The word Darien is a scar on the memory of the Scots, and the hurt is still felt even where the cause of the wound is dimly understood. Three hundred years ago the Parliament of Scotland, in one of its last acts before the nation lost its political identity, defied the King and the persistent hostility of the English to establish a noble trading company, to settle a colony, and to recover its people from a century of despair, privation, famine and decay.
The site of the colony, Darien on the Isthmus of Panama, was the enduring dream of William Paterson, the erratically brilliant Scot who had helped to found the Bank of England. He called it ‘the door of the seas, and the key of the universe’, and believed that it would become a bridge between East and West, an entrepot through which would pass the richest trade in the world.
The first attempt to make the Company a joint Scots and English venture was crushed by the English Parliament. The Scots created it by themselves, in a wave of almost hysterical enthusiasm, subscribing half of the nation’s capital. Three years later the ‘noble undertaking’, crippled by the quarrelsome stupidity of its leaders, deliberately obstructed by the English Government, and opposed in arms by Spain, had ended in stunning disaster. Nine fine ships owned by the Company had been sunk, burnt or abandoned. Over two thousand men, women and children who went to the fever-ridden colony never returned. It was a tragic curtain to the last act of Scotland’s independence.
John Prebble’s book is the first detailed account of the Darien Settlement, drawn from original sources in the records of the Company, the journals, letters and memoirs of those who tried to turn William Paterson’s dream into realit