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Bristol's new insight into Scottish history comes to BBC2

Press release issued: 4 July 2003

Evidence about a major turning point in Scottish - and British - history, uncovered by a Bristol University archaeological expedition, will be revealed in a documentary on BBC2 on Thursday, July 10.

Fresh evidence about a major turning point in Scottish - and British - history has been found by a new archaeological expedition.

A Bristol University expedition to Panama in conjunction with BBC Scotland has uncovered parts of the township site and a significant number of artefacts from the Darien project - an ambitious plan to create a New Scotland in Central America, which failed dramatically, leading, many historians believe, to the union with England in 1707.

In the late 1690s, 4,000 Scots - funded by around half of the country's wealth - set sail for the Darien isthmus of Panama, which they believed could be a key land link between the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans; a kind of 17th century prototype to its modern day equivalent, the Panama Canal.

The aim was to set up a wealthy Scots colony - pivotal to global trading - but within two years the dream was over with half of the colonists dead. And Scotland itself was bankrupted.

Many experts believe the financial ramifications led directly to the union, out of economic necessity, with England in 1707.

This new expedition earlier this year found parts of the fortifications known as Fort St Andrews and the remains of huts in what was to be New Edinburgh, a communal oven and the wreck of a supply ship.

Among the finds by the international team of archaeologists - led by Mark Horton, an expert in the colonial history of the Caribbean - were Scottish pennies and a pocket sundial, which would have been a significant aid to telling the time and a personal treasure for someone of status in the doomed colony.

Also uncovered were musket balls, cannonballs, a grenade and tools.

The details of the expedition and its finds will be revealed in a special hour long programme to be broadcast on BBC TWO on Thursday 10 July at 9.00pm.

Darien: Disaster in Paradise will also feature dramatic reconstructions of the original venture, based on journals and letters sent by the original colonists, with actor Bill Paterson playing his namesake William Paterson, the visionary behind the venture.

He came up with the scheme in response to strangulating trading blocks imposed by England, which had led to widespread poverty in Scotland.

But his bold venture, which was initially hailed and celebrated in Scotland, was beset by difficulties almost from the start.

Supplies taken with the venture were woefully inadequate and valuable space and resources were given over to items such as combs and blue bonnets for the natives.

A supply ship went down in the natural Darien harbour after a sailor kicked over a candle in the hold, while trying to get a nip of brandy.

The colonists were then faced with the daunting task of turning the jungle into a settlement while battling the heat, humidity and mosquitoes.

Malaria, yellow fever and dysentery were endemic with as many as 12 deaths a day registered until more than 2,000 - including William Paterson's wife Hannah - had died.

The 2003 expedition found that the jungle has virtually reclaimed the area.

Director and producer of the film, Andrew Thompson, said: "We could only be there for two weeks but we really did experience similar conditions.

"The Darien venture had to be one of the boldest bids of its time, to set up a new colony - the basis for a new country - where the jungle was and still is the king.

"On one level it was complete folly to put so much of Scotland's hopes for the future in one basket, but in another way you can see what Paterson was trying to achieve and the strategic significance of the area meant it did have the potential to become an incredibly rich trading centre.

"If Darien had succeeded, it could have led to a very different course for British history.

"Scotland may have remained independent with the possibility that the United Kingdom would never have been created."

However, the programme reveals the likelihood of success was always slim as the Spanish believed they owned the area, which was their main gold trading route, and were determined not to let the Scots get hold of it.

Untypically the English were at peace with Spain - for the first time in 30 years - and would offer no assistance to the colonists.

The 2003 expedition found examples of Spanish warfare at the site suggesting the Spanish assault on the fledgling colony was fiercer than had been previously thought.

Leader of the expedition of international volunteers, Dr Mark Horton of Bristol University, had been to the area with a previous expedition in 1979.

Mark Horton - who also fronts the BBC Scotland-made Time Flyers series - said: "This new expedition was a really amazing experience because it's really told us a lot about what the Scottish colony was really like. And we've learnt an awful lot about the defences, about the sheer energy that the Scots must have invested in to find this colony.

"And we've learnt a lot about the Spanish attack on the colony in terms of the all the cannon balls and musket balls and things that were lobbed into the middle of the fort. Maybe it was actually a lot more bloody than the historical sources tell us.

"The historical sources are confused, they're contradictory, they're dramatic, but were they true? By cutting out and feeling the sheer sweat of it all one can understand what it was like to be a Scottish colonist in Darien.

"I think finding the portable sundial was my moment of greatest excitement because that is the most extraordinary find.

"There could only have been one on the site and it must have belonged to one of the really senior people in the colony, one of the officers. I mean it could even actually have belonged to William Paterson himself and also in a funny sort of way it also said how time was running out for the colony itself. How the Spanish army were mustering all around it and, inevitably, the dream was just going to fail.

"I suppose the absolute fatal flaw in the whole expedition was that Paterson and others had not realised just how key this bit of land was to the Spanish because this was where all the gold and silver from South America was funnelled through.

"If they allowed the Scots into Darien then the Spanish Empire would have collapsed.

"New research and historical records in Madrid have shown that actually if the first campaign had failed the Spanish were mounting an even bigger one, they were absolutely determined to get rid of these Scots. They were not going to countenance the idea of a Scottish colony here. So, ultimately the dream would have failed whatever."

Darien: Disaster in Paradise, BBC TWO, Thursday 10 July, 9.00pm

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