Tue 14 Sep 2010
Besides Inverness in West Marin (which, of course, takes its name from Inverness, Scotland), there are communities named Inverness in Nova Scotia, Quebec, Montana, Florida, and Illinois, all of them named by immigrants from Scotland or their descendants.
In addition, there was once a settlement in Georgia named Inverness, but during the early 1700s, it was renamed Darien in memory of an ill-fated Scottish colonial scheme in Panama. And therein lies a story.
Some years ago I began reading the London-based Economist magazine each week for my main source of international news. Politically, The Economist is libertarian, but it is not an advocate of unbridled capitalism.
In any case, I read it for its back-of-the-magazine reviews of books and the arts, along with its commentary on cultural trends, more than for its political coverage.
In the Aug. 28 issue, I happened upon a review of Caledonia, the principal drama at this past summer’s Edinburgh (Scotland) Festival, and it made me realize how little I knew about Scottish history. The review was so intriguing I set out to see what else I ought to know.
Scotland was an independent kingdom from 843 when it was unified to 1707 when it became part of the Kingdom of Great Britain, and during the 1600s, it had far more imperialistic ambitions in the Americas than I’d imagined.
Scotland tried unsuccessfully to establish colonies in Nova Scotia, East New Jersey, and South Carolina, but the worst disaster occurred in Central America.
In the late 1690s, the Scots attempted to establish the colony of New Caledonia on the Isthmus of Panama. Here’s what happened. A series of crop failures had caused Scotland to look for an overseas source of income.
Enter financier William Paterson with a scheme for establishing a colony at Darien in Panama. It would be a way to facilitate trade with the Far East and with European colonies on the west coast of the Americas.
Despite no one really knowing how all this could be done, the Company of Scotland was chartered in 1695 to raise money to finance the scheme.
The site of Darien is shown just to the left of the word “Darien” in the “Gulf of Darien” on the right side of this map from 1699.
The company’s first expedition to Panama in 1698, however, ended in disaster. About 1,200 colonists sailed for Panama, but because of disease and starvation, only about 300 survived. Of the five ships that had made the crossing, only one was able to return to Scotland the following year.
Unfortunately, a second expedition had unwittingly set sail before the remnants of the first arrived home. The second group tried to rebuild what the first group had abandoned, as well as complete a fort for defense against the Spanish.
And the Spanish did indeed attack. The Scots were briefly able to hold them off but were ultimately forced to surrender. By then, most of the colonists who had joined the expedition had died of dysentery or other diseases. Only a few hundred (out of about 1,300) made it back to Scotland.
The economic effect of these failures devastated Scotland. Citizens from all levels of Scottish society had invested in the Darien scheme, and estimates of their combined losses range from a fifth to nearly a half of all the wealth of Scotland at that time. Many Scots were left indebted and impoverished.
Desperate to recover — in large part by sharing in England’s international trade — the Scots agreed to the 1707 Acts of Union, which created Great Britain as a political union of England and Scotland.
Clearly Darien was a “Scottish tragedy,” The Economist notes in its review of the drama Caledonia at the Edinburgh Festival. Unfortunately, the magazine adds, the drama was performed as “burlesque….
“Caledonia, which promises to tell the stories of the nameless and the blameless, quickly eases its way into parody. This is history as vaudeville.
“The cast keeps breaking into song — Riches from riches, Piled upon riches, To the end of the world — though there are too few voices to make anything other than the thinnest lyrical impression.”
King William (right) was referred to both as King William III of England and King William II of Scotland.
“The Bernie Madoff of the drama is William Paterson, a visionary of world trade in a gold frock-coat. Darting about, he seems everywhere at once, though that may be less to do with charisma and more with his airy-fairy character. The nameless and the blameless make a quick shuffle off the stage.”
Items such as this are what make The Economist such a good read, as far as I’m concerned. In a short review of a semi-obscure drama, the magazine prompted this US citizen to learn about a bizarre chapter in Scottish history that led to creation of the country of Great Britain.