Tales of a Grandfather, by Walter Scott

Chapter 59

HUMAN character, whether national or Individual, presents often to our calm consideration the strangest inconsistencies; but there are few more striking than that which the Scots exhibit in their private conduct, contrasted with their views when united together for any general or national purpose. In his own personal affairs the Scotsman is remarked as cautious, frugal, and prudent, in an extreme degree, not generally aiming at enjoyment or relaxation till he has realized the means of indulgence, and studiously avoiding those temptations of pleasure, to which men of other countries most readily give way. But when a number of the natives of Scotland associate for any speculative project, it would seem that their natural caution becomes thawed and dissolved by the union of their joint hopes, and that their imaginations are liable in a peculiar degree to be heated and influenced by any splendid prospect held out to them. They appear, in particular, to lose the power of calculating and adapting their means to the end which they desire to accomplish, and are readily induced to aim at objects magnificent in themselves, but which they have not, unhappily, the wealth or strength necessary to attain. Thus the Scots are often found to attempt splendid designs, which, shipwrecked for want of the necessary expenditure, give foreigners occasion to smile at the great error and equally great misfortune of the nation,-I mean their pride and their poverty. There is no greater instance of this tendency to daring speculation, which rests at the bottom of the coldness and caution of the Scottish character, than the disastrous history of the Darien colony.

Paterson, a man of comprehensive views and great sagacity, was the parent and inventor of this memorable scheme. In youth he had been an adventurer in the West Indies, and it was said a bucanier, that is, one of a species of adventurers nearly allied to pirates, who, consisting of different nations, and divided into various bands, made war on the Spanish commerce and settlements in the South Seas, and among the West Indian islands. In this roving course of life, Paterson had made himself intimately acquainted with the geography of South America, the produce of the country, the nature of its commerce, and the manner in which the Spaniards governed that extensive region. On his return to Europe, however, the schemes which he had formed respecting the New World were laid aside for another project, fraught with the most mighty and important consequences. This was the plan of that great national establishment the Bank of England, of which he had the honour to suggest the first idea. For a time he was admitted a director of that institution; but it befell Paterson as often happens to the first projectors of great schemes. Other persons, possessed of wealth and influence, interposed, and, taking advantage of the ideas of the obscure and unprotected stranger, made them their own by alterations or improvements more or less trivial, and finally elbowed the inventor out of all concern in the institution, the foundation of which he had laid. Thus expelled from the Bank of England, Paterson turned his thoughts to the plan of settling a colony in America, and in a part of that country so favoured in point of situation, that it seemed to him formed to be the site of the most nourishing commercial capital in the universe. The two great continents of North and South America are joined together by an isthmus, or narrow tract of land, called Darien. This neck of land is not above a day’s journey in breadth, and as it is washed by the Atlantic ocean on the eastern side, and the Great Pacific ocean on the west, the isthmus seemed designed by nature as a common centre for the commerce of the world. Paterson ascertained, or at least alleged that he had ascertained, that the isthmus had never been the property of Spain, but was still possessed by the original natives, a tribe of fierce and warlike Indians, who made war on the Spaniards. According to the law of nations, therefore, any state had a right of forming a settlement in Darien, providing the consent of the Indians was first obtained; nor could their doing so be justly made subject of challenge even by Spain, so extravagantly jealous of all interference with her South American provinces. This plan of a settlement, with so many advantages to recommend it, was proposed by Paterson to the merchants of Hamburgh, to the Dutch, and even to the Elector of Brandenburgh; but it was coldly received by all these states.

The scheme was at length offered to the merchants of London, the only traders probably in the world who, their great wealth being seconded by the protection of the British navy, had the means of realizing the splendid visions of Paterson. But when the projector was in London, endeavouring to solicit attention to his plan, he became intimate with the celebrated Fletcher of Saltoun. This gentleman, one of the most accomplished men, and best patriots, whom Scotland has produced in any age, had, nevertheless, some notions of her interests which were more fanciful than real, and, in his anxiety to render his country service, did not sufficiently consider the adequacy of the means by which her welfare was to be obtained. He was dazzled by the vision of opulence and grandeur which Paterson unfolded, and thought of nothing less than securing, for the benefit of Scotland alone, a scheme which promised to the state which should adopt it, the keys, as it were, of the New World. The projector was easily persuaded to give his own country the benefit of his scheme of colonization, and went to Scotland along with Fletcher. Here the plan found general acceptation, and particularly with the Scottish administration, who were greatly embarrassed at the time by the warm prosecution of the affair of Glencoe, and who easily persuaded King William that some freedom and facilities of trade granted to the Scots, would divert the public attention from the investigation of a matter, not very creditable to his Majesty’s reputation any more than to their own. Stair, in particular, a party deeply interested, gave the Darien scheme the full support of his eloquence and interest, in the hope to regain a part of his lost popularity.

