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9 Oct 2020

A vision of New Caledonia at Gladstone’s Land

Written by Anna Brereton, Visitor Services Manager, Gladstone’s Land
Old map showing the isthmus of Panama.
Investors in the infamous Darien Scheme came from all over Scotland, and from all walks of life.

John Sumervaill lived at Gladstone’s Land towards the end of the 17th century. He became a merchant and burgess of Edinburgh in 1691, by way of his apprenticeship to William Menzies, a merchant tailor. He died in Virginia in 1701 owing significant sums of money to his benefactor, Menzies. Sumervaill’s will was drawn up and executed by Menzies, and contains a reference to a subscription to the Company of Scotland. It appears that John was one of 1,500 Scots who subscribed to the scheme, which raised a total of £400,000 – about half of Scotland’s available capital. Another subscriber who appeared on the list of Company Directors was Sir John Maxwell of Pollok, whose heir would build Pollok House in Glasgow.

William Paterson, a Scottish merchant, and one of the founders of the Bank of England, was one of the main supporters of the Company of Scotland. He proposed a new colony on the isthmus of Panama, which would enable merchant ships to shorten their journeys by weeks. Rather than sail around the dangerous Cape Horn at the tip of Chile, goods could be taken over land at the isthmus. It was a marvellous scheme in theory, and would be realised eventually in 1914 with the completion of the Panama Canal.

Black and white illustration of the arms of the Company of Scotland.
The arms of the Company of Scotland, granted in 1696

But the scheme to colonise Darien, on the isthmus of Panama, was one of the biggest disasters in Scottish history. The first ship of 1,200 emigrants left Scotland in July 1698, but after eight months the colony of New Caledonia was abandoned. Less than 300 people survived. A second expedition in 1699 set out before word was received of the abandoned colony. A combination of poor planning, petitioned intervention on behalf of the East India Company, and fears of war with Spain resulted in the failure of the scheme.

More than 2,000 people died as a result of the Darien Scheme, and the £400,000 investment from the Scottish people had come to nothing. The scheme nearly bankrupted the Scottish economy. It’s fair to assume that the large sums of money Sumervaill owed on his death were due in part to the failure of the Darien Scheme.

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