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Reference group
Darien investors and colonists (act. 1695–1707) comprised almost 1500 Scots who between February and August 1696 subscribed to the recently established Company of Scotland trading to Africa and the Indies, and those who, from July 1698, left Scotland to establish what became the company's colony of New Caledonia at Darien on the isthmus of Panama in Central America.

The Company of Scotland and its investors, 1695–8

The company—now often referred to as the Darien Company—was conceived as a joint-stock company to trade between Scotland, Africa, the Americas, and India. Its formation represented the culmination of almost a century of imperial ambition in Scotland. Edinburgh merchants had long campaigned to open up African trade to Scotland, and had pushed hard to secure the Act for Encouraging Foreign Trade in 1693. Their ambitions were aligned neatly with would-be investors in England, who were anxious to challenge the monopolies of both the East India Company and the Royal African Company. Emboldened by the support of promoters in London—among them the banking projector William Paterson, often regarded as its founder—the company was established by an act of the Scottish parliament on 25 June 1695, but without the prior knowledge or consent of William III.

Aware that the company required considerable finance, the promoters planned to raise £600,000 sterling by opening two subscription books: one in London and one in Edinburgh. In November 1695, only a fortnight after the London book opened, the full £300,000 had been committed there. For all the apparent enthusiasm in the English capital, the Scottish company faced powerful opposition from the East India Company (the value of whose stock fell when the London book opened) and from members of the House of Lords who addressed the king on 12 December. Their combined influence, and the king's growing opposition, resulted in the abandonment of the London book in January 1696 and a warning from the Commons of possible impeachment for the company's promoters.

The response of William and his parliament to the company's plans sparked outrage in Scotland. Many Scots felt they had been betrayed by their king who, they believed, had shown a marked and unconstitutional preference for his English subjects. The Company of Scotland was thus transformed from an essentially mercantile venture into a national concern. With financial resources in England now denied the company, plans were made to increase the amount to be raised in Scotland to £400,000 by opening two subscription books in early 1696—in Edinburgh on 26 February and in Glasgow on 5 March. The campaign was led by Paterson and his London associates Daniel Lodge and James Smyth. When the books closed on 1 August the entire £400,000 had been subscribed.

The investors, as a group, defy easy definition. Among the most prominent of the early subscribers were aristocratic women. Anne Hamilton, suo jure duchess of Hamilton, was the first person to sign the Edinburgh book, in which she invested £3000, and was immediately followed by four more high-born women—including Margaret, countess of Rothes (d. 1700), and Lady Margaret Hope of Hopetoun—who between them subscribed £6000. By the time the books closed another eighty-five women had invested £21,000 in the scheme (a full list appears in Watt, 272–4) . Notable among the early male investors were merchants, many from Edinburgh, and many long-standing promoters of Scottish imperial trade. Responsible for some of the largest investments, they included the city's lord provost, Sir Robert Chiesly, who, as the first man to sign, subscribed £2000, and the merchant Robert Blackwood, who pledged £3000, with many others, like Sir Hugh Cunningham, investing smaller sums down to the minimum of £100. Chiesly and Blackwood were among the company's original promoters named in the act of parliament of 1695; promoters who signed on the first day included John Hamilton, second Lord Belhaven, and the lairds Adam Cockburn of Ormiston and Sir John Swinton of that ilk. John Maitland, fifth earl of Lauderdale, was another noble investor who signed in person on the first day, while early pledges were also made by the company's future directors, including George Baillie of Jerviswood. By the end of 26 February £50,400 had been promised, with Edinburgh's busiest day coming on 31 March when 147 individuals subscribed. In Glasgow the first investment was made on 5 March by the provost, John Anderson, who offered £3000 for the burgh, followed by the principal of Glasgow University, William Dunlop, who pledged £1000 for himself (and the same amount for his kinsman, John Dunlop of that ilk) and who later took out a subscription in the Edinburgh book. Like a number of the investors, Dunlop had already displayed a strong interest in empire, in his case as chaplain to the Stuart's Town settlement in the short-lived Scottish colony in South Carolina in the 1680s. Another of the investors, Patrick Hume, first earl of Marchmont, had also been a promoter of the Carolina scheme, which suggests that a long-standing commitment to empire was not confined to the merchant class.

