‘New Caledonia’ and mythmaking in the Darien Scheme

Dr Alasdair Macfarlane shares his insights from a recent research trip to the Spencer Collection at the University of Glasgow. Here he explores how the print and manuscript material in the collection sheds further light on the relationship between the Cuna people of Darien and the Scottish settlers in the promotional literature surrounding the Darien Scheme.


My project in the Spencer Collection at the University of Glasgow was largely concerned with primary print and manuscript materials relating to the ‘Darien Scheme’.

The Darien Scheme was orchestrated by the Company of Scotland Trading to Africa and the Indies (1695-1707) in the late seventeenth-century and involved the attempted establishment of a Scottish settlement and trade emporium dubbed ‘New Caledonia’ upon the Isthmus of Darien in Central America (1698-1700). While the effort proved abortive, the Scheme and its collapse has long been the focus of political and economic historians for its assumed role as a catalyst for the Union of Scotland and England in 1706/7.

Darien image 1
Sp Coll Spencer e1: ‘Carte particuliere de Isthmus, ou Darien’ (Amsterdam: Pierre Mortier). Image produced by the permission of the University of Glasgow Library, Special Collections.

More recent scholarship on the Scheme, such as Julie Orr’s Scotland, Darien and the Atlantic World (2018) has highlighted the significance of the natives of Darien, the Cuna people, as interlocutors between the rival European factions that operated in the South Seas and Caribbean. As Glasgow’s Spencer Collection holds a multiplicity of rare and original materials relating to the Scheme, many of which are outside digital circulation, I hoped to learn more of the relationship between the native peoples of Darien and the Scottish settlers, and gain a clearer sense of their significance in the short but intense period of promotional publications from the Scheme’s launch to its collapse.

One of the real strengths of the Spencer Collection is that you get a sense of the intertextual layers to the story of Darien as it was reported in Scotland. Looking at the journal of Robert Pennycook, the leader of the small fleet that departed Scotland’s shores and landed at Darien in late 1698, and its description of the first meetings with the local Cuna people, it becomes clear how familiar the Cuna had become with European encounters. The local leader ‘Captain Andreas’, on meeting the Scots is said to have ‘run in the praise of Captain Swan and Capt Davies two English Privateers, who he said were his particular friends, and whom he knew in the South Sea’ (Ms Gen 1681). Four Frenchmen are also said to have lived in the region for the last four years, and of course the garrisons of Panama, Cartagena, and Portobello were an ever-present reminder of Spanish prerogative claims over both coasts of the Isthmus.

Mythmaking around the early landings of Europeans on American shores has long been a necessary feature to their domestic promotion, and Darien was no exception (Mary Fuller, Remembering the Early Modern Voyage, 2008, p. 130). The express which was published in the March 23rd-27th (1699) edition of the Edinburgh Gazette with the arrival of Pennycook’s first dispatches back in Scotland describes the Scots landing at the invitation of the native peoples, the land itself never having been ‘possessed by any European Nation’. Moreover, the Cuna are described as resigning their own plantations and taking commissions from the colony’s council (Sp Coll Spencer f8). Poetic works followed, attributing to providence the hand of the tiller which guided the Company’s ships to the salutation of Darien’s ‘Fertile Fields and Golden Mountains’ (Sp Coll Spencer f52: Caledonia Triumphans).

Darien image 2
Sp Coll Spencer f15: ‘Advertisement. Edinburgh, the 9th of July 1696’. Image produced by the permission of the University of Glasgow Library, Special Collections.

I was already familiar with many aspects of this narrative from my PhD research, but I had underestimated how important these first reports were in defining the printed apologetics for the Darien Scheme in Scotland.

In successive speeches, pamphlets, and apologia scattered throughout the Collection, this first encounter appears to have been choreographed in print to counter the remonstrance of the Spanish crown to a Scottish settlement in Central America, by asserting the sovereignty of the native people over the Isthmus (Sp Coll Spencer 46). The history of armed conflicts between the natives of Darien and the Spanish authorities were similarly repeated to contest any notion of Spanish claims to the site of the Scottish colony, having been established through the ‘full and free Consent of the Natives’ in possession (Sp Coll Spencer 36; Sp Coll Spencer 49; Sp Coll Spencer Mu15-b.15). The most intriguing example of this assertion appears in the repeated citation of buccaneer authors such as Basil Ringrose, William Dampier, Bartholomew Sharpe, and Lionel Wafer, within the Company of Scotland’s arguments. These ‘English [and Welsh] travellers’ had crossed the Isthmus of Darien in the 1680s to harass Spanish settlements, including Panama, under the auspices of ‘letters of marque’ issued by the ‘Emperor of Darien’ (Sp Coll Spencer 65; Sp Coll Mu15-b.15). The Company attempted to argue that as the buccaneers had claimed to have been acting under legitimate warrants issued by a sovereign power, and were not convicted of piracy in the English courts on their return to Britain, the sovereignty of the Darien natives over the Isthmus had already been established in England (Macfarlane, 2020).

