July 14, 2022

The Darien Scheme

The Darien Scheme

July 14, 1698. An ambitious plan by Scotland to found a colony in Panama goes disastrously wrong.


Cold Open

It’s July 14th, 1698, in the port of Leith, just north of Edinburgh, the capital of Scotland.

A longboat cuts through the sea on its way to meet a fleet of five large ships lying at anchor offshore. Wedged into the benches onboard are several dozen men, among them a 40-year-old soldier named Thomas Drummond. He grips a sack filled with his few possessions and looks back at the shoreline. He doesn’t expect to see Scotland again in his lifetime.

Drummond is part of an expedition of more than a thousand men, women, and children about to leave Scotland and set up the country’s first colony abroad. The voyage will be long and dangerous. And everyone in the longboat knows that not all in their party will survive. But to them, the potential riches waiting for them are worth the risk.

Soon, the longboat bumps alongside one of the large ships. It’s brand new, her bows freshly painted in gold, scarlet and blue. Drummond grabs a rope ladder… and clambers up the side.

The ship’s deck is alive with activity. Sailors stow supplies and prepare sails, as officers march about, barking orders to men crawling through the rigging high above.

Drummond hefts his bag onto his shoulder and strides toward the hatch that leads to the lower decks. It’s time to find his berth, his home for the long, and dangerous journey ahead. But though Drummond is abandoning all he’s ever known, the fleet now leaving Edinburgh carries the hopes of all Scotland.

The five ships that set sail this day are part of a national endeavor known as the Darien Scheme; a plan to establish a Scottish Empire overseas. It promises to make the country - and all who invest in the enterprise - very wealthy. And thousands of Scots have poured their money in.

But the Darien Scheme will go disastrously wrong. It will lead to the deaths of hundreds of people and become a national humiliation that will nearly bankrupt Scotland; a dark ending to a journey that began when five ships left Edinburgh for the New World, with the cheers of the nation behind them, on July 14th, 1698.


From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.

History is made every day. On this podcast—every day—we tell the true stories of the people and events that shaped our world.

Today is July 14th, 1698: The Darien Scheme.

Act One: Hope

It’s July 23rd, 1696, almost two years before Thomas Drummond and the fleet of Scottish ships set off from Leith.

In a grand and echoing room in Edinburgh, a 38-year-old banker named William Paterson addresses the committee that will decide where Scotland will build its first colony overseas.

Paterson has come to Edinburgh to convince the committee members that it should be at Darien, in Panama; a narrow strip of land in Central America that separates the Caribbean Sea from the Pacific Ocean. Paterson hasn’t been there himself, but because of its geographic location, he believes it’s the perfect place to set up a trading post.

And these are hard times for Scotland. Harvests have failed for seven years in a row. Landowners are losing money. The poor are going hungry. There are many who believe the answer to Scotland's problems lies in giving up its independence.

Because in the late 17th century, England and Scotland are separate countries. Still, they share a king. Many, on both sides of the border, are pushing for a closer bond; a political union that would make England and Scotland one country.

But the Scottish Government is opposed to the idea. It has a plan to secure Scotland’s future as an independent nation. They’ve seen the riches that other European powers have made from colonization. And they dream of creating a flourishing Scottish Empire, one that will save Scotland from destitution.

The idea has captured the imagination of the whole country. In a patriotic fervor, thousands have invested their money. Around a third of Scotland’s wealth has been sunk into this new colonial scheme.

But the question remains where to build their first colony.

William Paterson has come to this committee meeting armed with a vast collection of papers, maps, and charts, which he distributes to the men as he addresses the room. The papers speak of Darien’s lush valleys, fertile soils, beautiful turquoise seas, and crystal sands; a paradise very different from the gray skies of Edinburgh.

But these are hard-headed businessmen; what really gets their attention is money. And as Paterson puts it, a merchant colony at Darien would be “the door of the seas, the key of the universe”. In his seductive vision, the colony would act as a bridge between the Atlantic and the Pacific, linking trade between the two halves of the world; and making a handsome profit all the while.

At the end of the meeting, the committee asks Paterson if they can keep the papers he’s brought for further review. And Paterson smiles, of course, they can. He leaves the room confident he’s won the committee over. There’s little doubt in his mind: the Scots are going to Panama.


It’s November 2nd, 1698.

More than two years have passed since the committee chose Darien as the site of Scotland’s first overseas colony, and at last, the Scottish fleet has arrived in Panama.

