THIS week sees the 325th anniversary of the start of the project that led to Scotland losing its status as an independent kingdom.

Absolutely no-one I am aware of – apart from possibly a few demented Unionists in a bothy somewhere – is celebrating the anniversary of the start of Scotland’s only foreign colony which has been known ever since by the accursed name of the Darien Scheme.

It is all too easy to ascribe the start of the final process of the Union to the collapse of the Darien Scheme, as there were many other factors involved, not least, as I showed recently, the desperate need of the Protestant leaders of both kingdoms to have a non-Catholic heir to Queen Anne’s throne – it’s why I have long argued that Union is institutionally sectarian.

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There is no doubt, however, that the scheme’s pitiful demise and the subsequent colossal damage to the Scottish economy gave the impetus to those in the “parcel o’ rogues” to start the talks that would lead to the Union.

It was on November 2, 1698, that the initial expedition of five ships sent by the Company of Scotland made landfall on the Isthmus of Darien and began what can only described as an utter tragedy, albeit laced with moments of farce.

The National: In the late 1600s Scotland sought to start its own colonial empire in Panama

There is great ignorance among Scots about the Darien Scheme. For example, do you know that the English, Dutch and Germans nearly got there first? Or do you know that there was not just one expedition to Darien by the Company of Scotland but a resupply of the first settlers and then a completely different second expedition a year later whose leaders were unaware of the disaster that had befallen the first expedition?

You may say, ‘why does all of this matter to modern-day Scotland’ and, as always, I did wonder how I was going to make history relevant to the current day. Then I watched David Olusoga’s brilliant documentary series Union on the BBC and heard supposed vox pop contributor “Jamie”, later revealed by The National as Labour (and thus Unionist) councillor Jamie McGuire, say this: “It wasn’t England imposing anything. The Darien Scheme proved that Scotland couldn’t go out on its own. This was a partnership of equals from the beginning.”

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Such a monumental distortion of the facts needs to be challenged, and while I accept that the Darien Scheme was ultimately a mistake, nevertheless I consider it much more to have been the victim of a king’s bias and a military, political and diplomatic conspiracy by two empires, that of Spain and England.

Over the next three weeks I am going to try to tell the whole story of the Darien Scheme and show how it was doomed from the start by over-ambition, poor planning, medical ignorance, infighting among the would-be colonists and, above all, the opposition of the Spanish Empire and our ain wee feartie King William II of Scotland, III of England – and he was wee, standing just 5ft 6ins beside his wife, the near six-footer Mary II.

Despite, or possibly because of, his constant wars with France, after usurping the throne of James VII and II, William had encouraged his English subjects to expand trade to foreign lands and gave them the support of the Royal Navy, but his Scottish people were treated differently from the outset, as we shall see. A huge asset in developing trade abroad and the English economy at home was the Bank of England, largely created by a Scotsman, the banker William Paterson.

An international trader hugely acquainted with the Caribbean and the tremendous opportunities that it offered, Paterson had come up with the concept of a colony on the Isthmus of Darien in what is now modern-day Panama during the reign of King James VII and II. In England, in the mid 1680s, he offered the project to King James, but he refused it, prompting Paterson to put the idea to the Dutch Republic and the Holy Roman Empire – equivalent to modern Germany and Austria.

The National: A scene of Darien Harbour taken in 1871A scene of Darien Harbour taken in 1871

They also rejected the notion, though all could see the strategic value of colonising the land between North and South America at the shortest land route between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans – Paterson foresaw fleets arriving on either side of the new colony which would control the 50-mile route between the oceans. The Americans saw the possibilities 200 years later and built the Panama Canal.

Shortly after the start of the Bank of England as a private bank to the government of King William and Queen Mary in 1694 – she would die just months later – Paterson fell out with his fellow directors and returned to his native Scotland where he was soon attempting to convince the leading figures in the land of the necessity for Scotland to have her own settlements abroad to boost trade. The Company of Scotland Trading to Africa and the Indies was duly founded in 1695 by an Act of the Scottish Parliament which was then controlled by King William’s placemen such as the Duke of Queensberry.

It is important to know that from the outset, English aggression confronted the Scottish desire to have trading routes of its own. The passing of the latest Navigation Act by the English Parliament in 1696 was a direct challenge to transatlantic Scottish trade – it specifically stated that no-one in the colonies in America could have any property dealing with anyone other than the “natural born subjects of England, Ireland, Dominion of Wales or Town of Berwick-upon-Tweed”, the latter a nod to Berwick’s special status within these islands. I believe that Act directly gave the impetus to the Darien Scheme.

As our leading historian Sir Tom Devine puts it in his book The Scottish Nation – A Modern History: “Between 1689 and 1697, William’s wars with France were having serious effects on Scottish commerce while the Royal Navy was implementing the Navigation Laws with full rigour against illicit Scottish trade with England’s American colonies.”

The project to establish a colony in Darien was promulgated and all Scotland soon got behind it. Find out what happened next week.