Wednesday, September 17, 2014

How Panama Created the United Kingdom

Colombia has not played much of a role in the campaign for tomorrow's Scottish independence vote.

However, if not for territory which was for a time part of Colombia, Scotland might never have united with England in the first place.
The Gulf of Darien, with New Edinburgh
on the right.

During the 1600s Scotland was a small struggling nation on the edge of Europe - but with dreams of greatness. Why shouldn't Scotland become, like England, the center of a great empire?

Scottish leaders set up a business scheme, which finally settled on establishing a colony on the Gulf of Darien on the Isthmus of Panama. Panama was strategic, the Scots believed, because it would be the pathway to trade between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.

But English business interests, fearful of competition and of antagonizing the Spanish empire, prevented the Scots from raising money in London and on the European continent. As a result, the Scots had to raise their money at home, from patriotic Scotsmen and women. Ultimately, between one fourth and one half of all the money circulating in Scotland was invested in the Darien Scheme.

The first five ships, with 1,200 colonists, sailed in 1698 and established New Edinburgh in present-day Panama. But the expedition quickly turned disastrous from disease, internal quarrels, hostility from the Spanish and lack of aid from the English, who didn't want to antagonize the Spanish empire, which also claimed Panama. Only 300 people survived to return to Scotland.
Panama, the country which created the United Kingdom.

But before the survivors returned to tell their tale, another set of ships full of eager colonists had set off for Panama. This group also met disaster, including a Spanish military siege. Only a few hundred survived to return to Scotland. They left behind few traces, but today a town on the would-be settlement site is sometimes called Puerto Escocés.

In the wake of the disaster, the Scottish company invested its remaining money in two ships which bought slaves on the coast of Africa. However, on Madagascar those ships were seized by a pirate, who ultimately burned and abandoned them.

Thus ended Scotland's colonial adventure, which nearly bankrupted the nation. Scots seemed to conclude that they'd have better luck by uniting themselves with their larger, wealthier southern neighbor. The parliaments of Scotland and England passed acts of union, creating the United Kingdom in May, 1707.

The Spanish Empire eventually consolidated its control over the Isthmus of Panama. When South America became independent, Panama became part of La Gran Colombia, which also included what today are Colombia, Peru, Ecuador and Venezuela. When La Gran Colombia broke up in 1831, Panama remained part of Nueva Granada, which became the Republic of Colombia. U.S. Pres. Theodore Roosevelt wanted to dig a canal across the Isthmus, but Colombia's Congress was reluctant.

Not to be stopped, Roosevelt encouraged the Panamanians to rebel, which they did in 1903, and the U.S. recognized Panama's independence. The U.S. dug the Panama Canal, which was completed in 1914. In a way, the Americans fulfilled the Scots' centuries-old plan of connecting the oceans.

Scotland, meanwhile, seemed to flourish in its union with England. Edinburgh became a center of culture and philosophy, while Glasgow evolved into an industrial center. Many Scots played prominent roles in the British empire.

When Scots go to the polls, will they keep Colombia's role in their history in mind? Probably not.

And if Scotland votes 'Yes' and becomes independent again, will they take up once again the old dream of having their own empire? Panama had better watch out!

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

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