The soldier, Thomas Drummond, stands on the deck of his ship. His face is pink and his skin glistens with sweat in the tropical heat. Exhausted from the long voyage, he looks out over the side of the ship and sees a long, natural harbor lies ahead. To the north, a steep and tree-covered peninsula offers protection from the ocean winds, and to the south is the mainland. Mangroves cling to the shoreline. And beyond, mist shrouds a thick jungle and a wall of mountains rise toward the sky, the slopes shimmering dark blue and green in the hazy heat of the morning.

This is the place the Scottish colonists will call New Caledonia.

The journey here hasn’t been easy. There have been constant quarrels between the captains of each ship, and between the sailors and the colonists. The weather has been against them too - at times, the wind completely died, and left the fleet unmoving for days; at others, the ships were tossed about, at the mercy of violent storms.

But the worst of all of it has been the disease. Dozens of passengers and crew have died on the crossing, mostly from a vomiting sickness that could take a healthy man to his deathbed in a matter of hours. The sailors scrubbed the decks daily with vinegar to try to ward off the disease. But they couldn’t stop the sickness from spreading. Even now, with the journey’s end in sight, there are several lying ill in their hammocks below deck. Drummond suspects they’ll only go ashore to be buried.

But Drummond takes some comfort in the fact that, at long last, they have arrived. Now the work of building Scotland’s new Empire can begin.

But all the engineers are either dead or on the verge of it, so Drummond is put in charge of construction. Still, the colonists are weak from their long voyage and rations are running low. The suffocating heat saps what strength they have. It’s also the rainy season and no sooner do the colonists dig foundations than they are washed away in the endless downpours.

The unflinching Drummond toils in the wet earth beside his men, working day and night to carve order out of the jungle. He knows that if the colony is to survive, they must build not only a town, but fortifications to protect it as well.

The powerful Spanish Empire claims these lands. They will not be happy when they find out about the arrival of the Scots. Drummond knows that the time will come when the colonists will have to defend their new home or die trying.

Act Two: Disaster

It’s June 6th, 1699, almost a year after the Scottish expedition left Edinburgh bound for Darien.

In the Scots ramshackle colony, the soldier, Thomas Drummond, leads a pack of men through the muddy streets.

The town is in chaos. The colonists are rushing to pack up, hauling their meager possessions through the mud, down toward the beach. There, longboats wait to carry them to ships at anchor in the bay. On the shore, the colonists bicker and fight over who should go first. Drummond ignores them and leads his men toward the fort they’ve built further along the beach.

Terrible news has just reached the colony and causing panic. A new Spanish Governor has arrived in the region, and he’s preparing a fleet of ships, and a mighty force of men, to destroy the Scottish settlement.

It’s the latest in a string of misfortunes.

In the seven months that Scots have been here, they’ve struck up a friendship with a local Indigenous tribe, but that’s more or less been their only achievement.

The fertile earth they expected to find was nothing of the sort and they’ve been unable to grow any crops. Nor have they been able to establish trade routes. England and Scotland may share a king, but their interests often differ, and the English Government has issued a proclamation, banning its citizens from helping the Scottish settlers.

The ban has had a chilling effect. No one wants to do business with the Scots.

And all this leaves the cemetery, the fastest-growing part of the new settlement. Malaria and Yellow Fever are rife. Sometimes colonists dig a dozen graves in a day. Sick, exhausted, and malnourished, the survivors have no hope of repelling a Spanish attack. And left with no choices, the Scots are abandoning the colony.

But Drummond is determined that they won’t leave their guns behind. They’ll need them to defend their ships on the journey home. So, he leads a pack of men to the fort.

It took months of work to build it, but today, Drummond orders his men to rip the building apart so they can remove the thirty cannons mounted on its walls. Next, they drag them along the beach, where Drummond takes charge of the bickering colonists and sees that the cannons are transported out to the ships in the bay.

A few days later, almost one year after the first fleet set off from Scotland, the colonists abandon New Caledonia.

When the Spanish arrive, they find the harbor deserted. They burn down the huts and tear down what’s left of the fort to the ground before leaving.

But news travels slowly in this age. It’s many weeks before the government in Scotland learns of what’s happened. Word of the disaster won’t arrive soon enough to stop a second fleet of ships heading to New Caledonia.


It’s early February 1700; more than six months since Thomas Drummond and the other Scottish colonists abandoned Darien.

But today, Drummond is back in the colony. And he’s under arrest.

He sits, slumped on the deck in a tiny, locked cabin on board the Duke of Hamilton, one of the ships in the second fleet sent from Scotland. The room is hot and airless, and Drummond is feverish.

