new parliament made up of members from both countries. “England” and “Scotland” effectively ceased to exist, and a new country was born: the “United Kingdom”.

Which is really odd if you think about it. Hadn’t they been at war with each other off and on for, like, 800 years? Why the sudden change of heart? Why would England and Scotland – two longtime foes – suddenly become friends?

Scotland vs England
Image via

*     *     *

By the late 1600s, most of Europe’s maritime powers had founded colonies. Spain controlled much of South America. Portugal had Brazil, parts of India as well as a bunch of economically important islands. The Dutch had New Amsterdam in North America and most of the Spice Islands. And the English had North America and a few outposts in the Caribbean.

Many in Scotland wondered why they didn’t have a colony of their own. But it wasn’t as simple as just getting in a boat and putting up a flag somewhere. There was little point in having a colony just to have one. The Spanish made millions off South American silver, while the Dutch made money off spices and tea, and the English money from tobacco and sugar. What the Scots needed was a colony that could provide some sort of economic gain.

Colonisation 1660
European Colonization by 1660 (map by Andrei Nacu)

And gain was sorely needed in Scotland. Economically it was a pipsqueak compared to England, an advantage the English used at every level to keep Scotland subjugated. England’s Navigation Acts kept independent Scottish trade to a minimum, not that it really mattered, since Scotland’s navy was tiny compared to England’s. Most imported goods therefore had to be bought from England, and England required the use of pounds sterling, not Scottish money, which drained the economy even more. A couple of civil wars had squandered a lot of human and financial capital, and several years of crop failures pushed Scotland’s economy to the brink.

The “Company of Scotland Trading to Africa and the Indies” was created by the Scottish parliament in 1695. Capital was raised for the venture in Amsterdam, Hamburg and London. But not really. England’s East India Company complained to the crown they they, not some Scottish upstart, had been given a monopoly on trade to the Indies. And the East India Company was one company you did not mess with. At the apex of its power, the Company ruled much of India – an area much larger than the United Kingdom, with several times as many people. It ruled other places – the East India Company created modern Singapore, for instance. The Company had an army of 200,000 men, its own church, currency and government, and accounted for over half the trade in the entire world. What the East India Company wanted, the East India Company got.

Immense pressure from King William III and East India investors caused Company of Scotland investors in London, then Amsterdam, and finally Hamburg to abandon their pledges. The Company of Scotland tried looking elsewhere for money, but Europe’s other banks and investment centers got the hint from London, and no one stepped up to the plate.

So the plan to trade with Africa and India was abandoned, and a new idea was formed: a Scottish banker named William Paterson wanted to create a “gateway” between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. He noticed that the land in what is now Panama was very thin. Just as people later got the idea to build the Panama Canal, Patterson’s plan was to built a seaport on the Atlantic side of the coast, another on the Pacific side, and build a road connecting the two. Goods could therefore be sent safely by land instead of ships having to navigate the treacherous waters around Cape Horn or the Strait of Magellan. This would shave weeks off shipping times for goods, and for this merchants would pay a small fee, which would earn money for Scotland. Easy, right?

England was at war with France at the time, and did not want to offend Spain, which claimed the land in Panama the Scots wanted. So the idea was a non-starter for English investors.

But if the English were able to keep foreign investors out, they were powerless to stop Scottish investors from putting their money in the scheme. Appeals to people’s patriotic nature – not unlike American war bond drives during WWII – enticed the Scots to invest heavily in the company. In just a few weeks, proud Scots of every economic level invested £400,000 in the company. That’s around £45 million in today’s money. While it might not seem like that much money, it was fully 20% of all the wealth in Scotland at the time. To give a modern comparison, if a similar company was founded in the United States today, 20% of the nation’s wealth would be around $16.14 trillion. This was very serious business.

By 1698, the Company was ready to go. Five ships had been purchased, repaired and outfitted, and 1,200 people had been selected to go to Panama. Many of those were military officers, and they seemed to form a “clique” that set themselves apart from the others. Even worse, many of those officers had taken part in the Glencoe Massacre, in which 38 members of the MacDonald clan had been killed for not accepting William III as their true monarch quickly enough (and 40 MacDonald wives and children later died from exposure after their homes were burned down). To say there was “deep suspicion” aboard would be an understatement. To compound the misery, the settlers were forced to stay below decks as they ships sailed all the way around Scotland to avoid English warships. It was dark and cold, and ships were tossed back and forth in storms. Many would say that this was the worst part of the entire expedition.

On November 2, 1698, the group made landfall at the Gulf of Darién in Panama (this is why the company’s headquarters was named “Darien House”, and why the series of events is called the “Darien Scheme”). The settlers called the area Caledonia, and immediately went to work building a defensive structure – Fort St. Andrew – and a town: New Edinburgh. They also planted crops which included corn and yams.

