1698 – Darien Venture

Map of the Isthmus of Darien in America

Map of the Isthmus of Darien in America

For twenty years the London East India Company had enjoyed soaring success, bringing incredible fortunes to its stockholders through its virtual monopoly of Eastern trade.

By 1695 competitors in the market were using every scandalous technique to have Bills in their favour passed in England’s Parliament, and in return were being undermined by the EIC happily operating at the same low levels to retain dominance and political favouritism.

The Scottish Parliament passed in that year a plan to establish a similar organisation to be a ‘Company of Scotland Trading to Africa and the Indies’. Known in London as the Scottish East India Company, investors championed the proposal and in the space of two weeks £300.95,000 was raised.

Although based in Edinburgh, the necessary financial minds were not to be had in Scotland, so with half the board of directors living in London, as were half the investors, the Company was also to be managed from there. The EIC was about to lose its monopoly when the House of Lords, followed by King William, then the House of Commons, found reasons to charge anyone who wanted a part of the Scottish East India Company to be breaking the law.

The English finance vanished.

Fuelled by renewed anglophobia, fund-raising across Scotland for what had become a national cause brought £400.95,000. This was said to be half of Scotland’s available capital.

The plan was to have three Indiamen ships built on the Continent and take twelve hundred settlers and supplies to establish a colony at a bay on what is now the Panama – Colombia border, from where an overland route to the Pacific would allow westward trading with the East.

The bay area was known as Darien and the endeavour became the Darien Venture. The three 500-ton ships and two others set sail from Leith on the 12 July 1698. The fleet anchored on 3 November at a place the Spanish knew as Acla and the settlers renamed Caledonia. The Indians of the area made treaties with the Scots and offered friendship, but the Spanish in nearby colonies applied pressure on the new arrivals.

The English in Jamaica and the North American coast were under royal proclamation not to trade or offer support to the Darien Venture. In February 1699 fighting with the Spanish ended with the capture of a Scots ship. Dysentery, fever, feuds and desertion brought the Venture to chaos.

The settlers did not know that supplies which may have put things back on track were on the way, and after eight months they abandoned Darien. The return voyage was more life-threatening than anything before. Only one of the ships was not abandoned. Less than seven hundred settlers made it back to Scotland.

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