A guest post from Craig Gallagher, a Graduate Fellow at the Clough Center for Constitutional Democracy, Boston College. Craig is a PhD student in the History Dept, and will be presenting some of his research on Scottish colonial ventures at the British Scholar Society’s”Britain and the World” Conference at the University of Edinburgh on June 21st-23rd, 2012. He blogs irregularly at www.gallacticos.blogspot.com.

Months ago, on this very blog, a rallying call was issued to historians to come to the table and challenge some of the historical misconceptions that have infected the independence debate. Thus far, noted scholars such as Tom Devine, Richard Finlay, Allan MacInnes and even Neil Oliver have been conspicuous by their absence on our screens or in our broadsheets.

While not claiming to possess anything near the sort of influence or intellectual clout as any of the aforementioned, this historian would like to answer the call.

Challenging popular preconceptions of Scottish history is actually very fertile ground. One could, for example, dismiss the way the ’45 Rebellion is portrayed as a Scots rebellion against the English by pointing out that it was backed by French money, used mainly Irish and Highland Gaelic troops (something very distinct from ‘Scottish’ in the 18th century) and gained considerable English support from northern nobles disaffected with their German-speaking King George II. Daniel Szechi and Jonathan Oates, amongst others, have written fruitfully on such matters.

There is, however, a more pertinent historical white elephant that needs tackling within the context of the forthcoming Scottish referendum on independence: the Darién scheme. This was the colonising expedition by the Company of Scotland to the Panamanian isthmus in 1698 and 1699, which has famously been regarded as foolhardy in the extreme, beset by incompetent Scottish leadership and as leaving the country so bankrupt that economic and political Union with England in 1707 saved us from ourselves. There are, however, a number of persistent and troubling problems with this interpretation.

The first concerns the expedition’s supposed foolishness. While it might seem fantastical to us today to imagine Scots as strewn across the Darién isthmus, a place utterly remote from home in both geographical and ecological terms, it is worth noting that it fits comfortably within the narrative of small powers in the late seventeenth century trying to carve a niche for themselves in the Caribbean and elsewhere in the New World. The Swedes, for example, colonised the Delaware River between 1638 and 1655, while the Brandenburg Prussians shared custody with the Danes over the Caribbean island of St. Thomas until 1735. The Dutch, of course, owned the Hudson River colony of New Netherland until its conquest and renaming by the Duke of York’s armies in 1664, to which the redoubtable Dutch responded three years later by conquering and holding English Suriname until modern times.

The degree of investment the scheme attracted was also remarkable for its diversity and creditworthiness. Figures as towering as John Locke, Andrew Fletcher of Saltoun and William Paterson (the founder of the Bank of England) all regarded it as a sound project, while subscribers could be found in most of the major merchant houses in Amsterdam, Hamburg and London. Their faith was well-founded, for even after the colony at Darién’s collapse, the Company of Scotland continued to trade for seven years after Darién’s downfall. This begs the obvious question: if it didn’t even bankrupt the parent company, how confident can we be that the venture’s failure left Scotland as destitute as has been commonly asserted?

There is much mileage in discussing the various problems the Scots had in Panama, such as disease, poor quality soil and rancorous leadership, and these have been expounded on impressively, if glumly, by scholars such as John Prebble and Douglas Watt. But more needs to be said about the political context of Darién’s downfall, which is where the venture’s explicit relationship to Scottish independence becomes apparent.

King William II of Scotland (known to many Scots colloquially as ‘King Billy’) was entirely complicit in the Scottish failure to realise their dreams of empire, given that he explicitly forbade English colonies such as Jamaica from offering any aid or succour to the struggling colonists in 1700. He furthermore refused to intercede on his own subjects’ behalf when the Spanish colonial forces in the region began to menace the Scots, so concerned was he with his diplomatic clout in the court of Madrid because of the impending Spanish Succession crisis (the childless King Carlos II died later that year). The interests of the united British Crown were put ahead of that of its vulnerable subjects.

The idea that disasters like Darién represent what happens if the Scots are left to their own devices persists unchallenged in much of the popular imagination. Yet it fails to take account of all of this and more, including the fact that like many other early modern kingdoms, Scotland had colonial successes and failures. Nova Scotia in Canada takes its name from the short-lived (1629-32) Scottish settlement established to compete with the French in the beaver trade, while the establishment of a Covenanter haven at Stuart’s Town, South Carolina (1684-86), provoked the ire of local Spanish military garrisons in much the same way as the Darién colony did.

As for successes, Scottish cultural enclaves existed all across the North and Baltic seas in Europe, particularly in Rotterdam in the Netherlands, Konigsberg in East Prussia (now the city of Kaliningrad) and in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, where Scottish Calvinists were invited by the Protestant monarchy to settle and convert the Commonwealth’s mostly Catholic and Orthodox population. East New Jersey was also a high-profile and enduring Scottish overseas project, founded by the poorly-studied Scottish Quaker community in 1683 as a religious haven from the determinedly Episcopal Church of Scotland of this period. There is also a well-established historical argument that the Ulster plantations, began in 1606 by the newly crowned Scottish King of England, James VI & I, represent a Scots colonising initiative in Ireland, given the degree to which Presbyterians from the Lowlands displaced the native population and owned swathes of farmland as a result. Seen as such, it would arguably be one of the most successful and long-lasting of all European colonies, were it not for the region’s well-known troubled history.

The point worth emphasizing is that Darién did not exist in isolation. The circumstances of its collapse were far more complex than is usually allowed, and had as much to do with wider British political calculations as much as it did with Scottish financial mismanagement. That is the lesson it teaches in this moment of national assertion. The Spanish have, this time at least, promised to stay out of our affairs, while Alex Salmond’s careful courting of the Queen suggests he has understood the importance of our colony’s collapse to our dialogue with the British state. If you’ll allow me a provocative comparison between English negligence in the 17th century Caribbean and the 20th century council estates of the Central Belt, I would suggest that it is perfectly possible to conceive the Scottish independence debate as an appropriate historical bookend to partner the circumstances of our colony’s collapse on either side of Scotland’s British interlude.