Book review: Darien: a Journey in Search of Empire

Author: John McKendrick QC
Publisher: Birlinn Ltd (2016)
Hardcover: 288pp
ISBN: 978-1780273204
Price: £20

Whether or not ‘Darien’ would be known to many but for Keats’ reference in ‘On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer’ is debatable. Keats notwithstanding, it is still a fairly niche topic, generally only name-checked by those who have done Standard Grade history or those who read the business section of the Scottish newspapers.

If you fall outside this Venn diagram, allow me to summarise the story imperfectly: 17th century Scots set out to rival the English East India Company and restore national pride by setting up a trading post in the isthmus of Panama allowing trade from the Atlantic to the Pacific. Disease, drink, dissent (and an acute absence of interest in tartan, wigs and bibles in the Caribbean) leads the enterprise to end in disaster.

John McKendrick’s book gets off to a promising start by pointing out that Keats erred in naming Cortez rather than Balboa as the man who stood upon the peak in Darien; although to be fair to Keats, Balboa doesn’t scan. The general tone at the beginning of this book is one of a gentle debunking. McKendrick, although keen to laud heroic individuals, does not subscribe to a misty-eyed view of the failure of the enterprise as being the end of a free Scotland. Rather, he considers that in being a factor which led to the Act of Union, ‘the disaster’ was in some ways a serendipitous misadventure. Only as part of a United Kingdom could Scotland transform itself into a modern country and become home to the Enlightenment. He also tenaciously argues that English proclamations against the company, which meant that neither English investment, experience nor trading partners were available to the Scots, were not a result of English bigotry but rather a political necessity at a time when it was imperative to avoid war with Spain. Blaming the English is, reading between the lines, something which he considers to be a longstanding and regrettable national pastime preventing proper inward analysis.

If I may tentatively suggest that this thoroughly researched and engagingly written book has a fault, it is that, as it proceeds, small ironies and similarities one may have seen with current affairs are presented as near perfect parallels in the relentless march of history: the debunking becomes at times a bit of a bludgeoning.

I also found that the chapters dealing with the author’s own visits to the Isthmus felt like they belonged in a different book: going from careful historical research about the lives of the men building Fort St Andrew to a description of the author’s high-risk trip to the rubble of that Fort was not an easy transition for the reader. I confess too that some of the asides about the breast sizes of the local Kuna women and the attractiveness of a librarian in South Carolina left me looking up from a generally enjoyable and interesting book with something akin to wild surmise.

Reviewer Mary Cowe, Guildhall Chambers

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