Independent Scotland's last gasp forgotten in Panama jungle

Mon Apr 21, 2014 1:44pm EDT
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By Dave Graham

CALEDONIA, Panama (Reuters) - A few years before giving up its independence, Scotland took a bold gamble to secure a brighter future, founding a colony on the isthmus of Panama to corner trade between the Pacific and Atlantic oceans.

The 1698 venture ended in tragedy, helping to push Scotland into political union with England and form the United Kingdom. But had it succeeded, Scots might have no need to vote in the referendum on independence this coming September.

Named after the gulf where modern Panama and Colombia meet, the Darien scheme was hamstrung from the start by poor planning and English opposition. In less than two years, disease and attacks from the Spanish Empire had wiped out more than half the 2,800 Scottish settlers, and the colony was abandoned.

Barely a shadow of it lingers in the bay known locally as Puerto Escoces (Scottish Harbor), where the Scots founded the colony of New Caledonia with an initial contingent of 1,200.

"There's nothing there now. Nothing," said Amalio Hackin, 47, a former resident of Puerto Escoces and ethnic Kuna, an indigenous people that in 1700 fought with the Scots against the Spanish, then the dominant colonial power in Central America.

Instead of the chatter of Scottish voices, only the shrill drone of cicadas can be heard in the mosquito-ridden jungle where the Scots once dreamed of building a town, New Edinburgh.

Mangroves and mud flats have devoured the site. Among the spider webs, giant palms and tangle of creepers that fill the jungle, mere hints of forgotten dwellings appear in clearings.

After the colony failed, Scotland in 1707 signed the Act of Union with England, swapping independence for shared trading rights, representation in Westminster and money - much of it to compensate the stricken shareholders of the Darien scheme.   Continued...

Children play at the beach as a local boat passes by the coast of Caledonia island in the region of Guna Yala April 4, 2014. REUTERS/ Carlos Jasso