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The St Andrew's Cross / Saltire

Caledonia, Scotland's doomed Panama colony

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In his new series, Why Does Everyone Hate the English? Al Murray is trying to find out just why England’s neighbours harbour such epic levels of annoyance towards this little country. And, when it comes to investigating the rocky relationship with Scotland, Al certainly has his work cut out. The history between the nations has been as grisly and ominous as the ingredients list of a haggis, whether you’re looking at the whole William Wallace debacle or the little-known fact that England stopped Scotland from having its very own empire in the Americas.

There are certain historical 'what-ifs' that come up again and again, both among professional historians and random people who like to shout at each other on Internet discussion forums. What-ifs like 'what if Hitler had developed an atomic bomb?', or 'what if Britain didn’t get involved in World War Two?' But an equally fascinating, and slightly less cliched, what-if is 'What if Scotland’s brave colony in Central America had actually worked and spread and Mexican tartan became a thing?'

The awful Eden

Around 1,200 Scottish settlers arrived in what had been hyped as a new Garden of Eden. What they found was an inhospitable stretch of untamed nature, drenched in endless rain and populated by native people who, while friendly enough, weren’t exactly wowed by the various random bits and bobs the Scottish had brought to trade (for some reason, the colonists though there would be burgeoning local demand for combs and wigs).

Nevertheless, the colonists did their best to establish the colony of Caledonia, with its capital being dubbed New Edinburgh. But the land, in Paterson’s own words, was a 'mere morass, neither fit to be fortified nor planted, nor for men to lie upon'. The going was slow and arduous. Food became scarce. The wet, sludgy conditions caused disease to spread, and the death toll among the colonists was soon 10 people a day. Crucially, William III – not wanting to provoke the Spanish – forbade nearby English colonists from helping the ravaged, desperate Scots.

Eventually, the surviving colonists left the doomed region. Meanwhile, a new, unsuspecting batch of settlers sailed over from Scotland, not realising there was nothing to greet them except rotting huts. They were appalled – one priest who was part of the group regarded the death and despair as the judgment of God. This new group of colonists fell foul of the Spanish, who – finally provoked by these rival traders – besieged the settlement before the surviving Scots were permitted to depart.

Whose fault was it anyway?

The Darien adventure was a death blow for Scottish sovereignty. The loss of money and morale paved the way for Scotland to join the UK several years later, and Darien became a byword for Scotland’s naivety on the world stage.

'Everybody has pooh-poohed the notion that you could create a viable colony there but in fact you could.'

And yet, many contemporary experts have a different take on it. Archaeologist Mark Horton, who visited the area himself, has said: 'Everybody has pooh-poohed the notion that you could create a viable colony there but in fact, you could', while another archaeologist, Carlos Fitzgerald Bernal, went on record saying 'It could have worked for sure. The reason it probably didn't was more to do with the inner workings of the British Empire.'

If things had been only slightly different – if, say, the English had leant a helping hand – the colony of Caledonia may have flourished just as the English colony of Jamestown did in the future United States. It may have marked the start of a Scottish Empire spreading through the New World. And, anyone who scoffs at this idea would do well to remember that the Scots would play an integral role in the success of the British Empire, whether as settlers, soldiers or administrators. They became empire builders after all – just not an empire of their own.