The Scottish ministers obtained permission, accordingly, to grant such privileges of trade to their country as might not be prejudicial to that of England. In June 1695, these influential persons obtained a statute from Parliament, and afterwards a charter from the crown, for creating a corporate body, or stock company, by name of the Company of Scotland trading to Africa and the Indies, with power to plant colonies and build forts in places not possessed by other European nations, the consent always of the inhabitants of the places where they settled being obtained.

The hopes entertained of the profits to arise from this speculation were in the last degree sanguine; not even the Solemn League and Covenant was signed with more eager enthusiasm. Almost every one who had, or could command, any sum of ready money embarked it in the Indian and African Company; many subscribed their all; maidens threw in their portions, and widows whatever sums they could raise upon their dower, to be repaid an hundredfold by the golden shower which was to descend upon the subscribers. Some sold estates to vest the money in the Company’s funds, and so eager was the spirit of speculation, that, when eight hundred thousand pounds formed the whole circulating capital of Scotland, half of that sum was vested in the Darien stock.

That every thing might be ready for their extensive operations, the Darien Company proceeded to build a large tenement near Bristo-port, Edinburgh, to serve as an office for transacting their business, with a large range of buildings behind it, designed as warehouses, to be filled with the richest commodities of the eastern and western world. But, sad event of human hopes and wishes! the office is now occupied as a receptacle for paupers, and the extensive warehouses as a lunatic asylum. But it was not the Scots alone whose hopes were excited by the rich prospects held out to them. An offer being made by the managers of the Company, to share the expected advantages of the scheme with English and foreign merchants, it was so eagerly grasped at, that three hundred thousand pounds of stock was subscribed for in London within nine days after opening the books. The merchants of Hamburgh and of Holland subscribed two hundred thousand pounds.

Such was the hopeful state of the new company’s affairs, when the English jealousy of trade interfered to crush an adventure which seemed so promising. The idea which then and long afterwards prevailed in England was, that all profit was lost to the British empire which did not arise out of commerce exclusively English. The increase of trade in Scotland or Ireland they considered, not as an addition to the general prosperity of the united nations, but as a positive loss to England. The commerce of Ireland they had long laid under severe shackles, to secure their own predominance; but it was not so easy to deal with Scotland, which, totally unlike Ireland, was governed by its own independent legislature, and acknowledged no subordination or fealty to England, being in all respects a separate and independent country, though governed by the same King.

This new species of rivalry on the part of an old enemy, was both irritating and alarming. The English had hitherto thought of the Scots as a pour and fierce nation, who, in spite of fewer numbers and far inferior resources, was always ready to engage in war with her powerful neighbour; and now that these wars were over, it was embarrassing and provoking to find the same nation display, in spite of its proverbial caution, a hardy and ambitious spirit of emulating them in the paths of commerce.

