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The Darien Scheme and Union with England


The Darien Scheme was an ill-fated attempt by Scotland to secure a colony in Central America in the late 17th century. Like many Scots at the time, twelve members of Clan Forbes subscribed to the project. The colony was a complete financial failure due, in part, to the active opposition by King William III. For the family of Forbes of Tolquhon, this precipitated the later forfeiture of the entire Tolquhon estate. For the rest of the country, the economic disaster led irrevocably toward the Union with England and prompted three Jacobite rebellions.


The European wars, loss of trade on the continent, and widespread crop failures weakened Scotland’s economy in the 1690’s. (Prebble, John. 1968. The Darien Disaster, London: Secker and Warburg.) However, England had profited from foreign trade through the East India Company. Scotland was “envious of England's lucrative colonial trade, and longed to enjoy similar economic advantages.”  (Barbour, James Samuel. 1907. History of William Paterson and the Darien Company. Edinburgh and London: Willliam Blackwood and Sons.)  Therefore, on June 14, 1693, the Scottish Parliament passed an “Act for Encouraging Foreign Trade”, so that Scottish companies may be formed to trade "with any country not at war with their majesties to the East and West Indies, the Straits and Mediterranean, Africa and the northern parts.” (Ibid.)


William Paterson
William Paterson (Credit: British Museum)

Scottish-born financier William Paterson likely encouraged the drafting of another act of the Scottish Parliament in 1695 that established “The Company for trading from Scotland to Africa and the Indies.” (Ibid.) Paterson had spent time in the West Indies and he proposed to establish a colony on the Isthmus of Darien in Central America. “At commodious ports on each side of the Isthmus he proposed to establish emporiums, and to conduct the trade of the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans, collected at these points, across the Isthmus by an overland route” and “Scotland might thus supplant Holland as the great mart for the wealth of the East.” (Ibid.)


The reaction in England was swift: “No sooner was the News of this Act of Parliament spread abroad, but it was opposed in England by all concerned in the East India Trade, who made a mighty noise against it.” (Anonymous. 1699. The History of Caledonia: or, the Scots Colony in Darien in the West Indies. London: John Nutt.) This resulted in the Lords and Commons “holding a joint conference and unanimously concurring in an Address to the King, complaining of the establishment of the Scots East India Company with privileges which it was apprehended would ruin the English East India trade.” (Barbour, James Samuel. 1907. History of William Paterson and the Darien Company. Edinburgh and London: William Blackwood and Sons.) The House of Lords passed a bill that would discourage English subjects, under severe penalties, from engaging in the stock or management of the Darien Company and prohibit, also under severe penalties, navigators, merchant ships, and shipwrights from assisting with the endeavor. (Ibid.)


Darien Company Subscriber List
Darien Company Subscriber List

On February 26, 1696, the Darien Company began soliciting “subscriptions” (investments) in Edinburgh. Due to the English Parliament actions, “The scheme immediately became a national concern, and people of all classes pressed forward to participate in the emission.” (Ibid.)


Subscribers could invest between £100 and £3,000 each and share in the profits. Twelve Forbeses invested on the project as of April 1, 1696: Samuel Forbes of Foverain (Foveran), £1,000; his brother John Forbes of Foverain, (£500); Sir Alexander Forbes of Tolquhon, £500; Captain Charles Forbes (in Sir John Hill’s Regiment), £400; Arthur Forbes of Eicht (Echt), £200. Duncan Forbes of Colloden (Culloden), £200; Thomas Forbes of Watertoun, £200; Major John Forbes, £200; Captain John Forbes of Forbestoun, £200; Mr. David Forbes, Advocate, £200; Alexander Forbes, Goldsmith in Edinburgh, £200; and Mr. Arthur Forbes (son of Sir John Forbes of Craigievar, 2nd Baronet), £100. (A List of Subscribers to the Company of Scotland Trading to Africa and the Indies. 1696.)


In addition to funding, the company popularly known as the “Darien Company,” also sought colonists. A folio broadside advertised in March 1698, that “Everyone who goes on the first Equipage shall Receive and Possess Fifty Acres of Plantable Land and 50 Foot Square of ground at least in the Chief City or Town, and an ordinary House built thereupon by the Colony at the end of 3 years.” (Hart, Francis Russell. 1929. Disaster of Darien--The Story of the Scots Settlement and the Causes of its Failure 1699-1701. Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin.) The first group of 1,200 emigrants included three hundred young men, about sixty military officers, and the rest were skilled tradesmen and laborers “deemed best suited to make the settlement successful.” (Ibid.) Among the company was investor and company councillor Captain Charles Forbes.


