The Darien Scheme: Swaying Public Perception through the Power of Print

With the lapse of the Licensing of the Press Act in Britain in 1695, print censorship came to an end. Publishers and printers in England increased their print output, expanding their supply to meet the growing demand for print media by the increasingly literate audience. This growth in print was also seen in Scotland at the turn of the eighteenth century, where publishers realized print’s potential to influence public opinion and establish narratives around important historical events. This is clearly seen in the contemporary mediations published about the Company of Scotland’s Darien scheme between 1698 and 1700. In this paper, I will examine two mediations of the Darien venture: the first is an ode published in Scotland in 1699 and the second is a petition from the Council-General of the Scottish Company to King William, accompanied by William’s response. These mediations, presenting Scotland as a religious, law-abiding and industrious nation on a mission, were published with a view to garnering financial support and political sympathy for the Scots. Additionally, exploiting the “fixity of print,” these mediations also sought to establish and preserve the Scots’ intentions and actions in a positive light (Eisenstein 17). I argue that these mediations were a conscious attempt to sway public opinion in Great Britain in favour of the venture and, regardless of its ultimate failure, represent the Company of Scotland as a noble Scottish attempt to join the imperial race.

The joint-stock Company of Scotland Trading to Africa and the Indies was established by an Act passed in the British Parliament in 1695. Attempting to find a remedy for the financial difficulties faced by Scotland towards the end of the seventeenth century, and facing the threat of a colonial union with England, the Company aimed to set up a trading colony at the isthmus of Darien in Panama in order to compete with its European neighbours on the global stage of trade and commerce. Two expeditions were launched from Scotland to Darien, the first in July 1698 and the second and last in August 1699; both ended in failure for the Company. This failed expedition later played a major role in the union of England and Scotland in 1707 since the latter was financially compromised. The Scottish thus looked to print to appeal to the masses and redeem themselves in the eyes of the people.

My first mediation is an ode that was published in Edinburgh by James Watson in 1699. Although officially called an ode on the pamphlet, the poem is printed as a broadside ballad that people could sing. The title of the poem itself is a powerful hint to its intention: “An Ode Made on the Welcome News of the Safe Arrival and Kind Reception of the Scottish Collony [sic] at Darien in America.” It celebrates the successful landing of the Scottish Company’s ships at Darien and hopes for the beginning of a long and prosperous trade that would bring Scotland financial relief. As the majority of the Scottish people who volunteered employment with the Company were Presbyterian, the poem has an overtly religious tone, presenting the Scottish people as serious Presbyterian Catholics who will uphold “Christian charity” and virtues in the new colony by residing peacefully with the indigenous population and conducting its trade with them (Ode VI.3). In this way, it speaks directly to the generally Protestant population in Scotland as its target audience, appealing to the people’s religious attitude as well as their political and financial concerns.

The ode starts with a call to “thanks and praise,” calling immediately to its religious themes (I.1). The poet reminds all of Scotland to be grateful to “Heaven’s protecting pow’r” for providing the Company’s employees a safe passage through the Atlantic (II.2). This strong religious belief in owing their success to God is echoed throughout the poem, and the people are urged to repay this kindness through “grateful service” in the form of trade and commerce at Darien (II.4). In addition to the obedience owed to God, the poem also reinforces a Christian fear of God in the Scottish people, reminding them that it is God who enables the success and failure of all humans, hearkening to the Abrahamic view of a universal god who rules over the entire world.

Connected to this strong current of religiosity is the perception and description of the indigenous Kuna population at Darien as docile, primitive people who complied with the Scottish and helped them carry out the providential design as ordained by the Scots’ Protestant God. Since they believed that their Christian faith was the one true religion, the poem subtly hints that the enlightenment and conversion of the indigenous Kuna community is a Scottish mission to be carried out with pride. The poet again praises God for “sooth[ing] the Natives [sic] savage breasts,” and bringing them closer to “humanity,” implying that they are less than human, “worse than beasts,” and inferior to the Scottish (VI.1, VI.2, VI.4). The Kuna freely resign their land to the new colonizers—there is no peaceful co-occupation. Here, their property rights are spoken of in a highly polarized language of either “resistance or compliance,” with the latter ultimately occurring (Paul 5).

The poem says that the indigenous population not only surrendered their land rights to the Scottish officials, but also joined them in their trading venture as “brethren” and celebrated large feasts together (Ode VI.5). They shared the work of the new settlers and helped them “carry on the great design” (VII.4). In this way, the ode conflates economics and Presbyterianism in its representation of the indigenous population in Darien—the Kuna not only trade peacefully with the Scots but also follow their example of “Christian charity” (VI.3). In other words, the ode preaches to the Scottish that they have both a commercial and a religious mission at Darien.

