Family Research – English, Scottish and Irish Genealogy


Scotland’s Groans and Lamentable Complaints

This month’s document is a pamphlet printed in 1700 entitled The People of SCOTLANDS’s Groans and Lamentable Complaints, Pour’d out before the High Court of Parliament. Hugh Paterson, the author of the pamphlet wrote:

“…Our Soveraignty and Freedom is Violated, Our Laws trampled upon, and our Trade interrupted, how Our Brethren have been Starved and made Slaves, Our Colony deserted, and Our Ships burnt and lost Abroad; whilst Our Petitions have been rejected, Our Company baffled, Our People Famish’d, Our Metropolis burnt, and flames of Division kindled amongs Us at Home. We entreat You to consider how they that ought in Kindness, nay in Gratitude, to have let Us had Provisions for Our Money, whilst they enjoyed Plenty, and ought to have Protected Us with their Ships, since We are under one Sovereign, and have lost so many Men in their Service by Sea and Land.”

The background to this emotive publication was the Darien Scheme. At the end of the 17th century, Scotland was a country struggling with poverty and destitution. In June 1695, an Act of Parliament was passed which set up the Company of Scotland Trading to Africa and the Indies. The act gave the Company very wide powers: the right to establish and defend colonies, a monopoly on trade between Scotland and Asia, Africa and America for 31 years; and freedom from customs duty for 21 years.
A Scottish merchant by the name of William Paterson, one of the founders of the Bank of England, suggested that the Company settle in Darien, part of what is now Panama. His reason for choosing Darien was that it joined Central and South America and was the narrowest point between east and west. He saw this as the perfect trading position where cargoes could be transferred overland, eliminating the need to sail the lengthy and dangerous journey around Cape Horn. As a consequence the Company of Scotland became known as the Darien Company and its enterprise the Darien Scheme. The idea that this enterprise would help to end Scotland’s poverty enticed Scots from all walks of life to give what money they had to be part of the dream. England and Holland had been approached to support the scheme but both refused and Scotland raised all the capital itself.
The English were not keen on the establishment of the Company and neither were the Spanish. The English felt that it was stifling their trading abilities while the Spanish objected to the Scots being on what they regarded as their land: land which was an important route for transporting silver from Peru to Spain. England was also keen to preserve peace with Spain and did not want to be seen to support the Darien Company. Consequently, when the first Scots who had arrived in Darien found themselves in severe difficulties, toiling with deadly diseases and an unforgiving climate, and without the trading success they were expecting, King William ordered English colonies in the area not to give the Scots any assistance.

National Archives of Scotland reference PA7/17/1/21A

National Archives of Scotland reference PA7/17/1/21A

In 1699, unaware that the first of the Darien Scots were about to leave the colony, another ship left Leith. The new colonists arrived to find the New Caledonia settlement deserted and began rebuilding it. The Spaniards were not happy with this and tried to oust the Scots from the area. Sick and exhausted, the Scots surrendered to the Spanish in 1700. Of the 2,500 Scots who went to Darien 2,000 perished. Most of the survivors lived out their lives in Jamaica or America but very few returned to Scotland. £500,000 had been lost in the Scheme and Scotland’s economy nearly became bankrupt. With such a dramatic outcome to an enterprise of such optimism, Hugh Paterson’s pamphlet was almost certainly reflecting the feeling of the Scots at home. Although both he and the pamphlet printer, James Watson, were imprisoned, a rioting crowd freed them from the Edinburgh tolbooth. While the Darien Scheme had clearly been a disaster, it would be fair to say the vision of William Paterson and the Company of Scotland was not entirely misguided, as some 200 years later the Panama Canal was built and remains an important trading route to this day.
The National Archives of Scotland holds a good number of records relating to the Darien scheme including personal letters, wills left by those who perished in Darien, hearings at the Admiralty Court, petitions to the Privy Council and minutes from proceedings in the Scottish Parliament. To find out more go to the online catalogue.
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