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Book of the Month

May 2005

The Darien Scheme

The Spencer Collection

Sp Coll Spencer & Ms Gen 1685

The Book of the Month for May will focus on the small, but nevertheless significant, Spencer Collection held within the department. Presented to Glasgow University Library in February 1931 by Mr. John James Spencer of Glasgow, this collection of books and pamphlets relates to the Darien Scheme - the attempt by Scotland at the end of the seventeenth century to establish a trading colony at Darien in the isthmus of Panama.

At this time, while Scotland and England shared a monarch, they were still largely politically and economically independent. The scheme was intended to secure a wider market for Scottish traders as, under the English Navigation Acts, Scotland was deemed a foreign country, incapable of participating in the trading privileges of England. Interest in the scheme was so universal that during only a few years an extensive Darien literature came into existence.


The Spencer collection consists of 91 volumes of books, pamphlets, broadsides, maps and a few manuscripts. Many of the items are extremely rare. There are numerous examples of ephemera, including advertisements, notices of meetings and announcements. Among the manuscripts are some fifteen letters (or in some cases, copies of letters) from members of the expedition, and a map dated 1700 with descriptions in Spanish of the Scottish settlements in Darien. There is a wealth of primary and secondary source material contained in the collection which covers every period of the Darien adventure. A short history of the Darien Scheme can illustrate this point.

One of the maps of Darien held in the Spencer collection Spencer f18

Image of William Paterson facing the title page of his writings
Spencer 9-11

The Company of Scotland trading to Africa and the Indies owed its origin to the desire of the Scots to enjoy economic advantages similar to those possessed by other nations of Europe. The remarkable interest in commercial companies which was so prevalent in seventeenth century Europe was late in reaching Scotland. She was, in fact, the last of the nations to charter such a company.


At the beginning of May, 1695, William Paterson was consulted about the possibility of establishing an East India Company in Scotland. The Scotsman, whose name is inextricably bound up with the history of the Darien Company, was a fairly well-to-do London merchant at this time and one of the founders of the Bank of England. A visionary rather than a practical man of affairs, some of his ideas were brilliant, and, as in the case of the Bank of England, worked well when carried out by those with more business acumen than he possessed. One of his most cherished ideas was the establishment on the Isthmus of America of a free port, which, by reason of its geographical position, might handle the greater part of the commerce between Europe and the Far East. In the proposal to set up a Trading Company Paterson saw an opportunity to realise this ambition. Paterson's history with the Company is documented in the Spencer Collection from its beginning. An account of his dealings with the Bank of England in 1695 can be found in Spencer f28 continuing through to his claims on the Equivalent fund in 1711 and 1713 in Spencer f12 and Spencer f17 respectively. Several biographies dating from the mid-nineteenth century show how his life and contributions were viewed in the years after the Act of Union.

Broadside advertising the Trading Company proposal
Spencer f49

Paterson's draft for the Act to establish a Trading Company was presented to parliament on the 12th June, 1695, and referred to the Committee on Trade. Public interest had, in the meantime, been aroused by the publication of a broadside entitled, 'Proposals for a Fond to Cary on a Plantation'. It states that 'Persons of all ranks, yea the body of the nation, are longing to have a plantation in America,' but it is quite possible that this was issued to arouse the very longing it claims to champion. On the 26th of June, a fortnight after its first introduction, the Act establishing the Company of Scotland Trading to Africa and the Indies was read in Parliament, passed, and touched with the sceptre in the usual manner. The Act was extravagant in its concessions: permission to plant colonies in all parts of the unclaimed world; if any of the effects or persons of the Company were seized or damaged the King agreed to have restitution made at the public charge; free trade for a number of years; freedom from all kinds of legal restrictions and the promise of the King of England to assist them in maintaining their agreements and privileges with other nations. No wonder Walter Harris said in his A Defence of the Scots Abdicating Darien... that Scotland had been granted 'A large and glorious patent, not to be paralleled by that of any Company or Society in the Universe'. Indeed, had the Scottish patentees been more experienced in business, with a larger knowledge of the world and the ways of commerce, it is possible the Clyde might have claimed its place in world trade far earlier than it did.

Title page of "A Defence of the Scots Abdicating Darien..."
Spencer 46

Following the preparation of vessels and purchase of supplies, the first expedition numbering some 1,200 colonists and seamen set sail at the end of July 1698. With sealed orders which were not opened until Madeira was reached, their destination was a closely guarded secret, despite the suspicions of the more informed passengers. Darien was reached on 4th November, 1698, and the settlers proceeded to fortify the landing place by installing fifty cannon, and erecting what they called Fort St. Andrew. One of the colonists, Sir John Dalrymple, states in his memoirs: 'On the other side of the Harbour there was a mountain a mile high, on which they placed a watch house which, in the rarefied air of the tropics, gave them an immense range of prospect to prevent all surprise. To this place it was observed that the Highlanders often repaired to enjoy the cool air, and to talk of their friends whom they had left behind'. The colonists issued a proclamation declaring freedom of trade and of religion, sent friendly messages to the Spanish Governors and entered into negotiations with the natives for the purchase of land. News of their safe arrival and settlement in the Isthmus arrived at Edinburgh on the 25th March and was widely celebrated.

Title page of Dalrymple's memoirs
Spencer 13-15

First page of Paterson letter
Ms Gen 1685

The colony enjoyed an untroubled beginning in the cool season as shown in a draft of a letter from William Paterson written at Fort St. Andrew and dated 11th April 1699 in MS Gen 1685. In it he details several debts to be paid off, and asks that if there is any excess of funds the Directors of the Company should:-

Excerpt from Paterson Letter

'Send me the remainder with such Goods as you see good; good armes, ammunition and provisions are staple commoditys here ... therfore if there be not any thing to your greater satisfaction send of them, also servants, especially good hardy people. Men or men are good but tradesmen such as carpetents, smiths, coopers, shoemakers, taners, brickmakers, bricklayers, masons are the best by far, one of them being worth two or three others.'