These narrow-minded, unjust, and ungenerous apprehensions prevailed so widely throughout the English nation, that both Houses of Parliament joined in an address to the King, stating that the advantages given to the newly-erected Scottish Indian and African Company, would ensure that kingdom so great a superiority over the English East India Company, that a great part of the stock and shipping of England would be transported to the north, and Scotland would become a free port for all East Indian commodities, which they would be able to furnish at a much cheaper rate than the English. By this means it was said England would lose all the advantages of an exclusive trade in the Eastern commodities, which had always been a great article in her foreign commerce, and sustain infinite detriment in the sale of her domestic manufactures. The King, in his gracious reply to this address, acknowledged the justice of its statements, though as void of just policy as of grounds in public law. His royal answer bore, that “ the King had been ill served in Scotland, but hoped some remedies might still be found to prevent the evils apprehended.” To show that his resentment was serious against his Scottish ministers, King William, as we have already mentioned, deprived the Master of Stair of his office as secretary of state. Thus a statesman, who had retained his place in spite of the bloody deed of Glencoe, was disgraced for attempting to serve his country, in the most innocent and laudable manner, by extending her trade and national importance. The English Parliament persisted in the attempt to find remedies for the evils which they were pleased to apprehend from the Darien scheme, by appointing a committee of enquiry, with directions to summon before them such persons as had, by subscribing to the Company, given encouragement to the progress of an undertaking, so fraught, as they alleged, with danger to the trade of England. These persons, being called before Parliament, and menaced with impeachment, were compelled to renounce their connexion with the undertaking, which was thus deprived of the aid of English subscriptions, to the amount, as already mentioned, of three hundred thousand pounds. Nay, so eager did the English Parliament show themselves in this matter, that they even extended their menace of impeachment to some native-born Scotsmen, who had offended the House by subscribing their own money to a Company formed in their own country, and according to their own laws. That this mode of destroying the funds of the concern might be yet more effectual, the weight of the King’s influence with foreign states was employed to diminish the credit of the undertaking, and to intercept the subscriptions which had been obtained for the Company abroad. For this purpose, the English envoy at Hamburgh was directed to transmit to the Senate of that commercial city a remonstrance on the part of King William, accusing them of having encouraged the commissioners of the Darien Company; requesting them to desist from doing so; intimating that the plan, said to be fraught with many evils, had not the support of his Majesty; and protesting, that the refusal of the Senate to withdraw their countenance from the scheme, would threaten an interruption to the friendship which his Majesty desired to cultivate with the good city of Hamburgh. The Senate returned to this application a spirited answer-” The city of Hamburgh,” they said, “ considered it as strange that the King of England should dictate to them, a free people, with whom they were to engage in commercial arrangements; and were yet more astonished to find themselves blamed for having entered into such engagements with a body of his own Scottish subjects, incorporated under a special act of Parliament.” But as the menace of the envoy showed that the Darien Company must be thwarted in all its proceedings by the superior power of England, the prudent Hamburghers, ceasing to consider it as a hopeful speculation, finally withdrew their subscriptions. The Dutch, to whom William could more decidedly dictate, from his authority as Stadtholder, and who were jealous, besides, of the interference of the Scots with their own East Indian trade, adopted a similar course, without remonstrance. Thus, the projected Company, deserted both by foreign and English associates, were crippled in their undertaking, and left to their own limited resources.

The managers of the scheme, supported by the general sense of the people of Scotland, made warm remonstrances to King William on the hostile interference of his Hamburgh envoy, and demanded redress for so gross a wrong. In William’s answer, he was forced meanly to evade what he was resolved not to grant, and yet could not in equity refuse. “ The King,” it was promised, “ would send instructions to his envoy, not to make use of his Majesty’s name or authority for obstructing their engagements with the city of Hamburgh.” The Hamburghers, on the other hand, declared themselves ready to make good their subscriptions, if they should receive any distinct assurance from the King of England, that in so doing they would be safe from his threatened resentment. But, in spite of repeated promises, the envoy received no power to make such declaration. Thus the Darien Company lost the advantage of support, to the extent of two hundred thousand pounds, subscribed in Hamburgh and Holland, and that by the personal and hostile interference of their own Monarch, under whose charter they were embodied. Scotland, left to her unassisted resources, would have acted with less spirit but more wisdom, in renouncing her ambitious plan of colonization, sure as it now was to be thwarted by the hostile interference of her unfriendly but powerful neighbour and rival. But those engaged in the scheme, comprising great part of the nation, could not be expected easily to renounce hopes which had been so highly excited, and enough remained of the proud and obstinate spirit with which their ancestors had maintained their independence, to induce the Scots, even when thrown back on their own limited means, to determine upon the establishment of their favourite settlement at Darien, in spite of the desertion of their English and foreign subscribers, and in defiance of the invidious opposition of their powerful neighbours. They caught the spirit of their ancestors, who, after losing so many dreadful battles, were always found ready with sword in hand, to dispute the next campaign.