Map of Darien
(Map via

Although the group frequently wrote cheerful letters home, the expedition was a complete disaster. The crops failed, and local Indians had absolutely no interest in the woolen clothes and combs the Scots brought to trade. Various traders stopped by, but plans to sell them goods failed as well. The climate was unceasingly hot, with dysentery and fevers rampant. The mortality rate soon hit ten people a day.

Local Indians brought fruit to the settlers, but these were seized by leaders who’d elected to remain on the ships. Everyone else had to fend for themselves. For a while, “average folk” were able to make do hunting for sea turtles, but as their numbers thinned, it became too strenuous. There were provisions on the ships, but they had been stored incorrectly and rotted well before they should have. There were Dutch and English traders in the area who might have been able to help, but King William had given strict orders not to help the Scots in any way, lest this anger the Spanish (who, you will remember, actually claimed the land). About the only nice thing the settlers had was a large supply of alcohol, and this caused rampant drunkness which hurt morale and led to several deaths.

While all this was going on, no one was addressing the fundamental problem the settlers faced. The Isthmus of Panama is quite thin: 37 miles (60km) across at its narrowest and just 110 miles (177km) at its widest. But it’s covered in either thick jungle, tall mountains or both. The French tried building the Panama Canal in 1881 and gave up. The United States took over the project in 1904, and it took ten years of ball-breaking engineering and back-breaking labor to finish it. Despite their best intentions, there was just no way a thousand starving Scots with pickaxes and shovels could have built a road across Panama.

Just eight months later, in July 1699, the settlers gave up. Six men who were too weak to move were left to die in New Edinburgh. One ship made it to Port Royal, a city in the English colony of Jamaica, but were refused help because of William’s edict. The ship left port and was never seen again. People continued dying on the remaining ship, and by the time it made it to Scotland only 300 of the original 1,200 settlers remained. To add insult to injury, those who survived were considered a national disgrace, and some were even disowned by their families.

As if all this wasn’t bad enough, a second expedition had set out only weeks before the first one returned. It arrived in Caledonia on November 30, 1699, and was less successful than the first. Many of the huts built by the first expedition needed major repairs, and, incredibly, some members of the second expedition refused to help as they had “come to join a settlement, not build one”.

Miraculously, one of the six men left behind – Thomas Drummond, a councilor of the first expedition, and one of the Glencoe Massacre officers – had survived, and he recommended that the fort be repaired as quickly as possible because the Spanish would surely attack soon. A councilor named James Byres disagreed. He said that, because the first expedition had given up like little babies, her leaders longer exercised any authority over the colony. Byres had Drummond arrested, then descended into full Apocalypse Now mode, ordering the arrest or banishment any settlers who sided with Drummond, either in real life or in his imagination. After only a few weeks, Byres left the colony in a sloop, presumably abandoning his £200 investment.

The entire colony fell into a state of drunken apathy, not at all helped by leaders constantly berating the “lessers” for their “atheistical cursing and swearing, brutish drunkenness and detestable mockery”. But then, a lifeline appeared in the form of Alexander Campbell, who’d been sent by the Company to organize defenses. Morale greatly improved and order was restored. But then Campbell led a preemptive attack on the Spanish at their nearby fort at Toubacanti, in which he was wounded and later came down with a fever.

The Spanish retaliated by laying siege to Fort St. Andrew for a month. The poor Scots had no idea that the Spaniards were as sick as they were: thanks to dysentery, the Spaniards were barely a fighting force themselves. But the Spanish commander wasn’t afraid to call their bluff, and demanded the Scots immediate surrender, else no quarter would be given. The Scots, not in a position to argue, negotiated their surrender. They left on April 12, 1700 never to return. Three weeks later, the three ships spotted Jamaica, but 250 people had already died on the ships. Another hundred would die before the ships reached Scotland.

Scotland was humiliated on an almost unimaginable scale. The nation’s pride and ego were certainly hurt, but more than that, almost 20% of all the money in the nation was almost gone, with absolutely nothing to show for it. Some families were ruined. Some companies went under. Scotland’s maritime power – so insignificant compared to England’s before – was now almost laughably ineffective.

To many of Scotland’s elite, the only way out of this mess – and the only way to ensure Scotland’s future in a world of colonial powers – was to partner with a wealthy country that already had colonies. Just as a company with good products but bad financials might seek a merger with a healthy company, so too did Scotland, Inc. seek a merger with England, Inc. And in 1707, that’s exactly what happened: the Acts of Union were passed, creating a new nation called the “United Kingdom”. The Scottish pound was stabilized when the Bank of England pegged its value at the humiliating amount of one English shilling. Still, that helped Scotland recover. And even though the English refused to wipe out Scotland’s national debt as Scottish nobility had hoped, the English did give the Scots the oddly specific amount of £398,085 and 10 shillings to offset any future liability to the English national debt.

