Tuesday, 17 August 2010

San Blas and Scotland...

I do so love it when a new piece of knowledge is added to something I already know to round out a more complete story! Let me explain.

A few years ago when we were sailing in the San Blas islands in Panama we came across a Scottish boat. Getting to know them we found that they came from Caledonia and were very excited to be visiting the tiny village of New Caledonia in the island group. A few days after our meeting we saw them again. They were upset at the reaction to their visit with the village chief. Their hopes had been to forge a link between their village school back in Scotland and the villagers, maybe to offer support and cultural interaction...Their gifts of Scottish shortbread and pictorial tea towels were met with a degree of contempt by the chief. They put the reaction down to the over generosity of a group of American cruisers who had just gone through the place handing out largess in the form of sails and equipment for fishing.

We all tut tutted at the cultural contamination and went our way...

Then yesterday I found this reference to a new play about an event back in the 1600's when Scotland attempted to settle this very place! It ended in tears....

A little over a year ago the National Theatre of Scotland invited me in to talk. They said they wanted to do a play with me and we narrowed it down to the banking crisis or nationalism. Or both. I went away thinking I was going to write a contemporary political play, which is what I normally do. Then I happened to stumble across a mention of the Darien disaster . I thought “That’s one of those South Sea Bubble-type stories that hasn’t, to my knowledge, ever been told on the stage.”
I began to read up about it and was knocked out by what I found. As a result of this failed quest, between 1698-1700, to establish a colony called New Caledonia on the Isthmus of Panama, a demoralised and bankrupt Scotland was pushed into the Treaty of Union with England in 1707. The episode wiped out half of Scotland’s national wealth and destroyed 2,000 lives.
It’s a story of one man’s vision – the trader and banker William Paterson (1658-1719), who ended up founding the Bank of England – and also of widespread hubris and incompetence. Those involved in the venture underestimated all the dangers – the disease, the possibility of a trade embargo by England, attacks by the Spanish. In a way, it’s a parable about mass national delusion.
Caledonia There were bonfires along the east coast of Scotland when the fleet left from Leith. People crowded on the headlands to catch a glimpse of the ships, which they thought would mean Scotland was going to have an empire. They sent out 14 ships. Only one came back. The others were either captured, destroyed or sank.
Paterson was one of the few people behind the venture who actually went, and his wife died out there. Going on a ship in those days was incredibly life-threatening. They lost about 20 people on each ship on the way over – and that’s referred to as rather good for a voyage of that length. Hundreds died on the way back.
What’s extraordinary is the thoroughness of the record-keeping. Every bag of salt that went onto the ships was logged. All the names of people who died, and what they died of, are listed – many of them were very young, as young as 12. It was quite painful to read some of the details.
There’s a wonderful collection of documents from the 1690s in the Glasgow University library. I ended up doing so much research I had to crawl out from under a mountain of material to make a play. The result, Caledonia, tells the story as a tragic adventure, but it’s also a political play.
The parallels with today are extraordinary, right down to one of the early scenes, where we see Paterson wining and dining at vast expense key members of a parliamentary committee to get their vote. I even found the menu for the supper they had that night, and have used a bit of it.
Paterson was very persuasive. They thought they had discovered a guaranteed road to riches. The new institution at the time was the joint stock trading company. You could say it was the credit default swap of its age. People thought you could get rich without any real risk. There was also a belief that a small nation could become powerful overnight.
It’s a big departure for me as a writer. It’s a historical drama with satirical edges – quite an odd beast. I’ve slightly simplified and modernised the language so that it feels accessible, and I’ve found a lot of ballads from the period, some of which I’ve used and some of which I’ve rewritten. There’s a lot of music.
I hope it’s an epic story told with verve and wit. If you pushed me I’d say I hope it makes people sceptical about anyone offering instant wealth; and sceptical, too, about some forms of nationalism.
The story of the Darien scheme is a forgotten tale. Very few Scots know about it, and those who are aware of it seem to know about it only vaguely. The only person I’ve bumped into who immediately knew what I was talking about was Menzies Campbell.
I don’t think it’s a conspiracy, but at some level it’s an awkward issue for Scots. For a long time Scotland had a grim Presbyterian defeatist aura. It’s only a hypothesis but I think maybe Darien had something to do with it.
Alistair Beaton was talking to Dominic Cavendish
'Caledonia’ opens at the King’s Theatre, Edinburgh (0131 529 6000) on August 21 

Isn't that amazing? Just shows you we often have no idea of the history of events in many of the places we visit... 

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