Individuals from Glasgow and Edinburgh were disproportionately represented in the books, but others from outside the main cities either travelled to subscribe themselves or empowered deputies to act for them. Investors were not limited to landowners, merchants, or local politicians but also included physicians, army officers, and craftsmen from across the country. A wide range of organizations from the Easter Sugary in Glasgow (£3000) to the Faculty of Advocates (£1000) also supported the company, as did the civic authorities in Edinburgh and Glasgow—which committed £3000 apiece—and the towns and burghs of Dumfries and Ayr in the south-west, Selkirk in the borders, Cupar and St Andrews on the east coast, Perth and Stirling in central Scotland, and Inverness in the highlands, which variously offered between £100 and £2000 (Watt, 269–70). By association, Scots of all ranks were thus embarked on this national imperial endeavour.

Notwithstanding the diversity of those who pledged support, the king's antipathy to the company presented particular difficulties for members of Scotland's political élite. Many were either instinctively Williamite or at least pragmatically so, since Jacobitism offered little prospect of advancement in the 1690s. A need to show loyalty to the king suggested opposition to the company. This, however, was at odds with an overwhelming sense in Scotland of the importance of the company's success, which had become a highly polarized political issue. Responses to the venture were problematic since, with the subscription books available as public documents, Scots knew who among their political masters had, or had not, offered support.

This quandary may explain why relatively few of the country's most prominent political figures signed up during the first wave of enthusiasm. But with the books having been open for about a month, many appear to have judged that support for a national cause was more important than subservience to the king. On 30 March 1696 John Hay, first marquess of Tweeddale, who as lord chancellor had been responsible for granting the act its royal assent, subscribed £1000, along with James Graham, first duke of Montrose, and John Murray, first marquess of Atholl. On the following day eight more grandees committed £11,000 to the scheme, including Archibald Campbell, first duke of Argyll, James Douglas, second duke of Queensberry, William Johnstone, first marquess of Annandale, William Kerr, fifth Lord Jedburgh, and David Melville, third earl of Leven. Once the Williamite élite pinned their hopes and considerable financial investment to the company's fate, they found themselves in an uneasy alliance with those who had little compunction in upsetting the king. Several investors, such as James Maule, fourth earl of Panmure, were closely associated with the Jacobite cause while others, like George Lockhart of Carnwath, were outspoken supporters of the Stuarts. While Williamites and Jacobites remained implacably opposed over the monarchy, they came to be united in a belief that the Company of Scotland offered the prospect of national and personal prosperity.

The vast majority of subscribers signed up to a joint-stock trading company. However in July 1696 the company's focus shifted towards the scheme for a settlement at Darien that came to define the whole enterprise. Five months after the subscription books opened William Paterson presented his plan for New Caledonia to the company's directors. The outcome, he claimed, would offer Scotland ‘the Door of the Seas and the key to the universe’ and would enable ‘its proprietors to give Laws to both Oceans and to become Arbitrators of the Commercial world’ (Armitage, 104). Paterson had been developing his project since the mid-1680s, and it was further influenced by claims made by the buccaneer Lionel Wafer in his manuscript account of the area, subsequently published as A New Voyage and Description of the Isthmus of America (1699). Wafer was renowned as an expert on Panama and the Company of Scotland sought his advice through the good offices of another prominent investor, the political theorist Andrew Fletcher of Saltoun. For Fletcher the company offered a solution to Scotland's dire economic outlook, being ‘the only means to recover us from our miserable and despicable condition’ (Two Discourses Concerning the Affairs of Scotland, 1698, quoted in Armitage, 107) . In the meantime the company's thirty-one directors, elected in May, attempted to raise further capital overseas—notably in northern European ports with long-standing Scottish mercantile links. Their efforts in Amsterdam and Hamburg failed, in part through diplomatic action by Sir Paul Rycaut on behalf of William III. Shortfalls in funding prompted some directors, including the borders laird William Hay of Drummelzier and the Edinburgh merchant Robert Watson, to call, in February 1697, for the abandonment of the Darien scheme. Their doubts were echoed by, among others, the shareholder George Mackenzie, Viscount Tarbat, who instead advocated expeditions to Asia. Under prompting by the Edinburgh merchant Robert Blackwood alternative locations were considered and ultimately rejected in favour of Darien which, despite evident problems, boasted the potential for lucrative returns from slave trading, timber, and gold mining. By 1698 it was clear that no further finance could be expected. The original joint-stock company of 1695 was now the vehicle for the Scottish colony of New Caledonia, supported by a remarkably diverse group of Scots who had set aside their many and varied differences in pursuit of national glory and personal wealth.

