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BC’s Tales of the Pacific: Scotland’s pathetic attempt at empire

IF you visit Panama today you can fight your way through dense, disease-ridden jungle to reach the ruins of Fort St. Andrew. The area is deserted today, so you would not be able to get a room nearby. You could not even drive a car there. A boat ride would be best.

Have you noticed that there is almost no Scottish presence in the Pacific region? Many other European powers have made themselves felt around the great sea: British, Russians, Spanish, French. Actually, the Scots tried, but it ended in disaster. This is the story of the pathetic colony of Caledonia, whose failure contributed directly to the absorption of Scotland by England a few years later.

In its current state of neglect you might imagine that Fort St. Andrew was once a proud bastion of Scottish civilization in the midst of nature, but you would be wrong. It was never impressive, never proud. The couple thousand settlers that scratched out an existence there for three years suffered from the moment they arrived. Official neglect from everyone meant they probably never had a chance, even if they made good decisions once they got to Panama.

In 1698 roughly fifteen hundred settlers sailed across the Atlantic and arrived on the eastern coast of Panama. Their mission was to build a colony and pave a way across the landmass, connecting the Atlantic with the Pacific Oceans. It was the same idea that drove the Americans to build the Panama Canal two hundred years later.

They had no idea of the area to which they were going. Panama is a combination of dense jungle and rugged mountains. The means to create an overland route, either by road or canal, did not exist in 1698. But they never even got that far.

As soon as the settlers built a small village they started getting sick. Malaria and dysentery ravaged the group until the death rate exceeded ten per day. The Scots requested help from home but none came. They reached out to the Spanish settlements in the area, but they viewed the Scots as squatters and were actually preparing to throw them out. The colonists appealed to England for help, but the English did not want to irritate the Spanish and risk war, so they left the Scots to die.

Eventually, the few hundred survivors fled to New York to recover from the disaster that befell them and the colony was abandoned for a time. When relief ships were finally sent they tried again but the second group met with the same fate as the first. Disease came, then the Spanish made their move and laid siege to Fort St. Andrew until it fell. As a sad testament to the difficulty of the Panamanian coast, more Scottish and Spanish soldiers died of disease than in battle. The whole project was abandoned in 1700, less than years after it began.

The idea had been a good one: to start a colony on the Panamanian shore and slowly conquer the jungle until reaching the Pacific. The linking of the two oceans would have been an enormous boost to world trade. Revenue generated from the colony would have sent a steady stream of wealth back to Scotland, who could have invested the money in other ventures, perhaps rising to the ranks of some of the most powerful countries in Europe.

But the execution was terrible. Nearly every family in Scotland contributed financially to the venture. The total investment has been estimated at 25-50 percent of all the money in Scotland. Now it was gone, and Scotland never recovered from the financial setback. All families were affected, some were devastated. The expedition suffered from a lack of preparation and leadership. They did not have a good knowledge of the area to which they were going, and once there they could not adapt to the challenges they faced. Without direction, they withered away and collapsed.

A few years later a bankrupted Scotland was absorbed into the United Kingdom, reduced to the status of a client state of England. Had the Panama experiment gone differently, who knows how history would have turned out?

BC Cook, PhD lived on Saipan and has taught history for 20 years. He currently resides on the mainland U.S.