DARIEN, a district covering the eastern part of the isthmus joining Central and South America. It is mainly within the republic of Panama, and gives its name to a gulf of the Carribbean Sea. Darien is of great interest in the history of geographical discovery. It was reconnoitred in the first year of the 16th century by Rodrigo Bastidas of Seville; and the first settlement was Santa Maria la Antigua, situated on the small Darien river, north-west of the mouth of the Atrato. In 1513 Vasco Nuñez de Balboa stood “silent upon a peak in Darien,” and saw the Pacific at his feet stretching inland in the Gulf of San Miguel; and for long this narrow neck of land seemed alternately to proffer and refuse a means of transit between the two oceans. The first serious attempt to turn the isthmus to permanent account as a trade route dates from the beginning of the 18th century, and forms an interesting chapter in Scottish history. In 1695 an act was passed by the Scottish parliament giving extensive powers to a company trading to Africa and the Indies; and this company, under the advice of one of the most remarkable economists of the period, William Paterson (q.v.), determined to establish a colony on the isthmus of Darien as a general emporium for the commerce of all the nations of the world. Regarded with disfavour both in England and Holland, the project was taken up in Scotland with the enthusiasm of national rivalry towards England, and the “subscriptions sucked up all the money in the country.” On the 26th of July 1698 the pioneers set sail from Leith amid the cheers of an almost envious multitude; and on the 4th of November, with the loss of only fifteen out of 1200 men, they arrived at Darien, and took up their quarters in a well-defended spot, with a good harbour and excellent outlook. The country they named New Caledonia, and two sites selected for future cities were designated respectively New Edinburgh and New St Andrews. At first all seemed to go well; but by and by lack of provisions, sickness and anarchy reduced the settlers to the most miserable plight; and in June 1699 they re-embarked in three vessels, a weak and hopeless company, to sail whithersoever Providence might direct. Meanwhile a supplementary expedition had been prepared in Scotland; two vessels were despatched in May, and four others followed in August. But this venture proved even more unfortunate than the former. The colonists arrived broken in health; their spirits were crushed by the fate of their predecessors, and embittered by the harsh fanaticism of the four ministers whom the general assembly of the Church of Scotland had sent out to establish a regular presbyterial organization. The last addition to the settlement was the company of Captain Alexander Campbell of Fonab, who arrived only to learn that a Spanish force of 1500 or 1600 men lay encamped at Tubacanti, on the river Santa Maria, waiting for the appearance of a Spanish squadron in order to make a combined attack on the fort. Captain Campbell, on the second day after his arrival, marched with 200 men across the isthmus to Tubacanti, stormed the camp in the night-time, and dispersed the Spanish force. On his return to the fort on the fifth day he found it besieged by the Spaniards from the men-of-war; and, after a vain attempt to maintain its defence, he succeeded with a few companions in making his escape in a small vessel. A capitulation followed, and the Darien colony was no more. Of those who had taken part in the enterprise only a miserable handful ever reached their native land.
See J. H. Burton, The Darien Papers (Bannatyne Club, 1849); Macaulay, History of England (London, 1866); and A. Lang, History of Scotland, vol. iv. (Edinburgh, 1907).
- Keats, in his famous sonnet beginning:—“Much have I travelled in the realms of gold,” of which this is the concluding line, inaccurately substitutes Cortez for Balboa.