The History of Leith

October 29, 2007

The Darien Scheme

The story of the creation of a Scottish colony the Isthmus of Darien in Central America.

As the 17th century drew to a close despite the Union of the Crowns Scotland was still denied access to England’s colonies in North America and the Far East. Not only this England was at war with France and this was ruining Scotland’s trade with Continent. There was also a feeling in Scots for new horizons after decades of religious war and civil war and out of this was born “The Company of Scotland Trading to Africa and Indies which was underwritten by Act of Parliament in 1695. However it was only due to the widespread anger in Scotland that William gave it Royal approval because it was found impossible to raise capital in London or elsewhere for that matter due to English interference and the influence of the East India Company. England did not want competition from Scotland in the founding of Colonies overseas.

From this came the plan to plant a Scottish colony in the Isthmus of Darien in Central America and the author of this incredible plan was William Paterson (he also founded the Bank of England). Coming from Dumfriesshire he made a fortune in the West Indies. The idea being that the Isthmus was the short cut from Asia to Europe cutting out the route around Africa. In terms of the period it was nonsense as it was only in the 20th century with the building of the Panama Canal did it become possible to make the connection with the Pacific and Caribbean furthermore the Isthmus was in the hands of the Spanish who used the Isthmus to transport Gold and Silver from Peru to Spain. Far from being a paradise Darien was fever ridden with Yellow fever and Malaria but this was only discovered later. Also the Scots were in a an area which would have could have caused a resumption of a European War and so the Governors of English Colonies in the Caribbean were instructed not to help the Scots in any way.

And so on a fine day in July 1698 the whole population of Edinburgh and Leith poured down to the pier and Sands of Leith to see five ships, which had been built in Hamburg and Amsterdam for the expedition weigh anchor in Leith and to a loud cheer the vessels hoisted sail and made their way down the Forth. Within a year a further four ships were sent. Only one returned.

Blame for the failure was laid squarely on the English and so when a Leith Ship “The Speedy Return” failed to return and an English ship “The Worcester” had entered the Port due to bad weather. The Captain and crew were accused of murdering the crew of the “Speedy Return” and so without any proof Captain Green and two of his crew were hanged for piracy. Needless to say the “Speedy Return” eventually returned to Leith.

Later by the Act of Union with England the investors in the Darien Scheme were repaid with interest. Not only this by the end of the 18th century Scotsmen done very well out of the East India Company.

This was also the time of the “Searchers” in Leith. A Searcher was an Elder of the Church and if a person was not in Church on a Sunday then the searcher could arrest the person and in the Church records of South Leith Church can be found the following;

“28th November 1700-Wiliam Wilson and John Web searched afternoon and reported that they saw some livery men about Robert Herdman’s door and two coachmen wt ye coaches and horses who said they came down with ye Earl of Annandale, Lord Roxburgh and Lord Strathallan, who were in Robert Herdman’s house. The session considering that Robert Herdman had been several tymes referred to ye magistrates for the like guilt but nothing could be gotten done anent him the session refers the affair to the presbitry for advice.”

The Earl of Annandale was a leading opponent to the Act of Union. Whereas his friend Lord Roxburgh was a supporter and was Secretary of State for Scotland in 1707. In 1715 he served under the Duke of Argyle in quelling the Jacobite rebellion. Lord Strathallan was a member of the leading covenanting family and whose mother was the daughter of Sir Archibald Johnston of Warriston who was executed by Charles II in 1661.

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