The second fleet arrived two months ago. Those on board its four ships were horrified at what they found. They’d expected to see a flourishing colony with sturdy homes, warehouses, and docks. Instead, they were greeted by a ruined fort, and only burnt stumps poking out of the swamp where once the town once. The only person about was Thomas Drummond.

Drummond didn’t flee with the rest of the first wave of colonists. He thought retreating from New Caledonia without a fight was humiliating; not only for himself but for Scotland. He knew the Scottish government was sending a second expedition. So Drummond decided to return to Darien to help finish what he started.

He borrowed a small ship and manned it with Scottish volunteers, the healthiest and strongest survivors from Darien, who shared his sense of shame at their failure. And once he had his crew assembled, and his provisions stocked, Drummond set off south for Panama once again. He reached New Caledonia just a few days before the arrival of the second fleet from Scotland. And soon as he saw the flagship on the horizon, Drummond donned his faded and patched Scottish uniform and rowed out to greet the newcomers.

With his experience, he expected to be welcomed and asked to join the council of senior men. But instead, he bore the brunt of their disappointment at what they found in New Caledonia. The leader of the second expedition, a merchant named James Byres, took a particular dislike to Drummond. He accused the soldier of deserting his post and refused any advice he had to give.

And after a few weeks of bickering, Byres ordered Drummond to be arrested. The soldier was locked away on board one of the ships. And there he fell ill with a persistent fever. For weeks, he wasn’t allowed out of the cabin. And through a tiny porthole, Drummond has watched as Byres’ men blundered into the same mistakes as the first expedition – falling sick and starving as they struggled to build huts and defenses.

Now, with his fever is finally relenting, Drummond listens as two crewmen on the deck above complain about the hellish place they’ve come to. They moan about the lack of food, the heat, and the constant rain – but most of all they curse the name of James Byres. The leader of the expedition has taken one of their fastest ships and fled. 

Both of the crewmen know why. A large fleet of Spanish warships has been spotted off the coast. The enemy is coming. And soon, the Spanish will arrive to destroy the colony of New Caledonia a second time, and with it, the hopes of the people of Scotland.

Act Three: Surrender

It’s March 31st, 1700, less than two years have passed since the first Scots left Edinburgh for Darien.

Now, in New Caledonia, the last bedraggled leaders of the expedition limp through the pouring rain toward a long line of armed Spanish soldiers. The time has come to sign the colony’s surrender.

The Scots had no choice. In early March, the Spanish landed their forces a few miles south. Then they hacked their way through the jungle to attack the Scottish colony. After a brief skirmish, they seized the town. The few hundred remaining Scots retreated to the fort at the tip of the peninsula. But the colonists were weak, sick, and starving; in no condition to fight back.

So when the Spaniards offered terms of surrender, Scots accepted. It’s a deal that the proud soldier Thomas Drummond would have rejected. But he wasn’t there to oppose it.

After James Byres, the leader of the second expedition, fled in the face of the Spanish attack, Drummond was released from the cabin where he’d been imprisoned. But he was disillusioned with the whole project and he decided to leave Caledonia for good. But after he left, just like the first time, he had a change of heart. So he secured a ship full of provisions and men and set sail for Darien again.

But Drummond arrives too late. He lands at Darien on April 1st, just in time to see the Scottish colonists surrender the fort. The Spaniards grant them two weeks to prepare their ships and leave Darien for good.

On April 12th, 1700, the last citizens of New Caledonia, including Thomas Drummond, set sail for home.

The Darien Scheme will be called the greatest disaster in Scottish history. More than 2000 men, women, and children set off on the two expeditions but only a few hundred survive. Around a third of Scotland's wealth was sunk in the project, and nearly every trace of New Caledonia is reclaimed by the jungle. Over time, it disappears into the vines and mud.

The failure of the scheme, and its ruinous cost, will bring about the end of Scotland as an independent nation. Within less than a decade, Scotland will join England to form the Kingdom of Great Britain. Many Scots will go on to play key roles in the British Empire that will spread across the world in the centuries to come; an ironic outcome that might never have come to pass without the disastrous and costly Darien Scheme, an attempted Scottish colonialism, that was set into motion on this day, July 14th, 1698.


Next onHistory Daily. July 15th, 1815. After suffering a crushing defeat at the Battle of Waterloo, Napoleon Bonaparte surrenders to the British.

From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.

Audio editing and sound design by Mollie Baack.

Music by Lindsay Graham.

This episode is written and researched by William Simpson.

Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship, and Pascal Hughes for Noiser.