Edinburgh Book Festival: The Darien Disaster; New Perspectives

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Professor Sir Tom Devine, Owen Dudley Edwards (chair)
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Late in the seventeenth century, an as yet independent Scotland sought to catch up in the fast-paced race for overseas colonies already begun by the major powers; the Company of Scotland Trading to Africa and the Indies was set up and established a colony at the unhealthy isthmus of Panama, named Darien, which was promptly attacked by Spain and embargoed by England. Its failure resulted in massive losses in Scotland, which precipitated the Treaty of Union.

That, at least, was the orthodoxy when this reviewer first began studying history at university level. For a number of years, thanks to various scholars, that orthodox view has begun to change.

Professor Sir Tom Devine began by suggesting there were three approaches to the so-called Darien disaster; that of Unionist historiography, using the events to trumpet the benefits acquired through the 1707 Treaty of Union, including, of course, compensation for those impoverished by the collapse of the Company of Scotland Trading to Africa and the Indies, a Nationalist historiography which saw the ‘cloven hoof of Anglo-centrism’ as the late Professor the Lord Russell put it, in all matters Darien, and a more recent phase of journalistic ‘history’, equating the collapse of the colony to that of the Royal Bank of Scotland.

Mentioning the work of Lord Dacre, aka Hugh Trevor-Roper and the popular historian John Prebble in almost the same breath, Devine appeared to invoke the spirit of what Professor Colin Kidd has termed, perhaps a little unkindly, ‘banal unionism’ – an unquestioning assumption of inferiorism on the part of some Scots, the reverse of which coin some nationalists seized upon to make Darien yet another example of English perfidy.

Reality, however, is always more nuanced than many find bearable, and lived experience the least recoverable aspect of the past.

Here, this reviewer somewhat parts company with Professor Devine, when he argues that some prior exploration of the inhospitable isthmus of Panama might have led to the siting of a colony elsewhere. Much early colonisation came about by happenstance and opportunism, not always, as in this case, prescient of likely outcomes.

The leadership at Darien is described by Devine as ‘dysfunctional’, but one is tempted to speculate as to whether it was any more dysfunctional than that of other early colonies where strong personalities dominated, not always to good effect.

Devine does, however, acknowledge that Darien was not the massive gamble it has frequently been portrayed as being; there were already Scots colonies in eastern New Jersey and other parts of North America, Nova Scotia being exactly that, for one.

Spain, the holder of the Panamanian isthmus, was seen as a declining power, and Scotland was but one nation among several to underestimate her residual capacities. England was to do likewise.

It is now clear that the amount of Scottish capital lost as a result of investment in the Darien scheme was much less than has previously been believed to be the case. However, it remains an unresolved question as to whether the ‘Equivalent’ offered to some members of the Parliament of Scotland in return for their support of the Treaty of Union was in part backhanded recompense for losses sustained as a result of Darien.

This tends to obscure other, perhaps more salient facts, including the five years of crop failure resulting in extensive famine and also the landed interest’s reduction of income surely played a part in making the Equivalent an alluring prospect.

Such speculation, however, goes beyond the proper concerns of any review.

The fact of famine, however, may well have contributed to an anti-English tendency, fuelled by restrictions on Scottish trade put in place by a Westminster Parliament, and provided the temporary glue that placed Cameronian Presbyterians and Jacobites side by side in their opposition to Union.

Union with England, of course, was not the only option open to a financially strained Scotland. The Dutch Republic was an alternative, considered not only the Scottish Parliament, but also by Westminster, in the fleeting ‘Anglo-Dutch Moment’.

It remains a fascinating area of study, whether considered as the decade between Darien and the Treaties of Union, or as part of a longer study, from the short-lived Treaty of Perpetual Peace between James IV and Henry VIII to those sae treaties two hundred year later, and Professor Devine is to be congratulated for adding one more chuckie to our cairns of understanding of this topic.