Friday, August 30, 2013

The Darien Scheme

In the 17th century, colonialism was the cool thing to do. Everybody in Europe was getting in on it: the Spanish, the Portuguese, the Dutch, the French, the English, and even those crafty Swedes! It was like Pokémon Cards or Beanie Babies, only more bloody and with an extra dose of religious fanaticism. If you didn't have a colony to exploit and call your own, you were a loserface. And that's what Scotland was during this time: nothing but a pimple-skinned, four-eyed, mouth-breathing, booger-picking loserface. Sure they tried to get their foot in the New World ground with lame-brain attempts like Nova Scotia in Canada (translated from "New Scotland" in Latin) and Perth Amboy, New Jersey (translated from "The Toxic Runoff from Staten Island Settles Here" in Algonquian), but neither of those remained in Scottish hands for longer than a decade. The men of the highlands needed to get a little ambitious in order to stop the bullying and constant wedgies from the other European nations, and hatched a plan (or scheme, if you will) to become masters of two oceans by taking a crucial point in Central America called the Darien.

Fig.1: William III of England was 
only known as William II in 
Scotland, just to low-ball him a 
little bit.
Scotland's urge to become better economically was really based on its relationship with England. While still two separate countries, Scotland and England shared the same monarch, so they were en route to becoming the cluster that is the United Kingdom. The king in the 1690s, William III (fig.1) didn't much care for the Scottish part of his realm, and only allowed England's overseas exploits to prosper and be adapted into adventure novels. Like a good redheaded Celtic stepchild, Scotland still tried to win their monarch's affection, and presented a plan to build a colony in the Darien (present-day Panama). It would be the perfect spot for a trading post in the Caribbean, especially if some sort of canal was eventually constructed in this Panama region that linked the Atlantic and Pacific. I'd call it a long shot of that ever happening, but that's just me.

Anyway, Scotland saw this as the perfect opportunity to stake a claim in the New World, get rich, and join the exclusive colonial club. But King William shot it down, partly to protect England's trading rights, and also because the Darien was claimed by Spain, who were England's besties in their current (and four millionth) war against France. Undeterred, the Scottish decided to come up with the money on their own; nobles ponied up their own funds to pay for the undertaking, even forgoing their children's bagpipe lessons to afford the trip. It is estimated that one-fifth of Scotland's entire capital was invested in the Darien scheme, which would really suck badly if it failed. I mean, it would completely shatter their economy if this went dead in the water. Could you imagine that? Boy, I sure hope this turns out okay, or else the Scottish are in a world of trouble! But there's no way that would ever happen, right? Right?!

The initial expedition of 1,200 men set off from Edinburgh in July 1698, led by former army officer Thomas Drummond. It wasn't too hard to find sailors and settlers for the trip, since unemployment was high in Scotland at this time, and they were lured by promises of a lifetime supply of that wonderful British treat: wine gummies. They touched down on the coast of the Gulf of Darien in November, but almost immediately they began to realize they made a horrible mistake. Drinking water was scarce, the soil did not support any agriculture, mosquitoes outnumbered every single other thing in the region, and the native tribes were very hostile and kept referring to their kilts as "dresses." Even as the year went on and their settlement of New Edinburgh was up for business, no one wanted to come trade with them since many believed they were encroaching on Spanish territory, and they didn't want to make the guys with all the boats and guns and awesome mustaches mad. Nonetheless, the Scottish wanted to make it seem like everything was going fine while sending letters to the folks back home, much like we exaggerate our love-lives with our exes today (as far as mine knows, I'm "very good friends" with Scarlett Johansson).

Fig.2: A map constructed in 1699, with "New Edinburg" labeled on 
the east coast; mosquitoes completely devoured the missing "h."
But then summer hit, along with the malaria and the dysentery and the 10,000% humidity, and the colonists decided it wasn't much worth it anymore. Well, what colonists that were left, since over half were dead by the time they decided to abandon the site in July 1699, and then even more kicked the bucket on the return trip, meaning only about 300 made it back to Scotland alive. Thomas Drummond decided to man-up and stick it out in the Darien, along with his new monkey friend named Mr. Jonathan Boobookins. Imagine his surprise when a second voyage of over a thousand people arrived in November 1699, eager and willing to help with the colony. Unfortunately this group left before the original colonists made it back, so as far as they knew, New Edinburgh was the thriving seaport that was described to them in all the letters and tweets sent back home (with hashtags like #HurrahForPanama and #DarienIsEgalitarian). So you can then, in turn, imagine their surprise when they make landfall and all they see is an abandoned, crumbling town riddled with mosquitoes and diseased corpses, and the only guy left alive communicates with a monkey. Not a good sign at all.

Fig.3: Captain Thomas Drummond in his 
swashbuckling days.
Drummond attempted to persuade the new settlers that they would need to reconstruct the town, especially the fort, in order to protect the settlement against the Spanish. At first, they looked at him funny, but Drummond realized he was accidently speaking monkey-talk, so then he said the same thing in English, and that was met when much indignation. The colonists thought they would just help settle New Edinburgh, not rebuild it from scratch! So Drummond was forced to leave, living out the rest of his days as a pirate (fig.3). The new settlers got a taste of the old fashioned Panamanian hospitality of parasitic water and bellicose natives that the original ones did, with the added bonus of the Spanish coming by in January 1700 and successfully laying siege to the town. New Edinburgh was once again abandoned, never to be resettled. Even today, Puerto Escocés ("Scottish Port" in Spanish) is barely-inhabitable and really only gets visitors during the renowned Darien State Fair, home to Central America's best greased-pig catching contest.

So the Darien Scheme was a complete and utter disaster for Scotland. Since so much money was invested in the project, from both public and private funds, the nation's economy became as mashed up as neeps and tatties. Scotland desperately needed financial help from their southern neighbor in order to keep their way of life afloat, even though they believed it was England's stubbornness and misplaced loyalties that caused the plan to fail in the first place (yeah, because the English totally defertilized the soil and possessed Aqua Man-like powers over mosquitoes). England's plan was something they've been advocating since King Edward I (otherwise known as Longshanks...hehe) invaded several hundred times in the 13th century: the union of Great Britain between the two nations. Despite all Scottish reservations, their empty wallets had taken over, and the Act of Union was passed in both Parliaments in 1707. The Kingdom of Great Britain was born, and Scotland was finally to take part in several colonies around the world...granted, with a lot of help from those colonial-happy English. The Darien Scheme still lives on as a nightmare to the Scottish today, and the word "Panama" has achieved a permanent "Pee Wee's Playhouse" Secret Word status, causing people to scream real loud whenever the word is spoken (or sang). Go ahead and try it on your next trip to the highlands!

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