Here's your totally useless fact of the day:

By Mike Power
Sun Aug 14, 1:55 PM ET

PANAMA CITY (Reuters) - Three letters sent by a Scotsman who joined an ill-fated 17th century colony in Panama's remote jungle go on display this week in a reminder of a bizarre adventure that bankrupted Scotland and paved the way for its creation.

The only surviving letters sent home from the Scottish "Darien Venture" in modern-day Panama, which killed more than 2,000 settlers, came to light last year at the National Archives of Scotland as its catalogue was being digitized.

The three letters will go on display at the Panama Canal Museum for a week, starting Tuesday.

The letters were sent by George Douglas, who was one of 2,500 people who answered an appeal by Scottish financial adventurer William Paterson to establish a colony in Panama as a first step towards controlling and taxing trade between the Atlantic and Pacific from Darien, an inhospitable and remote jungle region even today.

Paterson raised 400,000 pounds to buy supplies and five ships that set sail in July 1698. Farmers, merchants and even servants donated the cash, a huge sum at the time.

The ships carried useless goods they hoped to trade with the local Kuna indigenous group, such as mirrors and combs. England initially backed the venture, but then forbade its North American and Caribbean territories from trading with the Scots.

It is not known what happened to Douglas, who wrote three times to his family in Fife in 1699, although most of the colonists succumbed to tropical diseases, storms, feuds and attacks from the Spanish. The survivors abandoned the area.

Douglas' letters detail the declining fortunes of the colony, and his pining for "a barrel of oatmeal," a "stone of cheese" and "a case of brandy."

"Half of the men in the colony are all sick at present with the great heats, for April and August are the two hottest months in the year here," he wrote in his third and final letter dated April 10, 1699.

Facing a hostile Spanish military presence, Douglas wrote in a poignant postscript, "Our fortifications are not done as yet, nor will they be ready within a year."

Knowing nothing about the fate of the first expedition, a second group of colonists set sail to Panama in 1699 and found the settlement in ruins. More disease and another Spanish attack led to the colony's ultimate abandonment.


Alison Lindsay, the Scottish archive official bringing the documents to Panama, says they provide a fascinating link with Scotland's past.

"Documents such as these can give the human voice a resonance beyond death," she said.

Bankrupted by the disaster, Scotland's aristocracy was convinced by an English offer to renounce nationhood and join forces to form Britain under the 1707 Act of Union, historians say.

Stanley Heckadon, a historian and anthropologist at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama City says a successful colony in the Darien could have changed the course of history.

"It's one of the most fascinating dramas of the history of the new world. If they had succeeded, they would have controlled world trade," he said. "Industry and education would have been better, and also, as the Scottish were among the first in Europe to become excellent engineers, maybe they would have built a railroad or a canal."

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