For Immediate Release
Bristol's new insight into Scottish history comes to BBC2
[07 July 2003]
Fresh evidence about a major turning point in Scottish - and British -
history has been found by a new archaeological expedition.
A Bristol University expedition to Panama in conjunction with BBC Scotland
has uncovered parts of the township site and a significant number of
artefacts from the Darien project – an ambitious plan to create a New
Scotland in Central America, which failed dramatically, leading, many
historians believe, to the union with England in 1707.
In the late 1690s, 4,000 Scots – funded by around half of the country's
wealth - set sail for the Darien isthmus of Panama, which they believed
could be a key land link between the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans; a kind of
17th century prototype to its modern day equivalent, the Panama Canal.
The aim was to set up a wealthy Scots colony – pivotal to global trading
but within two years the dream was over with half of the colonists dead.
And Scotland itself was bankrupted.
Many experts believe the financial ramifications led directly to the union,
out of economic necessity, with England in 1707.
This new expedition in January 2003 was led by Dr Mark Horton (University of
Bristol), an expert in the colonial history of the Caribbean, and built
upon fieldwork undertaken by him in the area in the 1970s. The new
fieldwork identified parts of the fortifications known as Fort St Andrews
and the remains of huts in what was to be New Edinburgh, a communal oven
and the wreck of a supply ship.
Among the finds recovered by the international team of archaeologists,
which included graduate students in archaeology from Bristol were Scottish
pennies and a pocket sundial, which would have been a significant aid to
telling the time and a personal treasure for someone of status in the
Also uncovered were musket balls, cannonballs, a grenade and tools.
The details of the expedition and its finds will be revealed in a special
hour long programme to be broadcast on BBC TWO on Thursday 10 July at
Darien: Disaster in Paradise will also feature dramatic reconstructions of
the original venture, based on journals and letters sent by the original
colonists, with actor Bill Paterson playing his namesake William Paterson,
the visionary behind the venture.
He came up with the scheme in response to strangulating trading blocks
imposed by England, which had led to widespread poverty in Scotland.
But his bold venture, which was initially hailed and celebrated in
Scotland, was beset by difficulties almost from the start.
Supplies taken with the venture were woefully inadequate and valuable space
and resources were given over to items such as combs and blue bonnets for
A supply ship went down in the natural Darien harbour after a sailor kicked
over a candle in the hold, while trying to get a nip of brandy.
The colonists were then faced with the daunting task of turning the jungle
into a settlement while battling the heat, humidity and mosquitoes.
Malaria, yellow fever and dysentery were endemic with as many as 12 deaths
a day registered until more than 2,000 – including William Paterson's wife
Hannah – had died.
The 2003 expedition found that the jungle has virtually reclaimed the area.
Director and producer of the film, Andrew Thompson, said: "We could only be
there for two weeks but we really did experience similar conditions.
"The Darien venture had to be one of the boldest bids of its time, to set
up a new colony – the basis for a new country – where the jungle was and
still is the king.
"On one level it was complete folly to put so much of Scotland's hopes for
the future in one basket, but in another way you can see what Paterson was
trying to achieve and the strategic significance of the area meant it did
have the potential to become an incredibly rich trading centre.
"If Darien had succeeded, it could have led to a very different course for
"Scotland may have remained independent with the possibility that the
United Kingdom would never have been created."
However, the programme reveals the likelihood of success was always slim as
the Spanish believed they owned the area, which was their main gold trading
route, and were determined not to let the Scots get hold of it.
Untypically the English were at peace with Spain – for the first time in 30
years – and would offer no assistance to the colonists.
The 2003 expedition found examples of Spanish warfare at the site
suggesting the Spanish assault on the fledgling colony was fiercer than had
been previously thought.
Leader of the expedition of international volunteers, Dr Mark Horton of
Bristol University, had been to the area with a previous expedition in
Mark Horton - who also fronts the BBC Scotland-made Time Flyers series -
said: "This new expedition was a really amazing experience because it's
really told us a lot about what the Scottish colony was really like. And
we've learnt an awful lot about the defences, about the sheer energy that
the Scots must have invested in to find this colony.
"And we've learnt a lot about the Spanish attack on the colony in terms of
the all the cannon balls and musket balls and things that were lobbed into
the middle of the fort. Maybe it was actually a lot more bloody than the
historical sources tell us.
"The historical sources are confused, they're contradictory, they're
dramatic, but were they true? By cutting out and feeling the sheer sweat of
it all one can understand what it was like to be a Scottish colonist in
"I think finding the portable sundial was my moment of greatest excitement
because that is the most extraordinary find.
"There could only have been one on the site and it must have belonged to
one of the really senior people in the colony, one of the officers. I mean
it could even actually have belonged to William Paterson himself and also
in a funny sort of way it also said how time was running out for the colony
itself. How the Spanish army were mustering all around it and, inevitably,
the dream was just going to fail.
"I suppose the absolute fatal flaw in the whole expedition was that
Paterson and others had not realised just how key this bit of land was to
the Spanish because this was where all the gold and silver from South
America was funnelled through.
"If they allowed the Scots into Darien then the Spanish Empire would have
"New research and historical records in Madrid have shown that actually if
the first campaign had failed the Spanish were mounting an even bigger one,
they were absolutely determined to get rid of these Scots. They were not
going to countenance the idea of a Scottish colony here. So, ultimately the
dream would have failed whatever."
Notes for Editors
Darien: Disaster in Paradise will be screened in BBC TWO, Thursday 10 July
Bristol University Archaeology Department is a leading centre for world
historical archaeology. Details are online at
email: [log in to unmask]
tel: +44(0)117 954 6060
Further information on this story from Hannah Johnson, Press Officer, tel
+44 (0)117 928 8896 (office hours) or 07770 408757 (out of office hours) or
email [log in to unmask]