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The (Future) Vista Cañas Library

The Darien Disaster

(1 customer review)

Author: John Prebble

Length: 384 pages
Type: Non-fiction
Genre: Historical

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SKU: Darla Williams 37 Categories: , , , ,


The word Darien is a scar on the memory of the Scots, and the hurt is still felt even where the cause of the wound is dimly understood. Three hundred years ago the Parliament of Scotland, in one of its last acts before the nation lost its political identity, defied the King and the persistent hostility of the English to establish a noble trading company, to settle a colony, and to recover its people from a century of despair, privation, famine and decay. The site of the colony, Darien on the Isthmus of Panama, was the enduring dream of William Patterson, the erratically brilliant Scot who had helped to found the Bank of England. He called it ‘the door of the seas, and the key of the universe’, and believed it would become a bridge between East and West, an entrepôt through which would pass the richest trade in the world. The first attempt to make the Company a joint Scots and English venture was crushed by the English Parliament. The Scots created it by themselves, in a wave of almost hysterical enthusiasm, subscribing half of the nation’s capital. Three years later the ‘noble undertaking’, crippled by the quarrelsome stupidity of its leaders, deliberately obstructed by the English Government, and opposed in arms by Spain, had ended in stunning disaster. Nine fine ships owned by the Company had been sunk, burnt or abandoned. Over two thousand men, women and children who went to the fever-ridden colony never returned. It was a tragic curtain to the last act of Scotland’s independence. John Prebble’s book is the first detailed account of the Darien Settlement, drawn from original sources in the records of the Company, the journals, letters and memoirs of those who tried to turn William Patterson’s dream into reality.


1 review for The Darien Disaster

  1. Janet Dore

    I won’t lie. This was a LABORIOUS read for me—if I wasn’t committed to my Panamanian education, I would have honored my Life Is Too Short to Read Boring Books Rule. But, I am extremely committed and so I persisted…

    The Darien Disaster is the story of the disastrous attempt by the Scottish to establish a colony in the Darien area of northeastern Panamá from 1698-1700. Similar to The Path Between the Seas, the story begins long before the actual event occurred with (pages and pages) of detailed descriptions of most of the individuals involved in the conception and political maneuverings surrounding this highly controversial venture.

    If you’re a devotee of Scottish history, and are intimately familiar with the key players in it, you’ll be pretty thrilled with this book. If you’re hoping for a detailed account of the Scots’ actual life in Darien, you’re probably going to be somewhere on the disgruntled spectrum.

    This book is much more about Scotland than it is about Panamá—and, to be honest, mostly about men of several cultures behaving badly. I was hoping for a more detailed account of life on the ground in Darien and a better feel for the indigenous people the Scots encountered when they were there. While there was a little bit of this, there was far from enough for someone interested in Panamanian history.

    All this bashing aside, despite the painful labor and challenging reading sessions, I’m actually glad I read this book. Albeit limited, it did give me some sense of what it was like in Darien during the 17th century and it reiterated an important lesson that can help make for a more positive expat experience—if one is coming to Panamá to escape the frustrations and realities of dealing with humans or governments, one is going to be seriously disappointed. This was not even possible in 1698, so it’s surely not going to be possible in the 21st century.

    I would not consider this a must read unless you’re the meticulous and determined expat type who wants to know all there is to know about Panamá. (Like me 😄)

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