Trivia Thursday: Off With His Head!

blockThis Week’s Question:

Oliver Cromwell, Lord Protector of England during the Commonwealth, was beheaded on this day in 1661. What was unusual about this execution?

Last Week’s Question:

The union of Scotland and England, which was ratified by Scotland on 16 January 1707, may have been partly prompted by which financial disaster?

Answer: That would be the Darien Scheme, or the Darien Disaster, as it later became known. In the late 1690s, Scotland decided it wanted to take a place on the world stage and become more active in trading and empire building, which other countries were engaging in like they were playing a particularly passionate game of Risk. Scotland’s plan was to establish a trading post on the Isthmus of Panama, and to this end around £400,000 was raised (around £44 million today) from all levels of society. This was about a fifth of the wealth in all of Scotland.

Five ships set out with 1200 people in July 1698 and made landfall on 2 November, christening their new home Caledonia. Their first task was to build Fort St Andrew, though, for some reason, they didn’t think it would be necessary to ensure the fort had a source of fresh water. As other settlers had found, farming proved difficult (Panama being considerably different from Scotland, in pretty much every way) and the local tribes weren’t exactly welcoming. The few traders that actually came by were uninterested in what Caledonia had to sell. As an additional kicker, the weather didn’t agree with people more accustomed to northerly climes, and the mortality rate soon reached a staggering 10 settlers a day. Food ran low and was mostly hoarded by the people in charge, and back in England, King William, unwilling to upset the Spanish, who claimed all of Panama, instructed Dutch and English colonies in America not to supply Caledonia with anything. The Caledonians were completely screwed.

Finally, in July 1699, the colony was abandoned. Of the original 1200 settlers and 5 ships, only 300 people managed to limp back to Scotland in one vessel.

Unfortunately, word of the disaster didn’t get back to Scotland quickly enough to prevent a second expedition of more than 1000 people from setting out and arriving in November 1699. Unsurprisingly, they took one look around and morale plummeted. It didn’t help that the leader was apparently a paranoid nutjob who eventually deserted the colony and took off in a sloop. A new leader, Alexander Campbell, arrived and provided some much-needed energy, as well as taking the initiative from the Spanish and pre-emptively attacking their stockade at Toubacanti, but he was injured and incapacitated with a fever in the attack and was unable to lead the defence of Fort St Andrew when the Spanish predictably closed in. The fort was besieged for a month and finally the Scots were forced to surrender and limp back home to Scotland.

Scotland was very nearly financially ruined by the endeavour and, according to some, was forced to take the idea of forming an official union with England more seriously as a consequence. The Acts of Union, fully uniting England and Scotland into a single kingdom of Great Britain.

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