Forward to next post: What kind of “Election Day unrest” are we talking about?
I often think we’re living in an alternate history novel. Honesty, the events of the world are too strange to be real. In different times and different circumstances, my guess as to the author may change1, 2, but the overwhelming impression remains.
The complex net of economic forces that is influencing our lives right now makes me think of Kim Stanley Robinson or Neal Stephenson: writers who capture the sweep of history, and yet document the effects of its small eddies on specific human beings. I am not, at present, in the main plotline (thank goodness); I’m almost certainly not even a minor character. The protagonist is likely to be in Iceland right now, or perhaps an Icelandic expat, living in a world gone suddenly strange and restrictive. I hope it all comes out well by the end.
Then there’s the Darien Scheme. That’s always struck me as a piece of an alternate history, leaking across into this one. Know the story?
At the end of the seventeenth century, Scotland was in an economic trap. It hadn’t the resources or the might to compete with the great European trading powers: the Spanish, the Portuguese and their near neighbors, the English. Scotland, already bound to England by the Union of the Crowns under James Stuart, found its political and economic independence increasingly threatened by its wealthy neighbor to the south.
The solution, thought some, was to join the game: get a colony in the New World. The specific objective was Panama, with its temptingly narrow isthmus. The Scots thought to build a colony on the Darién river, where the landmass is just over 50 miles wide, and offer portage services for freight (at, of course, a fee). It was to be, according William Paterson, its chief promoter, “The door of the Seas and the Key of the Universe.”
The venture raised £400,000 by subscription, accounting for somewhere between a third and a half of all of the nation’s capital. In 1698, a fleet of five ships set out from Leith Harbor to stake Scotland’s place in the New World. More followed in 1699.
Somewhere, I think, an author must have sat with his agent over a dram of Panama highland single malt (18 year old Yaviza3) and discussed his latest novel idea.
“I was thinking of doing an alternate history this time. What if the second Darien expedition had failed as badly as the first? What if the Scots never had their own colony in the New World?”
“You mean if they’d done a Jamestown and died out?”
“Something like that. Scotland pretty much bet its existence as an independent nation on the scheme. What if, say, the English colony at Jamaica had received the royal edict in time and refused to supply the Scots? The nation would have gone bankrupt, and only England would have been in a position to bail them out.”
“Interesting idea. England were after a union of parliaments right about then, weren’t they?”
“Yep. And the Scots wouldn’t have been able to refuse if they’d lost half their capital in Panama. I suspect that England might have held onto the Empire all the way through the 1800’s if they’d been able to get the Scots to serve as their administrators and soldiers. Imagine what that would have done to India, for instance.”
“Or Canada. Would they have broken with England if there hadn’t been a Scottish Empire to join? And hey—would we still have the canal? The Scots needed the 180 years of engineering innovation that the Darien revenues funded before they were ready to dig it in 1887.”
“I’m sure that someone would have managed it eventually. Maybe the Americans, a few years later.”
“I’d have to be convinced of that. Anyway, send me the outline and we’ll talk.”
Wait…what? You say the Darien scheme failed? The settlers died in their pestilential swamp, and only 300 of the 2,800 colonists made it back to Scotland? Scotland signed an Act of Union in 1707, including compensation to the Darien subscribers4?
Well, nuts. Wrong timeline again. You guys didn’t have Prez either, did you?