The contributors to the enterprise were encouraged in this stubborn resolution, by the flattering account which was given of the country to be colonized, in which every class of Scotsmen found something to flatter their hopes, and to captivate their imaginations. The description given of Darien by Paterson was partly derived from his own knowledge, partly from the report of bucaniers and adventurers, and the whole was exaggerated by the eloquence of an able man, pleading in behalf of a favourite project.

The climate was represented as healthy and cool, the tropical heats being, it was said, mitigated by the height of the country, and by the shade of extensive forests, which yet presented neither thicket nor underwood, but would admit a horseman to gallop through them unimpeded. Those acquainted with trade were assured of the benefits of a safe and beautiful harbour, where the advantage of free commerce and universal toleration, would attract traders from all the world; while the produce of China, Japan, the Spice Islands, and Eastern India, brought to the bay of Panama in the Pacific ocean, might be transferred by a safe and easy route across the isthmus to the new settlement, and exchanged for all the commodities of Europe. “ Trade,” said the commercial enthusiast, “ will beget trade — money will beget money — the commercial world will no longer want work for their hands, but will rather want hands for their work. This door of the seas, and key of the universe, will enable its possessors to become the legislators of both worlds, and the arbitrators of commerce. The settlers at Darien will acquire a nobler empire than Alexander or Caesar, without fatigue, expense, or danger, as well as without incurring the guilt and bloodshed of conquerors.” To those more vulgar minds who cannot separate the idea of wealth from the precious metals, the projector held out the prospect of golden mines. The hardy Highlanders, many of whom embarked in the undertaking, were to exchange their barren moors for extensive savannahs of the richest pasture, with some latent hopes of a creagh (or foray) upon Spaniards or Indians. The Lowland laird was to barter his meagre heritage, and oppressive feudal tenure, for the free possession of unlimited tracts of ground, where the rich soil, three or four feet deep, would return the richest produce for the slightest cultivation. Allured by these hopes, many proprietors actually abandoned their inheritances, and many more sent their sons and near relations to realize their golden hopes, while the poor labourers, who desired no more than bread and freedom of conscience, shouldered their mattocks, and followed their masters in the path of emigration. Twelve hundred men, three hundred of whom were youths of the best Scottish families, embarked on board of five frigates, purchased at Hamburgh for the service of the expedition; for the King refused the Company even the trifling accommodation of a ship of war, which lay idle at Burnt-island. They sailed from Leith roads [26th July 1698], reached their destination in safety, and disembarked at a place called Acta, where, by cutting through a peninsula, they obtained a safe and insulated situation for a town, called New Edinburgh, and a fort named Saint Andrew. With the same fond remembrance of their native land, the colony itself was called Caledonia. They were favourably received by the native princes, from whom they purchased the land they required. The harbour, which was excellent, was proclaimed a free port; and in the outset the happiest results were expected from the settlement. The arrival of the colonists took place in winter, when the air was cool and temperate; but with the summer returned the heat, and with the heat came the diseases of a tropical climate. Those who had reported so favourably of the climate of Darien, Had probably been persons who had only visited the coast during the healthy season, or mariners, who, being chiefly on ship-board, find many situations healthy, which prove pestilential to Europeans residing on shore. The health of the settlers, accustomed to a cold and mountainous country, gave way fast under the constant exhalations of the sultry climate, and even a more pressing danger than disease itself arose from the scarcity of food. The provisions which the colonists had brought from Scotland were expended, and the country afforded them only such supplies as could be procured by the precarious success of fishing and the chase.

This must have been foreseen; but it was never doubted that ample supplies would be procured from the English provinces in North America, which afforded great superabundance of provisions, and from the West India colonies, which always possessed superfluities. It was here that the enmity of the King and the English nation met the unfortunate settlers most unexpectedly, and most severely. In North America, and in the West India islands, the most savage pirates and bucaniers, men who might be termed enemies to the human race, and had done deeds which seemed to exclude them from intercourse with mankind, had nevertheless found repeated refuge, — had been permitted to refit their squadrons, and, supplied with every means of keeping the sea, had set sail in a condition to commit new murders and piracies. But no such relief was extended to the Scottish colonists at Darien, though acting under a charter from their Sovereign, and establishing a peaceful colony according to the law of nations, and for the universal benefit of mankind.

