New Caledonia (or Darien) represented a Scottish attempt at colonisation in the decade before the Act of Union created the United Kingdom. Not to be confused with the French colony of the same name in the Pacific Ocean, New Caledonia was located on the Caribbean side of of the Panama isthmus and started in 1698.
It was originally established to challenge the growing commercial power of the Dutch and English East India Company's. It was financed by public subscription that was remarkable for its popularity. It became something of a financial fad and raised a small fortune from the relatively poor Scotland of the 1690s. Unfortunately, this money was not wisely invested and the choice of the Panama Isthmus was particularly problematic. It was surrounded by Spanish colonies that were hostile to any non-Catholic involvement in their sphere. It was hot, humid and a disease ridden jungle that could not grow crops that were needed by the colonisers nor by markets back in Scotland. It also had the enmity of the English and Dutch who were keen to preserve their own commercial monopolies in the region.
William Paterson sailed out to the colony with five ships and 1300 settlers in 1698. They established a capital called New Edinburgh with a defensive fort named Fort St Andrew primarily aimed at fighting off the Spanish. However, within six months the colony was on it knees. Insects, climate, flooding and disease demoralised the settlers. It didn't help matters when the English government forbade its American and Caribbean colonies from aiding the Darien enterprise in any manner. By June 1699 there were only 900 settlers remaining and many more of these died on voyages to escape to Jamaica or the American colonies.
Rumours of catastrophe circulated back in Edinburgh but two more expeditions were already en route. The first carrying 300 colonists, the second some 1300. They arrived on St Andrew's day to find Darien deserted and overgrown. Most of these colonists headed back to Jamaica but 500 stayed and tried to soldier on. They rebuilt the fort and beat off a small Spanish attack. However, hunger and disease kicked in once more and by the time the Spanish returned with a larger force in 1700, the remaining settlers were ready to surrender without a fight.
The whole scheme was a financial and human catastrophe. The death rate was 71% and thousands of small (and large) Scottish investors were ruined by the whole enterprise - or at least in the short term. One unforeseen legacy of the Darien debacle was its role in promoting the Union between Scotland and England just seven years later in 1707. Article 15 of the Act of Union specifically offered to repay all investors in the scheme every penny that they had invested and even to generously pay 42% interest on top. This was dependent wholly on the Act of Union being passed by the Scottish Parliament. It was little more than a bare faced bribe but it did the trick of converting many of the financial losers of the New Caledonian scheme into die hard Unionists!