I’ve really enjoyed reading Caledonia’s Last Stand: In search of the lost Scots of Darien, by Nat Edwards. I’ve mentioned the story of the Darien Scheme before in this blog. The disasterous attempt to form a Scottish colony in the late 17th and early 18th centuries lead indirectly to the Act of Union of 1707, so I expect that we’ll hear more about it in the coming months leading up to the Scottish Referendum. At the time, many in Scotland held the English responsible for the Darien failure, and John Prebble continued with this fallacious assumption. Some people still blame the English for this and other failures, which is a pity.
As Wikipedia points out: “Although the scheme failed, it has been seen as marking the beginning of the country’s transformation into a modern nation oriented toward business. Within a generation, Scotland had one of the most advanced commercial cultures in the world.” The Union had a lot to do with this.
The expedition was doomed once the hostile environment of Darien was choosen as the location for the settlement. It is still, today, a very difficult part of the world in which to survive unless you have particular skills and local knowledge. Nat Edwards found a couple of days on the coast there absolutely exhausting, and three hundred years ago the Scots would-be settlers started to drop as soon as they had landed. Added to that, the Spanish further south did not look kindly on what they saw as an invasion of their area of interest, and they attacked those settlers who had survived the first few months.
I enjoyed the book because of Edward’s entertaining and sometimes amusing writing style, especially when describing his own visits to Darien. He also drops a few unexpected snippets of information into the text – for example, that Theodore Roosevelt was directly descended from a minister in the second set of Darien settlers (see also page 6 of Theodore Roosevelt: A Biography); that several of the officers and soldiers in the expedition, the best known being Thomas Drummond, were notorious for their involvement in the Massacre of Glencoe; and that the Company of Scotland’s secretary, Roderick MacKenzie, was so anti-English that his actions lead to the hanging of three completely innocent English sailors who had docked their ship at Leith.
At the time that he wrote the book, Edwards worked for the National Library of Scotland. Funnily enough, one of my first jobs was in the Darien Building, when Heriot-Watt University Library was based in the centre of Edinburgh.