*     *     *

But the Company of Scotland wasn’t quite finished yet. Desperate to earn any money, the Company appointed Robert Drummond captain of a ship called the Speedy Return; his brother Thomas, of the “run-in with James Byres” fame, was named supercargo (a combination of “cargo master” and “business manager”). The two were given a load of trade goods and ordered to sail to the Guinea coast of Africa, where they could sell the goods for gold.

Of course, it didn’t pan out the way the Company planned. The brothers sold the goods for slaves, which they were able to sell for a profit in Madagascar. But Madagascar was a pirate refuge at the time, and the brothers began carousing with a pirate captain named John Bowen. Bowen politely asked the men if they would lend him their ships to loot some East India Company ships returning home loaded down with goods. Robert initially agreed, but later tried to back out.

So Bowen simply seized the ships when the Drummonds were ashore drinking. Bowen burnt one of the ships, the Continent, almost immediately because it was more trouble that it was worth. After seizing a merchant ship, Bowen had Speedy Return scuttled. The poor Drummond brothers tried to think up some scenario in which they could be exonerated from losing the ships. But, coming up empty, they instead decided that they would never go back to Scotland. The two were never heard from again.

The Company sent out one last ship, but she was lost at sea.

The Company didn’t have enough money left to buy and outfit a new ship, so as last gasp they hired an English ship called the Annandale to trade in the Spice Islands. However, the directors of the East India Company ordered that the ship be seized, as it violated East India’s monopoly on trade. An uproar broke out in Scotland, with the flames fanned by Company of Scotland secretary Roderick MacKenzie, a noted hater of the English.

Shortly thereafter, an English ship called the Worcester docked in Leith. MacKenzie, enraged, convinced himself that the Worcester was actually an East India Company ship, and that it should be seized in retaliation for the Annandale mishap. He managed to convince the Company of Scotland’s board of directors of the notion, and the ship’s cargo was seized, and her sails, rudder and guns were removed. The Worcester’s captain, a 21 year-old named Thomas Green, was charged with piracy, along with the rest of the crew.

It soon became clear to the Company of Scotland that Green and his crew were totally innocent, and that MacKenzie had dreamt up his accusations. But the Scottish public were eager for someone to pay for all their humiliation, and all the better that this crew was English. But just when it seemed like the Scottish justice system was set to release Green and crew for lack of evidence, MacKenzie suddenly “discovered” a member of the Worcester’s crew who’d “overheard” Green boasting of taking the Speedy Return, killing the Drummond brothers and burning the ship.

Green and his crew were put on trial, which was conducted in Latin and Doric, a northeastern dialect of Scottish Gaelic… which neither the accused or the jury understood. The defense, no doubt afraid of angry mobs, presented no defense for their clients, and left town after the trial. Despite immense social pressure, some of the jurors initially refused to convict. But eventually the verdict (almost) everyone in Scotland wanted was given: the men were found guilty and sentenced to be hanged.

Queen Anne, now ruling both countries after her cousin William had passed, asked her thirty privy councilors in Edinburgh to pardon the men. But Scotland wanted her pound of flesh. Nineteen councilors refused to appear, and even though London had sent affidavits from the crew of Speedy Return which clearly and unequivocally stated that Green had nothing to do with her disappearance, the other councilors refused to pardon the men. They were hanged on April 11, 1705.

Almost nothing of the Darien expedition survives today. One of the last vestiges of the folly is the town of Darien, Georgia. In 1735, a band of Scottish warriors left Inverness and sailed to Savannah. Quite early on, James Oglethorpe, founder of Georgia, realized that he would need a military outpost to protect Savannah, and these Scots were there to populate just such a town, which was  initially called “New Inverness”. It was soon changed to Darien in honor of those Scots who had tried (and failed) to create a Scottish colony in the New World.

And then there was William Paterson. Remember him, the guy who came up with the whole Darien Scheme in the first place? Paterson was one of the founders of the Bank of England, the very instrument England would use to beat Scotland into submission. The humiliating “one Scottish pound is equal to one English shilling” thing that came up while the Acts of Union were negotiated? That came from the very bank Paterson had founded in London. As for Paterson himself? Although he accompanied the first expedition – losing his wife and child to disease, and almost dying himself – It was discovered that one of his subordinates had embezzled from the Company of Scotland. The Company took back Paterson’s stock and removed him from the Court of Directors, much like a CEO kicked out of his own company. He returned to Scotland in December 1699, where he became an advocate for Union. He moved to Westminster and died there in 1719. In a final controversy, no one seems to know for sure where he’s buried, but Bank of England officials insist that he’s buried in Sweetheart Abbey in southwest Scotland.

One Reply to “How Britain Became Great”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.