The governors of Jamaica, Barbadoes, and New York, published proclamations, setting forth, that whereas it had been signified to them (the governors) by the English Secretary of State, that his Majesty was unacquainted with the purpose and design of the Scottish settlers at Darien (which was a positive falsehood), and that it was contrary to the peace entered into with his Majesty’s allies (no European power having complained of it), and that the governors of the said colonies had been commanded not to afford them any assistance; therefore, they did strictly charge the colonists over whom they presided, to hold no correspondence with the said Scots, and to give them no assistance of arms, ammunition, provisions, or any other necessary whatsoever, either by themselves or any others for them; as those transgressing the tenor of the proclamation would answer the breach of his Majesty’s commands at their highest peril. These proclamations were strictly obeyed; and every species of relief, not only that which countrymen may claim of their fellow-subjects, and Christians of their fellow-Christians, but such as the vilest criminal has a right to demand, because still holding the same human shape with the community whose laws he has offended, — the mere supply, namely, of sustenance, the meanest boon granted to the meanest beggar, — was denied to the colonists of Darien.

Famine aided the diseases which swept them off in large numbers; and undoubtedly they, who thus perished for want of the provisions for which they were willing to pay, were as much murdered by King William’s government, as if they had been shot in the snows of Glencoe. The various miseries of the colony became altogether intolerable, and, after waiting for assistance eight months, by far the greater part of the adventurers having died, the miserable remainder abandoned the settlement. Shortly after the departure of the first colony, another body of thirteen hundred men, who had been sent out from Scotland, arrived at Darien, under the hope of finding their friends in health, and the settlement prosperous. This reinforcement suffered by a bad passage, in which one of their ships was lost, and several of their number died. They took possession of the deserted settlement with sad anticipations, and were not long in experiencing the same miseries which had destroyed and dispersed their predecessors. Two months after, they were joined by Campbell of Finab, with a third body of three hundred men, chiefly from his own Highland estate, many of whom had served under him in Flanders, where he had acquired an honourable military reputation. It was time the colony should receive such military support, for in addition to their other difficulties, they were now threatened by the Spaniards.

Two years had elapsed since the colonization of Darien had become matter of public discussion, and notwithstanding their feverish jealousy of their South American settlements, the Spaniards had not made any remonstrance against it. Nay, so close and intimate was the King of Spain’s friendship with King William, that it seems possible he might never have done so, unless the colonists had been disowned by their Sovereign, as if they had been vagabonds and outlaws. But finding the Scottish colony so treated by their Prince, the Spaniards felt themselves invited in a manner to attack it, and not only lodged a remonstrance against the settlement with the English Cabinet, but seized one of the vessels wrecked on the coast, confiscated the ship, and made the crew prisoners. The Darien Company sent an address to the King by the hands of Lord Basil Hamilton, remonstrating against this injury; but William, who studied every means to discountenance the unfortunate scheme, refused, under the most frivolous pretexts, to receive the petition. This became so obvious, that the young nobleman determined that the address should reach the royal hands in season or out of season, and taking a public opportunity to approach the King as he was leaving the saloon of audience, he obtruded himself and the petition upon his notice, with more bluntness than ceremony. “ That young man is too bold,” said William; but, doing justice to Lord Basil’s motive, he presently added,-” if a man can be too bold in the cause of his country.” The fate of the colony now came to a crisis. The Spaniards had brought from the Pacific a force of sixteen hundred men, who were stationed at a place called Tubucantee, waiting the arrival of an armament of eleven ships, with troops on board, destined to attack fort Saint Andrew. Captain Campbell, who, by the unanimous consent of the settlers, was chosen to the supreme military command, marched against them with two hundred men, surprised and stormed their camp, and dispersed their army, with considerable slaughter. But in returning from his successful expedition, he had the mortification to learn that the Spanish ships had arrived before the harbour, disembarked their troops, and invested the place. A desperate defence was maintained for six weeks: until loss of men, want of ammunition, and the approach of famine, compelled the colonists to an honourable surrender.1 The survivors of this unhappy settlement were so few, and so much exhausted, that they were unable to weigh the anchor of the vessel, called The Rising Sun, in which they were to leave the fatal shore, without assistance from the conquering Spaniards.