It is fascinating to see the relationship between the Cuna and earlier generations of English buccaneers referenced in Pennycook’s journal, and the citation of the buccaneers’ own travel accounts in popular contemporary circulation, positioned at the heart of the Company of Scotland’s promotional narrative around the Darien Scheme.

The contrast between the printed vision of ‘New Caledonia’ as it was understood and promoted in Scotland, and the hardships and deprivation which led to the Darien colony being abandoned by the first wave of settlers in mid-1699, and surrendered to the Spanish by the second wave in early 1700, has led a lot of the scholarship on the Scheme. And the Spencer Collection is not short of materials that illustrate this point (Sp Coll Spencer Add q2). Yet, when seen collected together, far less work appears to have been done on how much of the textual representation and arguments around the Scheme gained a self-perpetuating momentum once the news of the landing was made public. There is an intense internal referentiality between the materials promoting the Scheme and the Company in Scotland. Layer on layer, these materials create a sense of corroborative contemporaneity to their arguments, even as they appear to shape information to a predetermined framework around the legitimacy and viability of the Scheme.

The support of the Hakluyt Society Research Grant has given me the opportunity to explore a far wider range of primary materials around the Darien Scheme than I could have predicted. Much of the information about Darien and the settlement of New Caledonia published in Scotland appears to have been in some sense transformed or adapted to an anticipated narrative. It is clear there is an under-developed area of research around the control and transformation of information from and about the Darien settlement, especially as it relates to contemporary notions of national and native sovereignty.  Thanks to the Society’s support, I intend to pursue this further in my upcoming fellowship with the Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities at the University of Edinburgh later this year.

Sp Coll Ms Gen 1681: Pennycook’s Journal, 2 Sept – 28 Decb, 1698.
Sp Coll Spencer 36: A Speech in Parliament on the 10th day of January 1701, by the Lord Belhaven (Edinburgh, 1701).
Sp Coll Spencer 46: The History of Caledonia: or, the Scots Colony in Darien (London: John Nutt, 1699).
Sp Coll Spencer 49: A Just and Modest Vindication of the Scots Design (1699).
Sp Coll Spencer 65: Scotland’s Right to Caledonia (1700).
Sp Coll Spencer Add q2: ‘Darien Letters’.
Sp Coll Spencer f8: The Edinburgh Gazette (Edinburgh, 1699-)
Sp Coll Spencer f52: Alexander Pennecuik, Caledonia Triumphans (Edinburgh: Heirs to Andrew Anderson, 1699).
Sp Coll Mu15-b.15: A Defence of the Scots Settlement at Darien (1699)
Fuller. Mary, Remembering the Early Modern Voyage (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008).
Macfarlane. C. Alasdair, ‘Pirates and Publicity: The Making and Unmaking of Early Modern Pirates in English and Scottish Popular Print’, Humanities 9:1, (2020). https://doi.org/10.3390/h9010014
Orr. Julie, Scotland, Darien and the Atlantic World (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2018)

Dr C. Alasdair Macfarlane is a postdoctoral researcher based in Glasgow with interdisciplinary interests in travel writing, travel hoaxes, questions of credible representation in seventeenth-century print, and Scottish colonial rhetoric.

Following his Hakluyt Society-funded research into the Spencer Collection, he was awarded a Daiches-Manning Fellowship in 18th Century Scottish Studies with IASH at the University of Edinburgh to continue his work on the materials surrounding the promotion of the Scottish colony of ‘New Caledonia’ on the Isthmus of Panama. Although currently unaffiliated, his present projects concern the development of news and correspondence networks in late seventeenth-century Scotland and the Atlantic maritime world, and their utility in the promotion of maritime enterprise.