Early Scottish Imperial Ventures: The Darien Scheme

Fuelled partly by the success of the London-based East India Company, Scottish imperial aspirations gathered momentum towards the end of the seventeenth century. While several Scots were engaged in the East India Company in London, or worked for it in India itself, demands for Scotland to have its own imperial venture grew in the late seventeenth century. With the passage of the 1693 Act for Encouraging Foreign Trade, Scottish merchants and businessmen were attracted by the prospect of trading under the Great Seal of Scotland. As a result, the Company of Scotland, Trading to Africa and the Indies, was established two years later on this day (26 June).

The new Company moved quickly to secure a piece of the imperial cake – not least because overseas trade promised greater independence from England. Financial constraints would have crippled Company projects before they could even begin had it not been for a remarkable subscription scheme: as T.M. Devine has noted, the Company ‘had caught the national mood’, the scheme transforming into a ‘patriotic crusade’. Under the leadership of William Paterson, a settlement at Darien on the isthmus of Panama was to become the shining jewel of that crusade. To widespread disappointment, the scheme failed. This was a result of poor planning and lack of knowledge of the place chosen for settlement, but also geopolitical complications – King William, for instance, failed to provide aid because he did not want to upset the Spanish Empire.

Apart from severe economic repercussions, the scheme’s failure dealt a blow to Scotland’s national pride: large numbers of Scots from all over the country had invested money into the venture, subscribing not simply to the Company, but also a national project intended to boost Scotland’s position in relation to that of England. The scheme’s collapse, therefore, essentially had the opposite effect, further limiting the political options Scotland could exercise. Combined with the succession crisis of 1703, the failure of the Darien scheme thus made parliamentary union with England a viable political as well as economic option. Those in favour of union viewed it as an opportunity for improved trade relations with England, obviating hostile regulations and protectionism. The integration of both countries into a new mercantile system of commerce was attractive to many Scottish politicians and businessmen interested in using the country’s natural resources in their quest to access and develop new markets. The possibilities of economic gain were a strong pro-union inducement, strengthening an indigenous class of capitalists that would eventually make its way to remote climes.

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