In the middle of July, 1698, a fleet of three ships plus two smaller boats of supplies sailed from Leith to Darien. Sir John Dalrymple, 1st Earl of Stair and former Joint Secretary of State in Scotland wrote: “the whole city of Edinburgh poured down upon Leith to see the Colony depart, amidst the tears and prayers and praises of relations and friends, and of their countrymen.” (Ibid.)

The expedition finally arrived on November 2, 1698, and found “an excellent harbour on the protected side of the bay, formed by a point of land and Golden Island.” (Hart, Francis Russell. 1929. Disaster of Darien--The Story of the Scots Settlement and the Causes of its Failure 1699-1701. Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin.)


However, Captain Charles Forbes never survived to reach Damien, having died in July 1698. In a letter dated August 12, 1699, George Moffat wrote: “it was with great difficulty she came in here, being ill manned, haveing lost in her way 150, whereby Capt. Forbes, a Councellor, was 1, and Capt. Dallyell, with 4 subalterns more, all dyed naturally, and there was more than 60 sick.” (Burton, J. H., Editor. 1849. The Damien Papers:  Being a Selection of Original Letters and Official Documents Relating to the Establishment of a Colony at Darien by the Company of Scotland Trading to America and the Indies 1695 – 1700. Edinburgh: Thomas Constable for the Bannantyne Club.)


The remaining colonists attempted to establish the colony of “New Edinburgh” and quickly learned how difficult their task would be. The land was rugged and inhospitable; they were beset by threats of attack by the Spanish; and even assistance from the natives was meager since most of the goods they brought were unsuitable for sale or barter: “the warm coarse serges, tweeds, cloth caps, and heavy stockings were more suited to the trade with the New England colonies than for the West Indies.” (Barbour, James Samuel. 1907. History of William Paterson and the Darien Company. Edinburgh and London: William Blackwood and Sons.)


King William III (UK National Portrait Gallery)

King William III and the English government continued their opposition to the effort, going so far as to command the governors in the Americas to deny any assistance. The proclamation of April 8, 1699, by  Sir William Beeston, Commandant-in-Chief of Jamaica, stated that the Darien colony “is contrary to the peace entered into with His Majesty’s Allies, and therefore has commanded me that no assistance be given them” and that “they will answer the contempt of His Majesty’s command to the contrary, at their utmost peril.” (Hart, Francis Russell. 1929. Disaster of Darien--The Story of the Scots Settlement and the Causes of its Failure 1699-1701. Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin.) Similar proclamations were made by the governors of Barbados, Virginia, New York, Rhode Island, Massachusetts Bay, East New Jersey, Connecticut, South Carolina, New Hampshire, New Providence, and Maryland. (Ibid.)


As a result, the surviving colonists abandoned New Edinburgh in June, 1699, and only 300 of the original 1,200 arrived in Scotland late in November. (Barbour, James Samuel. 1907. History of William Paterson and the Darien Company. Edinburgh and London: Willliam Blackwood and Sons.) However, before they arrived home, another 1,000 settlers had left for the Damien colony. They were met with the same misfortunes as the first colonists: deaths on the ships, lack of adequate provisions, and sickness after landing in the abandoned colony. “Our sickness did so increase, (above 220 at ye same time in fevers and fluxes); and our pitiful rotten provisions were found to be so far exhausted, that we were upon the very point of leaving and losing this Colony.” (Ibid.) The new arrivals reported back to the company in a letter dated December 23, 1699, “On our arriveall, wee found all the hutts within Fort St. Andrew (and without it yr were never any built) burn’d down to the ground, and the principall batteries of the Fort which guarded the enterance of the Bay quite demolished” (Ibid.)


They abandoned New Edinburgh on April 11, 1700. Their return voyage was disastrous: “Of the four ships which had sailed from Scotland forming the second expedition none survived.” (Ibid.) The ships were destroyed by groundings and hurricanes. The handful of surviving colonists sought refuge in the English colonies.


The impact of the failure of the venture was calamitous. Investors, large and small, were thrown into debt. Sir Alexander Forbes, 10th Laird of Tolquhon, was arrested and his debt acquired by John Gordon of Edinburgh. (Burton, J. H., Editor. 1849. The Damien Papers:  Being a Selection of Original Letters and Official Documents Relating to the Establishment of a Colony at Darien by the Company of Scotland Trading to America and the Indies 1695 – 1700. Edinburgh: Thomas Constable for the Bannantyne Club.)

