Friday, July 12, 2013

The Darien Venture: Today in Scottish History

Ships in the Port of Leith near Edinburgh, 1698

Today marks the 315th anniversary of the launch of the Darien Venture (aka the Darien Scheme), Scotland's monumental disaster born out of a last ditch attempt to save a dying nation . In 1698 England was at war with all of the countries Scotland traded with- blockading the harbors and drying up the much needed supply and demand for Scottish goods. Two bad summers had ruined crops, beggars ate grass, the people were starving. The nation was at its lowest ebb. With a quarter of Scotland’s money circulation invested in the venture, the mission to Darien wasn’t just a get rich quick scheme, not only a last chance for the struggling nation- it was the ultimate ‘Hail Mary’ pass in Scottish history.

Three ships sat in Leith harbour near Edinburgh, and two more anchored off Kirkcaldy-The Unicorn, St Andrew, Caledonia, Endeavour and The Dolphin were the hope of the nation to carve a new trade route to China. 2500 passengers, soldiers and crew awaited the lifting of the anchors...but where were they headed?

It's difficult to believe, but at the time, no one knew the actual destination of the venture; the money had essentially been invested blindly. Because of the fear of English interference the entire plan had been orchestrated with the utmost secrecy concerning the details and actual destination.The Scots who invested in the venture were throwing their passionate support behind the country they loved with no knowledge of the most important details.  Only when Captain Pennecuick reached Madeira and ensured that he was free of English contact was he to formally open the orders to learn the fleet's ultimate destination. They were headed to the Isthmus of  Darien, Panama to establish an overland trade "short cut" with the Eastern world that would replace the hazardous journey around the tip of Cape Horn. 

When I began writing Opportunities: Jamie Leith in Darién I lived in a small cramped space near what was once the bustling Port of Leith.  I walked daily by the Water of Leith, and I imagined it as it must have been in 1698 with the ships of the Darien Venture at anchor in the harbor preparing for the journey. It wasnt long before I was also imagining it through the eyes of an adventurous street urchin and Jamie Leith was born:

In contrast to the quiet streets of the town, the dock was even more crowded than usual. Dockers and ship’s crew milled around on the quayside like partners in some unorganized dance. The difference today was the crowd of passengers, mostly men, who were standing in orderly queues, waiting to be boarded. In comparison to the dock officials, the passengers were a pathetic sight, soaked to the skin from the recent rain. The men who had donned hats for the heavy shower, had removed them, but the women’s bonnets drooped dejectedly. Their baggage lay waterlogged in puddles at their feet. 

“Looks like the Expedition ships are finally getting ready tae sail.” Jamie ambled closer. 

“It’s about time.” Gordon nibbled at the hard apple core. “They’ve been loading them for weeks!” 

Activity increased as they neared the quayside; harbour officials strutted and postured. Orders from both the docks and aboard ship were barked across the morning. “They’ll leave on tonight’s tide, maybe tomorrow’s.” Jamie threw his apple core high into the air, landing in the brown chocolate suspension that was Leith harbour. Twice a day the tide flushed away the stinking mess, but the Water of Leith, while rising clear and clean in the Pentland hills, also passed through Edinburgh. The capital’s sewer then ran down to Leith. 

“Almost like an adventure,” Gordon said. “Not knowing where they’re going.” 

“Best kept secret in town.”
                                                      ~from Opportunities: Jamie Leith in Darién chapter 1 by Ian Hall

The ships separated in bad fog, just days after sailing from Leith. To avoid contact with the English spy ships in the Channel, they had sailed north from Leith, round the northerly tip of Scotland, and round Ireland. Miraculously, they re-united again in Madeira, over five weeks later.

The volunteer colonists, some of whom had paid for their inclusion in the venture, had no idea what they’d signed up for. A seven month monsoon season, food rationing, bad leadership, Spanish attacks, and diseases that would ultimately wipe them out at the rate of ten per day.

Of the almost 4000 who embarked on the three missions to Panama, only 100 returned to Scotland. But on this day in July 315 years ago, their hopes were high, their resolve untested and unbroken, their casualties none.  The Darien Venture was the hope of Scotland. It’s a shame that the reality would prove so severe.


  1. Been researching this fascinating adventure for the best part of a year. I read that three Englishmen were caught on the ships at leith on the eve of the voyage, taken to Edinburgh and hanged as Pirates.
    Can anyone confirm this?


  2. It is with a heavy heart that I have read of the legacy wrought
    by this venture. Yet I am touched so deeply because, you see, I am married to the descendant of one of the survivors! My husband is a direct descendant of James Christie. James chose to stay in New England when the Caledonia stopped there in 1699. He is also related to Le roux and Demarest as well as many other early settlers. Take heart that the survivors and their descendants helped to build a nation. Many of whom fought in our War of Independence. We owe so much to the nation of Scotland.
    Long before the Englishman John Locke wrote of democracy, a Scot named Buchanan from Stirlingshire had espoused these radical ideas. Ideas that were to studied by our founding fathers
    and now form the basis for the longest lasting modern democracy. To the people of Scotland I thank you with all my heart.


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