Thus ended the attempt of Darien, an enterprise splendid in itself, but injudicious, because far beyond the force of the adventurous little nation by which it was undertaken. Paterson survived the disaster, and, even when all was over, endeavoured to revive the scheme, by allowing the English three-fourths in a new Stock Company. But national animosities were too high to suffer his proposal to be listened to. He died at an advanced age, poor and neglected.

The failure of this favourite project, deep sorrow for the numbers who had fallen, many of whom were men of birth and blood, the regret for pecuniary losses, which threatened national bankruptcy, and indignation at the manner in which their charter had been disregarded, all at once agitated from one end to the other a kingdom, which is to a proverb proud, poor, and warm in their domestic attachments. Nothing could be heard throughout Scotland but the language of grief and of resentment. Indemnification, redress, revenge, were demanded by every mouth, and each hand seemed ready to vouch for the justice of the claim. For many years, no such universal feeling had occupied the Scottish nation.

King William remained indifferent to all complaints of hardship and petitions of redress, unless when he showed himself irritated by the importunity of the supplicants, and hurt at being obliged to evade what it was impossible for him, with the least semblance of justice, to refuse. The motives of a Prince, naturally just and equitable, and who, himself the President of a great trading nation, knew well the injustice which he was committing, seem to have been, first, a reluctance to disoblige the King of Spain, but, secondly, and in a much greater degree, what William might esteem the political necessity of sacrificing the interests of Scotland to the jealousy of England, a jealousy equally unworthy and impolitic. But what is unjust can never be in a true sense necessary, and the sacrifice of principle to circumstances will, in every sense, and in all cases, be found as unwise as it is unworthy.

It is, however, only justice to William to state, that though in the Darien affair he refused the Scots the justice which was unquestionably their due, he was nevertheless the only person in either kingdom who proposed, and was anxious to have carried into execution, an union between the kingdoms, as the only effectual means of preventing in future such subjects of jealousy and contention. But the prejudices of England as well as Scotland, rendered more inveterate by this unhappy quarrel, disappointed the King’s wise and sagacious overture. Notwithstanding the interest in her welfare which King William evinced, by desiring the accomplishment of an union, the people of Scotland could not forget the wrongs which they had received concerning the Darien project; and their sullen resentment showed itself in every manner, excepting open rebellion, during the remainder of his reign. In this humour, Scotland became a useless possession to the King. William could not wring from that kingdom one penny for the public service, or what he would have valued more, one recruit to carry on his continental campaigns. These hostile feelings subsisted to a late period. William died in 1701, having fur six years and upwards survived his beloved consort Queen Mary. This great King’s memory was, and is, justly honoured in England, as their deliverer from slavery, civil and religious, and is almost canonized by the Protestants of Ireland, whom he rescued from subjugation, and elevated to supremacy. But in Scotland, his services to church and state, though at least equal to those which he rendered to the sister countries, were in a considerable degree obliterated by the infringement other national rights, on several occasions. Many persons, as well as your grand-father, may recollect, that on the 5th of November, 1788, when a full century had elapsed after the Revolution, some friends to constitutional liberty proposed that the return of the day should be solemnized by an agreement to erect a monument to the memory of King William, and the services which he had rendered to the British kingdoms. At this period an anonymous letter appeared in one of the Edinburgh newspapers, ironically applauding the undertaking, and proposing as two subjects of the entablature, for the base of the projected column, the massacre of Glencoe, and the distresses of the Scottish colonists at Darien. The proposal was abandoned as soon as this insinuation was made public. You may observe from this how cautious a monarch should be of committing wrong or injustice, however strongly recommended by what may seem political necessity; since the recollection of such actions cancels the sense of the most important national services, as in Scripture it is said, “that a dead fly will pollute a rich and costly unguent.”

James II. died only four months before his son-in-law William. The King of France proclaimed James’s son, that unfortunate Prince of Wales, born in the very storm of the Revolution, as William’s successor in the kingdoms of England, Scotland, and Ireland; a step which greatly irritated the three nations, to whom Louis seemed by this act disposed to nominate a sovereign. Anne, the sister of the late Queen Mary, ascended the throne of these kingdoms, according to the provision made at the Revolution by the legislature of both nations.


Last updated Wednesday, March 5, 2014 at 22:29