A List of Subscribers to the Company of Scotland Trading to Africa and the Indies, 1696
A List of Subscribers to the Company of Scotland Trading to Africa and the Indies, 1696

Tolquhon died soon after on July 31, 1701. Having no issue, his estate (and debts) were inherited by his brother Thomas, who had also invested into the Darien Company. The 11th Laird of Tolquhon died a few weeks later in August 1701, saddling his son William, 12th Laird of Tolquhon, with an estate that was almost bankrupt. (Tayler, Alistair and Henrietta. 1937. House of Forbes. Edinburgh: Third Spalding Club.)


Many other Scots were in similar financial straits. On September 29, 1699, King William III wrote to Hans William Bentinck, 1st Earl of Portland (second creation), “Though I am very glad at being now relieved from embarrassment about the affair of Darien, I pity with all my heart the poor Scotch, who have lost everything, and were by no means the promoters of this enterprise. I fear, too, that this will cause many quarrels in Scotland, from which I too may have to suffer.” (Grimblot, Paul, Editor. 1848. Letters of William III and Louis XIV and of their Ministers, 1697-1700, London, 1848, ii, p. 354.)


Although not an investor himself, Darien Company founder William Paterson worked toward reimbursing the subscribers for their losses. In 1700, he wrote and distributed the tract, “Proposals and Reasons for Constituting a Council of Trade” in which he proposed a settlement from the Scottish Parliament. “For years, from this time onward, Darien became a prominent question, and occupied a large space in the discussions of the House.” (Barbour, James Samuel. 1907. History of William Paterson and the Darien Company. Edinburgh and London: Willliam Blackwood and Sons.)


King William III and his government had been working toward a union of Scotland and England. These negotiations became “inextricably tangled with the Darien matters.” (Hart, Francis Russell. 1929. Disaster of Darien--The Story of the Scots Settlement and the Causes of its Failure 1699-1701. Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin.) However, William died on March 8, 1702, and the problem was left to the succeeding monarch, his sister-in-law and cousin, Queen Anne, who was the daughter of the deposed James II and VII.


In June 1702, Queen Anne sent a letter to the Scottish Parliament encouraging the union between Scotland and England. This led to a series of negotiations over the next four years. The Scots demanded that the international trading privileges of the Darien Company should remain intact.  However, the supporters of the English East India Company objected that the rival companies might prove “injurious” to the trade of the United Kingdom. They proposed that the company be dissolved and that the subscribers be compensated by the public treasury. In response, the Scottish Parliament passed the Act of Security on May 6, 1703, that Queen Anne’s successor in Scotland should not be the same as the monarch adopted by the English Parliament “unless the Scottish people were admitted to share with England the full benefits of trade” and that the choice was either of “one Parliament or two Crowns.” (Barbour, James Samuel. 1907. History of William Paterson and the Darien Company. Edinburgh and London: Willliam Blackwood and Sons.) Eventually, the English Parliament agreed to the dissolution of the Darien Company and the restitution of its investors.


Article XV of the final draft of the Articles of Union stated: “that the capital Stock, or Fund of the African and Indian Company of Scotland, advanced together with the Interest for the said capital Stock, after the Rate of 5 per Cent. per Annum, from the respective Times of the Payment thereof, shall be paid; upon Payment of which capital Stock and Interest, it is agreed, The said Company be dissolved and cease; and also, that, from the Time of passing the Act of Parliament in England, for raising the said Sum of three hundred ninety-eight Thousand, eighty-five Pounds ten Shillings, the said Company shall neither trade, nor grant Licence to trade…” (An Act for a Union of the Two Kingdoms of England and Scotland, 1706 c. 11).


When the Act of Union with England came before the Scottish Parliament on July 22, 1707, 106 voted “aye” and 69 voted “nay.” William, 12th Lord Forbes, and Sir Robert Forbes (representing Inverurie) voted for the union and John Forbes, 4th Lord of Culloden (representing Nairnshire) voted against it.  Alexander Forbes, 4th Lord Pitsligo,  opposed the act and left Parliament in protest. The Act passed and the two parliaments were "United into One Kingdom by the Name of Great Britain."

Ruins of Tolquhon Castle
Ruins of Tolquhon Castle (Credit: Adam Jackson)

However, since his father’s and uncle’s debts were acquired by John Gordon, the compensation did not help William Forbes, 12th Laird of Tolquhon. Tolquhon Castle was seized and sold by order of the Court of Session in November, 1716, to Colonel Francis Farquharson, and afterwards passed to the Earl of Aberdeen.  On September 25th, 1718, the creditors having obtained military assistance, attacked and took the Castle, wounding and taking prisoner the former owner, who after being set at liberty, retired abroad. He died in London in 1728.


No physical presence of New Edinburgh remains today except on maps.  Off the coast of the Darien peninsula, you can still identify Puerto Escocés (Scottish Harbor) on the Bay of Caledonia, west of the Gulf of Darien.

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