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The Darien Disaster: a Scots Colony in the New World, 1698 - 1700

The Darien Disaster: a Scots Colony in the New World, 1698 - 1700

John Prebble


An excellent history of Scotland's attempt to found a colonial empire in the wake of the Spanish, French, and English – and the determined attempts by all three to frustrate this.

The story is impossible to tell without also telling the domestic Sottish and English political history of the time – not least because the two were largely distinct despite the Union of the Crowns. Indeed, the fact that a single king is required to adjudicate the claims of two sets of subjects with different interests is part of the making of the disaster: the English commercial elite are determined not to allow independent Scottish engagement in international trade. The king has to choose a side, and chooses England (while trying to argue to the Scots that he isn't). This sets the scene both for Scotland to go it alone under considerable restrictions, and for England (and later Spain) to try to crush them.

It was a venture that from the modern viewpoint seems entirely doomed, and not only because literally no-one involved in promoting had ever even visited Darien, and because the leaders never developed a clear idea of who was in charge or what they were to regard as success. The alleged commercial benefits were entirely speculative and based on hearsay; the climate was unwelcoming; and the ability to claim the land legally completely at odds with the realities on the ground, which the Spanish could enforce (although they did so rather ineffectually: one has to suspect because they knew there were no riches to be had). Most of the colonists died, from the journey or from disease rather than from enemy action, and also from abandonment by their leaders.

It's a book that lacks a certain spark for the reader, and sometimes comes across as too dense. That's a shame, because Prebble has a good eye for personal foibles that illuminate character, and a very sure touch in explaining the society of the late seventeenth century, which is a period that lies neglected before the better-known Enlightenment and Jacobite eras.

4/5. Finished 15 October 2022.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

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