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The Scottish Empire, Episode 26 - 31/10/05


William Pateson 1658-1719 (Getty Images/Hulton Archive)

William Pateson 1658-1719 (Getty Images)
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It is said that the English founded the Empire and the Scots built and ran it. Yet until the latter part of the 17th century, the majority of attention was seemingly and rightly on the efforts of the English. The Scots were at a disadvantage as a nation, although individuals were not. After James I, any surviving influence of senior Scots was lost. Charles I had been at odds with them, especially the bishops and it was the Scots who handed him over to the Parliamentarians.

A 17th Act century declared Scots to be foreigners. The Navigation Acts of the same period banned Scottish ships from the colonies. Moreover, the Scots rarely had the money necessary to invest in big colonial adventures and the English suspected the Scots as agents for the French and the Dutch. So when the originator of the Bank of England, William Pateson (sometimes, Paterson) proposed a Scottish colony in of all places, the Panama Isthmus, the Scots fell for it.

This turned out to be a disaster known as the Darién Scheme. The Scots had to raise at least £300,000 - which was at that time half the Scottish exchequer. They also needed a royal endorsement of William III which was granted because William was playing a complex game of international diplomacy. He gave instructions that the Scots weren't to be traded with. This pleased Spain from whom William needed support against the French and the East India Company, who demanded a British overseas trading monopoly.

However, the Scots pressed on and sailed for Panama in 1699. By 1700 their settlement at Fort St Andrews was under siege from the Spanish and swamp disease. There was no chance the colony would survive and the few of the original 3,000 settlers still alive were forced to surrender. The Scots would have their day in the Empire, but not in the Panama Isthmus.

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Historical Figure

William Pateson 1658-71

William Pateson (also Paterson) was born in Dumfriesshire and earned an early and considerable fortune as a trader among the West Indies. In London, in 1691, he suggested the setting up of a Bank of England and when, three years later 'The Bank' was opened, Pateson became a director. As a second venture he started a water company that was still making money two hundred years after his death.

He had long wanted to start a colony in Panama - his Darién Scheme - and had tried to raise money and enthusiasm in London, Hamburg and Amsterdam. In 1695 he moved to Edinburgh. He persuaded the Scottish Parliament to support the scheme and was one of the survivors who returned when the colony surrendered. He is said to have been a broken man, but he played an influential part in bringing about the constitutional Union of Scotland and England in 1707 and was elected to the first parliament.

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Did You Know...

As early as 1603, James I promoted the idea of a parliamentary union of the two nations, but this was rejected and it took another 104 years to come about, which is why the 1603 accession of James is known as the Union of the Crowns.

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Contemporary Sources

William Pateson's vision for Panama

William Pateson convincingly sells to his countrymen the dream of a Scottish colony in Panama.

"The time and expense of navigation to China, Japan and the Spice Islands, and the far greatest part of the West Indies will be lessened by more than a half, and the consumption of European commodities and manufactories will soon be more than doubled. Trade will increase trade…money will begat money and the trading world shall need no more to work for their hands but will rather want hands for their work. Thus, this door of the seas and key of the universe, with anything of a sort of reasonable management will of course enable the proprietors to give laws to both oceans and to become arbitrators of the commercial world without being liable to the fatigues, expenses and dangers, or contracting the guilt and blood of Alexander and Caesar."

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