IN this fourth and final part of this series to mark the 325th anniversary of the start of the Darien Scheme, I will show how two empires combined to crush Scotland’s small colony.

It would be plain wrong, however, to say that the enmity of England and Spain and the sheer anti-Scottish bias of King William II of Scotland, III of England, were the sole causes of Darien’s collapse, for even before the five ships sent by the Company of Scotland made landfall in what is now Panama, the seeds of disaster had been sown.

The over-ambition of the Company and the Scottish nation, poor strategic planning and, above all, infighting among the would-be colonists, all made the project well-nigh doomed.

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Death and disease abounded on board the five ships on their 110-day voyage west and for months after the Caledonians (as they called themselves) went ashore to create a township called New Edinburgh, overlooked by a defensive fortification called Fort St Andrews. Most deaths were down to dysentery, but the various medical people in the colony soon found themselves battling a range of tropical diseases about which they had little or no knowledge, especially those which provoked usually terminal fevers.

It was estimated that of the 1200 people who had set out with such high hopes from the Firth of Forth in July 1698, some 200 were dead by the New Year of 1699.

Matters within the colony would get much worse. The ruling council was riven by faction fighting, not helped by a constitution which decreed that the elected president of the council could only hold office for a week at a time. Another constitutional nicety was the formation of a parliament, but it had no real control.

The colony was in utter disarray, exemplified by its instigator, William Paterson, dipping in and out of delirium after the death of his wife, Hannah. But under the command of Thomas Drummond, detested for his role in the Massacre of Glencoe, at least Fort St Andrews was built and 30 cannons looked out across New Edinburgh.

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This fort caused particular dismay to the English authorities in the Caribbean, who had been informed by their spy, Captain Richard Long, of the developments at Darien. The reports reached King William’s secretary of state, James Vernon, and he issued instructions to all and sundry – like the king’s orders that led to the Massacre of Glencoe, William was cunning enough to let Vernon do the dirty work.

The English were not to know that its hasty construction – it was all but complete by the end of March – would see Fort St Andrews partly washed away by the heavy rains. Word also reached the Spanish regional commanders in Cartagena in what is now Colombia that the Scots had been digging in successfully – the descendants of the conquistadores were outraged.

It is important to note that senior figures in the colony were already questioning its viability when news arrived that the Spanish were sending a fleet to oust the Scots, but first of all came an overland attack to which the Caledonians were alerted by their allies in the native tribes.

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With an army thought to muster in the hundreds, the Spanish marched overland through dense forest to a native village six miles south of the colony. Unknown to the Scots, Spanish commander the Conde de Canillas had already decided to go back home such were the conditions his men encountered, but he did leave a rearguard of 25 soldiers armed with muskets.

Under Captain James Montgomerie, on the night of February 5, 1699, around 60 armed colonists, mostly soldiers, charged the Spanish troops who turned and fled, but not without killing two of the Scots – their names were Ensign Alexander Swinton and Private Andrew Jaffrey. The Spanish went home to lick their wounds and prepare a much larger army and a battle fleet to finally smash the upstart Scots – word of that new Spanish strategy reached the colony in April from a French captain who had sailed from Cartagena.

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The victory in what was no more than a skirmish delighted the Caledonians, but their joy was short-lived as disease ravaged the colony. The death toll mounted by the day and the general weakness of the men meant they were unable to plant crops – the key to the colony’s future.

Though there had been some new supplies, the English blockade hit the colony hard. Things came to a head when on April 9, Sir William Beeston, the governor of Jamaica, issued a proclamation. For those who still dispute that England struck the blows which killed the Darien Scheme, I print it in full as taken from John Prebble’s book The Darien Disaster.

“In His Majesty’s name and by command, strictly to command His Majesty’s subjects whatsoever that they do not presume on any pretence whatsoever, to hold any correspondence with the said Scots, nor to give them any assistance of arms, ammunition, provisions, or any other necessaries whatsoever, either by themselves, or any other for them, or by any of their vessels, or of the English nation, as they will answer the contempt of His Majesty’s command at their utmost peril.”

For good measure, in London, James Vernon lambasted the settlers of Darien for carrying out their project without telling the king what they were up to on land which, it should be remembered, the English had once coveted.

The news from Cartagena of the Spanish intentions and this Beeston proclamation ended all hopes of a peaceful future, trading with English colonies and Spanish settlements in the Americas. It was time to go home.

A vote was taken in the colony’s parliament and the majority view won the day. Caledonia was abandoned by mid-June 1699, the colonists limping home and leaving behind 400 graves.

On Tuesday, I will be devoting the whole of Back In The Day in The National to something which I suspect most Scots know very little about – the second Darien expedition.