Wednesday, 20 August 2014

Tom Devine, talk on the Darien Project, Edinburgh International Book festival 2014

Devine, respected Scottish historian, recently knighted gave a highly informed talk on the Darien Project, relevant to Scotland’s referendum question, at Edinburgh International Book festival 2014.

What went wrong? Major mistakes. Devine said that the Darien disaster of the late 1690s was over blown and exaggerated and his main claim is that the project failed due to poor leadership and that the proposed location for the colony should have first been properly surveyed. These projects required strict military discipline. He also said that at the time many colonies failed in the Caribbean and in the West, including the first English colony.  

In 1698 five vessels left Leith with 12,000 passengers and travelled north round Scotland to avoid the Royal navy. It is a story of both courage and risks to the Isthmus of Panama.  The Caribbean was then a centre of piracy between France, Spain and England. The company of Scotland wished to trade with Africa and the West Indies. There were vast riches to be made in trade with the Spice Islands and with silks. Denmark acquired a colony there just 3 years before Darien. There was enormous opposition from England and the Bank of England withdrew its investments.

The Darien failure was cost thousands of lives who were burned in pits and included leader Paterson’s wife and son. Yet also at the time there were quite often devastating famines and death rates.  The after math of Darien caused a collapse in Scottish confidence and a cold embrace with England in 1707.  He said that there were three main layers around the Darien Disaster if you excavated below the myth. 

(1) Unionist Myth. The Dominance of Unionist thought. That Scotland was a land of darkness, faction and poverty with religious rigidity and was bankrupt.  
(2) Nationalist thought in 1960s and 70s, of historical victimhood – such as the Highland clearances, Glencoe  massacre and the Darien Project. .
(3) Modern Spin – which portrays Darien as a mad farce. The Darien project has been distorted. What happened was similar to the banking collapse in recent years. The Discourse of Prebble – victimhood nation, which recycled the feeling of misbelief and Scotland became portrayed as a mass deluded country that was small, poor and helpless.
He said it was wrong to view Scotland as naive and inadequate.  In the 13th and 14th centuries Scotland was very active trading with the European continent. There were 125 Scottish colonies set up and we were notorious at under cutting, with trading centres in Holland such as Rotterdam and Amsterdam. He said that Scotland was not naïve or inexperienced.

After the Union of the Crowns in 1603….., the fact that England did not support the Darien scheme proved to the Scottish that when there was a choice the English government would support English interests. The English refused to provide support, food and succour to the Darien project. At the time England and France were battling to control the Atlantic trade and England was desperate to defend its northern territories. Spain was then in decline.

After Darien a few were offered full financially compensation plus 43% interest if they agreed to the union, which was analogous with bankers and the RBS scandal of today – and that they then voted for the Union. However Glasgow and the Scottish people were against the Union. The Scottish Law and Church were left to be run in Scotland.

He called the Act of Union an the Act of Concession and not one of victimhood or biased prejudices.

PS On Saturday Tom Devine made the announcement that he was voting YES in the Scottish referendum vote in September. He gave his carefully thought through reasons that he sees  a flowering of the Scottish confidence in recent years.  He feels the union has now run its course.