The Darien expedition and its aftermath, 1698–1707

The first fleet for New Caledonia sailed from Leith on 14 July 1698, comprising five ships carrying 1200 people and the country's expectations. William Paterson and his second wife, Hannah Kemp, made the voyage on the Unicorn (commanded by Captain Robert Pincarton) while the botanist James Wallace—whose journal provides the only information on the expedition's initial six weeks—sailed in the Endeavour. After a difficult crossing blighted by disease and deaths the fleet chose to land on 2 November just to the east of Golden Island. Official confirmation of the settlement was given to the company's directors by Alexander Hamilton, the expedition's chief accountant, who returned from Darien to Edinburgh in March 1699.

Delight at locating the intended site of New Caledonia proved short-lived. Within two years of the colony's establishment, and despite the dispatch of a second fleet of similar size in 1699, the company's ambitions had been extinguished. In the face of disease, climate, obstruction from England, aggression from Spain, and chronic mismanagement, New Caledonia was abandoned for the last time in April 1700. Of the 2500 people who had left Scotland only about 500 survived, among them William Paterson, James Wallace, and two ministers from the second fleet, Francis Borland (c.1666–1722), originally from East Kilbride, whose Memoirs of Darien (written mostly in 1700) was published in 1715, and Archibald Stobo (d. 1741), then a recent Edinburgh graduate who settled in Carolina in 1700 and whose direct descendants include the American president Theodore Roosevelt. Among those who did not survive the settlement or the return voyages were Paterson's wife, the company's accountant, Alexander Hamilton, and the Presbyterian minister and author Alexander Shields, who had declined an invitation to accompany the first fleet and died in Jamaica in June 1700.

This catastrophic loss of life and the collapse of a venture that consumed so much Scottish finance have led the Darien scheme to be labelled a disaster. Yet despite the failure of New Caledonia the Company of Scotland survived and continued to trade to Africa and the Indian Ocean, albeit fitfully and unsuccessfully, in the early years of the eighteenth century. It also remained sufficiently important politically to influence negotiations over the Act of Union (1707). By that act the company was dissolved in August 1707 and in return Scotland was paid the equivalent of just under £400,000. This payment, which arrived in Edinburgh on 5 August, was bound into a series of political machinations and was, in part, intended to compensate Scotland for relinquishing its future rights to trade to India and the East. For the Darien investors it also meant the reimbursement of their subscriptions. Although £400,000 had been pledged between February and August 1696, the company had received only £153,448 from investors. The equivalent paid out £217,833 and returned to the investors or their descendants their capital plus an annual return of 5 per cent. One such beneficiary was the Greek scholar Alexander Dunlop, who was able to recover losses to Glasgow University incurred by his father William's enthusiasm for the company.

The Darien investors were a remarkable cross-section of Scottish society, some of whom, as Williamites and Jacobites, shared little other common ground. Scots from all parts of the country and from many walks of life were overtaken by what some historians have since described as an investment mania. Inevitably the tragic events of 1698–1700, and their aftermath, have further coloured accounts of the venture. This said, to investors and participants alike the company and the Darien venture presented remarkable opportunities—simultaneously offering the potential for lucrative returns and the chance to support what quickly became a national cause.

Douglas Hamilton


subscription book: lists of subscribers of capital, with signatures, 1696, NL Scot., Adv. MS 83.1.1 · subscription book: Glasgow lists, 1696, NL Scot., Adv. MS 83.1.4 · D. Armitage, ‘The Scottish vision of empire: intellectual origins of the Darien venture’, A union for empire, ed. J. Robertson (1995), 97–118 · F. R. Hart, The disaster of Darien (1929) · G. P. Insh, The Company of Scotland trading to Africa and the Indies (1932) · W. D. Jones, ‘“The bold adventurers”: a quantitative analysis of the Darien subscription list (1696)’, Scottish Economic and Social History, 21/1 (2001), 22–42 · A. MacKillop, ‘Accessing empire: Scotland, Europe, Britain and the Asia trade, 1695–c.1750’, Itinerario, 29/3 (2005), 7–30 · J. Prebble, The Darien disaster (2002) · D. Watt, The price of Scotland: Darien, union and the wealth of nations (2007) · The writings of William Paterson, founder of the Bank of England, ed. S. Bannister, 3 vols. (1968)


NL Scot., list of subscribers of capital, with signatures, 1696, Adv. MS 83.1.1 · NL Scot., Glasgow lists, 1696, Adv. MS 83.1.4