In addition to celebrating the commercial enterprise of the Scottish Company in Panama, the ode also provides hopes of financial independence for the people in Scotland. The “uncertain fate” of the country will now be assuaged by “Indian gold” from the new colony at Darien, bringing both employment opportunities and “lasting joy” (IX.3, IX.4, X.5). Thus, the Scottish Company is presented as a noble venture with a two-fold advantage—solving the economic problems of its country and bringing Christian enlightenment to the “savage” Kuna at Darien (VI.1).

The ode speaks simply to “the country”, suggesting that its main audience was the general population of Scotland, and its intention was to garner support from them for the financial venture (IX.1). On the other hand, my second mediation speaks to a different audience. The petition made by the Council-General of the Scottish Company to King William and his response were published as part of a collection of the Company’s papers in 1700. This was done to provide a “just view to indifferent persons, of positive matters of fact, without any artificial embellishments or reflections thereupon” (Full and Exact Collection 1). The intention was to prove to readers that the “the measures taken by the Company are warranted by the Act of Parliament by which it was established,” thus suggesting that the target audience for this print work was the upper-class, politically-involved people in England and Scotland, mainly those in London (2). While the ode discussed above spoke to the average working-class Scottish reader, this petition addressed itself to the “polished” society of London. The intention of both the mediations, however, is the same—to present Scotland and the Company from a positive perspective and thus secure this narrative of the cultural event.

The printing of the collection was an act of transparency, showing the Company’s communication with many parties, including King William, in order to deflect some of the blame being placed on it for its failures. The collection would have been hailed as proof that the Company carried out all measures to ensure the success of its venture; however, resistance and counter-action from England and its colonies led to its failure at Darien. In the petition sent to William in 1699, the Company’s Council-General appeals to him for his support and protection for its employees at Darien. This petition was in direct response to several proclamations made by the governors of the British colonies in Jamaica, Barbados, New York and Massachusetts, ordering their people not to engage in trade with the Scottish Company—effectively creating a debilitating trade embargo against it (77-84).

In language that is both polite and diplomatically contrived, the petition reiterates the legality of the Company through its establishment by the Act passed in Parliament in 1695. It also describes the Scottish people as “natives of this [William’s] kingdom,” pandering to England’s political ambition to colonize Scotland (Council-General 1). The purpose is for the Council-General to present a case for the Company’s right to William’s endorsement and England’s support. It reminds William that Scotland is his “neighbour-nation” who seeks “friendly assistance” (1). It asks for “special testimonies and evidences of your [William’s] royal protection”—these print documents issued by the King would have secured the Company’s position at Darien in the eyes of the British colonies in America and lifted the trade embargo (1).

William’s response to this petition is vague and doesn’t address its main request. He only expresses “regret” for the “loss which that our ancient kingdom and company has lately sustained” (2). He doesn’t specifically mention Scotland nor the Company, thus circumventing the request for royal protection. Publishing this response would have helped the Company’s cause of showing the lack of support received by William and England, thus presenting a sympathetic case for itself.

As discussed above, publishing such mediations as the ode and the petition would have garnered sympathy and support for Scotland and its venture in Darien. The ode appealed to the Scottish masses that the Darien colony was a religiously sanctioned cause in both its commerce and its colonization. The petition and William’s response were addressed to England’s upper-class “polished” society and defended the Company’s actions. Both these mediations together create a cultural memory of the Darien venture that was well-intentioned, and expertly and conscientiously executed: were it not for the many obstacles placed in the Company’s path, it would have succeeded in its settlement of Darien. Thus, these works of seventeenth and eighteenth-century print culture show a remarkable consciousness of print’s power to influence contemporary as well as historical perceptions.

Works Cited

“An ode made on the welcome news of the safe arrival and kind reception of the Scottish colony at Darien in America.” Edinburgh: James Watson, 1699. Eighteenth-C Media Online. Accessed 4 Dec 2017.

“A Full and exact collection of all the considerable addresses, memorials, petitions, answers, proclamations, declarations, letters, and other public papers relating to the Company of Scotland trading to Africa and the Indies since the passing of the act of Parliament, by which the said company was established in June 1695, till November 1700: together with a short preface (including the act itself) as also a table of whole contents.” 1699. Early English Books Online. Accessed 4 Dec. 2017.

Council-General, Company of Scotland Trading to Africa and the Indies. “The Council-General of the Indian and African Company's petition to His Majesty.” 1699. Eighteenth-C Media Online. Accessed 4 Dec. 2017.

Eisenstein, Elizabeth. “Some Conjectures about the Impact of Printing on Western Society and Thought: A Preliminary Report.” The Journal of Modern History, 40:1. University of Chicago Press, March 1968. JSTOR. Accessed 9 May 2015.  

Paul, Helen Julia. “The Darien Scheme and Anglophobia in Scotland.” Universidad de Navarra. Accessed 4 Dec. 2017.

The Darien Scheme: Swaying Public Perception through the Power of Print