John McKendrick’s new book, Darien: A Journey in Search of Empire is a combination of compelling narrative history and gripping travelogue. His journey to uncover Caledonia, the short-lived Scottish colony in Darien, began when his legal career took him to the international ports of Panama. In his search for traces of the enterprise he became entangled by many of the same difficulties encountered by the seventeenth-century Scots: an inhospitable climate; a suspicious indigenous population with its own local conflicts; and dense jungle. A machete-wielding history, the journey becomes a personal pilgrimage as McKendrick uncovers vestiges of Darien not just at the place still known as Punta Escocés but in the places to which the colonists scattered. This extract finds him in the southern United States –
Although it was October the land was steamy, swampy almost and the air was humid and heavy. I drove with the windows down and the hot air tangled my hair into knots. The radio played a selection of lachrymose Country songs. I passed a large church which announced ‘A crossless life is a pointless life’. A sentiment the Reverend Archibald Stobo would very much have agreed with. Stobo is perhaps less well-known than his fellow Darien minister Francis Borland, because he did not keep a record of his time in Caledonia. But he was fit enough to go ashore and preach at Charleston in 1700, and this devotion saved his life. I had come to the Carolinas and Georgia to find out more about Caledonia’s most successful survivor and his descendants, who did more to fulfil William Paterson’s dream than any other. In Savannah I hoped to see where those descendants had lived, and from there I would go to Charleston to see where the Reverend Stobo founded around five churches. Stobo was the most successful of the survivors of Caledonia. First and most importantly his connection with Theodore Roosevelt provides an extraordinary link across 200 years from the vision of Paterson to the achievement of Panama as a vital hinge in the world economy. But Stobo had other great offspring. His grandson, Archibald Bulloch (1730–1777) who was born in South Carolina, was a great Revolutionary leader who fought against the British and was Georgia’s representative at the Continental Congress.
In Charleston, the South Carolina Historical Society was housed in the oddly named Fireproof Building at 100 Meeting Street. The building was attractive, in the Palladian style with Doric porticos, but more interestingly it claimed to be the first fireproof building built in the United States for the preservation of public records, the ideal location for a history society. I was not sure what I expected to find in the Society’s library but felt sure it was worth asking what records or documents they had which dealt with the Reverend Stobo. Inside the cool reception to the library a pretty young librarian helped me and we chatted for a while over what I was interested in. She asked me to temporarily register and then carried out a search of the records. A few documents appeared on the computer screen on the system and the librarian sought them out for me. When they arrived they were of little help and revealed very little about Stobo’s life in Charlestown. After a little over an hour I was about to leave when the librarian asked me if I would like to see the ‘Stobo bible’. I asked what it was and she was not very sure but asked me to don a pair of white gloves and she disappeared to the fireproof vaults to find it. I sat with eager anticipation. Could this really be the Reverend Stobo’s own bible? Could it have been preserved all this time?
The librarian came back with a large buff-coloured manila folder tied closed with string, which she laid carefully on the table before me then said ‘enjoy’ and left me to it. I sat for a moment, overcome with excitement and emotion: this truly could be a wonderful find. The bible used by Stobo over 300 years ago; the bible he would have held and touched with his own hands in New Edinburgh, and now I would be able to hold it too. It made me feel closer to the Caledonians, even closer perhaps than visiting the site of the colony. I gingerly pulled back the string, struggling a little with the uncomfortable white gloves on my fingers. The manila paper sprang open to reveal a small brown leather-covered bible, with a leather catch which had become damaged. I carefully turned it over and inspected the leather covering, which was a little spoiled and damaged in places but essentially complete. I opened the bible to reveal page after page of perfectly preserved gospel, printed in tiny print, but clearly legible and well laid out. The whole book was remarkable and I felt thrilled to hold Stobo’s bible in my hand, waves of history pouring out from its fragile, dry pages.
A note in the manila envelope made clear this bible had belonged to the Reverend Archibald Stobo who founded several Presbyterian churches in the area. It appeared to lend support to the idea – given the date and place of publication, close to when he would have set sail from Glasgow – that this was the bible he may have used in New Edinburgh. It seems likely it was bought in Scotland before the second expedition sailed. This may even have been the bible he would have held when he gave sermons to the Caledonians, the bible he used when he prayed for salvation when the Spanish attacked, the bible he would have pressed against his hands aboard the Rising Sun when he feared the ship would not make it on its voyage from Jamaica to Scotland. It was an amazing and startling discovery and moved me intensely. I opened to the bible gently and read several passages. Flicking through the crackling pages I wondered what sustenance the Reverend Stobo would have taken from some of the passages as he read them: Joshua 1:6–9 ‘Be strong and courageous, because you will lead these people to inherit the land’; Matthew 11:28–30 ‘Come to me all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest’; Nehemiah 6:3 ‘I am carrying on a great project and cannot go down’. What inspiration or solace did the he find in this book as he hoped, feared, repented and rejoiced in his travels from Glasgow to New Edinburgh to Jamaica to Charleston? Holding the bible in my hands made me feel closer to the Caledonians than at any other point in my journey following them. I gently closed the bible, kissed it and taking a last wistful look at it, placed it gently back in the manila folder. Back in the fireproof vaults, the bible was sure to survive for another 300 years.
Darien: A Journey in Search of Empire is published this month and is available here on our website and in all good bookshops.