No mention is made of hardships or shortages being endured by the expedition.

In January, 1699, a vessel with supplies for the colony was despatched from the Clyde, but was shipwrecked. Two other relief ships sent soon after were so delayed that they did not reach Darien until several months after their expected arrival. Meanwhile, at the colony, the hot season came and with it a host of tropical diseases. As the colony provisions ran short, and with no relief reaching them, the colonists died rapidly. Finally, after months of misery, sickness and semi-starvation, the remnants of the original 1,200 abandoned the Colony.

Before the collapse of the colony was known, a second expedition of four ships had set sail from Rothsey Bay. Once again the number of colonists was 1,200 and by all accounts around one hundred and sixty members of this second party died on the voyage out. Despite the ships docking at Montserrat for supplies, they were refused both water and food by the Governor acting under instructions received from England to the effect that the Darien Colony was illegal. An account of the voyage by an 'A. S.' also in Ms Gen 1685 mentions this:-

Excerpt from account

'The Governor by noe means would suffer them to bring one bottle of water telling them he was discharged to give any aid or assistance to the Scots Collony, But their being some particular Gentlemen upon that island which were intimatly aequant with some of oure officers which went ashore entertained them kyndly & complemented them with some oranges, rum and suggar & lykways told them the collony was deserted & dispersed themselves amonge the Dutch, France and English plantations which was not at all beleeved by us.'


First page of A.S' account of the second voyage to Darien
Ms Gen 1685

Title page of Rev. Borland's memoirs
Spencer 61

Upon arrival the second colonists found their worst fears realised. Equipped solely to augment and relieve an existing colony their position was even more precarious than the original expedition. Among this unfortunate group was the Rev. Francis Borland, the only minister who was destined to return home. In 1715 he published in Glasgow a narrative of his Darien experience, a book which is now exceedingly rare. He agreed with former travellers that 'Darien is pernicious, unwholesome and contagious, . Thou devourest men and eatest up thy inhabitants'. Disasters accumulated fast, until, as Borland writes: 'What with bad water, salt spoiled provisions, and absence of medicines, the fort was indeed like an hospital of sick and dying men'.

Soon after, the Spanish arrived from their nearby colonies. Compounding an already dire situation they invested the Fort and blockaded the harbour. The Spanish Commander, seeing their condition, offered easy terms of surrender: agreeing to help them on their way if they left their guns and ammunition and promised never to return. Barely 300 of the colonists were fit for duty by this time and deaths were at the rate of sixteen per day. After four and a half harrowing months the ships were boarded and the Company of Scotland Trading to Africa and the Indies quit Darien for the final time.

Misfortune still followed, however. Many died of hardship at sea: fever broke out on board; one ship sprang a leak and had to be run into Cartagena where she was sold; another was wrecked near Jamaica and some 250 died of disease on the other ships on the voyage between Darien and Jamaica. The remaining ships again sailed for England but the Rising Sun was lost off Charlestown with about 140 colonists. How many survivors of the two expeditions reached England is not known, but they were very few, some say not much more than thirty. So ended the great Darien Colonisation Scheme.


While the loss of life caused by the Darien Scheme was great, it is not so certain that Scotland lost financially due to its failure. By the terms of the Act of Union, the Darien shareholders received out of the so-called Equivalent Money ( 398,000 ) as much as would repay every penny of their subscriptions, with 5 percent interest. Rather than accept payment in cash, the main shareholders formed themselves into a Company of Equivalent Proprietors, allowing their share of the fund to remain in the hands of the government in return for an annuity of 10,000. By 1727, these Equivalent Proprietors began to undertake banking and obtained a charter as 'The Scottish Banking Company', which later became 'The Royal Bank of Scotland'.

The consequences of the failure of the Darien Scheme were wide ranging. From hastening the Act of Union to the formation of the Royal Bank of Scotland, there are few events in Scottish history whose impact can be so readily traced to the present. In all respects the Spencer Collection contributes to our intellectual understanding of a tumultuous period in Scots and indeed British history.

An announcement by the commissioners of the Equivalent Fund
Spencer f40

Also of interest:

Americana: An exhibition of printed books and manuscripts from Glasgow University Library originally held in the Hunterian Museum, Spring - Summer 1975.Adapted for the web. An online exhibition available by clicking here.

The writings of William Paterson, of Dumfrieshire, and a citizen of London; founder of the Bank of England, and of the Darien Colony.  London : 1858 Sp Coll Spencer 9-11

A history of William Paterson and the Darien Company with illustrations and appendices. Edinburgh ; London : 1907 Sp Coll Spencer 44

A bibliography of printed documents and books relating to the Darien Company. Edinburgh : 1904 Sp Coll Spencer f3

Catalogue of a collection of books and manuscripts relating to the Darien scheme : presented to the University of Glasgow by Mr. J.J.Spencer. Sp Coll Reference

The following were invaluable in compiling this article:

Darien letters : from the Spencer Collection Glasgow University Library. Glasgow : 1971 Sp Coll Spencer Add. q2

Cundall, Frank.  The Darien Venture. New York : 1926 Sp Coll Spencer 63

Prebble, John.  The Darien disaster.  London : 1968 Economics P486.D6 PRE

Taylor, Benjamin. The Darien Expedition. [Paisley] : [1892] Sp Coll Spencer 71


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Sonny Maley May 2005