In the late 1600s, the Scots gambled half the country’s wealth on a colony in Darién in the hopes of transforming Scotland into a trading power to rival England. A fleet of five ships and 1200 men set sail in July 1698 and, arriving in the Caribbean, attempted to trade goods and restock the ships, though their wigs, shoes, stockings, thick cloth and Bibles found few takers in the tropics. The fleet finally anchored in Caledonia Bay, and for five months the Scots worked hard to build New Edinburgh, hindered by low rations and disease. The only help they received came from the local Guna. When, after ten months, the promised supply ships failed to materialize, the Scots set sail for home. Only one ship, the Caledonia, made it back to Scotland. Refusing to believe the rumours that the colony had been abandoned, the company directors had already sent a second fleet of four ships, as poorly equipped as the first, but shortly after their arrival in Panama in 1700, they drew the attention of the Spanish based in Portobelo. Small battles soon broke out – with the Guna lending their military muscle to the Scots – but within six months the Scots finally surrendered to the Spanish. They were allowed to evacuate with full military honours, but none of the ships made it back home. The venture crippled Scotland financially, leaving the kingdom at the mercy of rival England. Several years later, in 1707, England agreed to compensate all those who had subscribed to the venture in return for the creation of a joint kingdom of England and Scotland.

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