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Digital Subscriptions > History Scotland > Jul - Aug 2019 > CAPTAIN ROBERT PINCARTON Darien survivor, convicted pirate and unsung hero

CAPTAIN ROBERT PINCARTON Darien survivor, convicted pirate and unsung hero

Few people emerged from the disaster of the Darien scheme (1698-1700) covered in glory, but among the survivors was the indomitable figure of Captain Robert Pincarton, a man whose skill, bravery and fortitude arguably make him the closest thing Darien ever produced to a national hero. Dr Julie Orr reconstructs Pincarton’s remarkable story
Playa Muerto, in the Darien National Park

Few heroes have emerged in the history of Scotland’s calamitous 17th century attempt to establish a trading entrepot on the fisthmus of Panama. The ‘Darien scheme’ or ‘Darien disaster’ has instead become identified with its tragic loss of life, devastating blow to the country’s economy and debated role in 1707’s union with England. On closer examination of manuscripts in Spanish and British archives, however, there is a man whose character and exploits deservedly elevate him to hero status. That man is Captain Robert Pincarton.

In November 1696, representatives of the newly formed Company of Scotland Trading to Africa and the Indies transmitted positive news from London. Their mission to seek out and employ worthy men for forthcoming expeditions to secure Scotland a place in burgeoning global trade had borne fruit. Notable among those committing their services was 41-year-old Prestonpans native Robert Pincarton, described as ‘a plain kind of man but has repute to be honest and brave’ and possessing not only highly praised skills as a mariner but also an understanding of trade in Africa and the Americas vital to the goals of the enterprise.

Those qualities would be severely challenged during Pincarton’s four years of service in the effort to establish the trading colony of New Caledonia. From deftly negotiating with Portuguese and Danish officials in colonial strongholds to shipwreck in Cartagena and conviction on charges of piracy in Seville, his experience, leadership and ability to simply survive was relentlessly tested. One of the small number of Darien veterans ever to return to Scotland, he emerges an unsung hero exhibiting consistent strength and ability from the manic, detailed preparations prior to the first voyage to the confused, benign response of company officials upon his reappearance in Edinburgh in 1701.

The fortunate 2012 discovery in Spain’s Archive of the Indies of the transcript of Pincarton’s trial before judges of the Casa de la Contratación, combined with fragments of material from Scottish and English archives, reveal the impressive resume which brought the mariner to the notice of the Company of Scotland. Without question he had acquired unique Caribbean experience while serving as boatswain during Sir William Phipps’s successful recovery of Spanish treasure off Hispaniola in 1686-7. That expedition, known for the lucrative financial reward provided its patrons and subsequent fueling of enthusiasm for joint-stock company initiatives, also supplied Pincarton with a pragmatic education in conducting illicit trade with Spanish colonial officials. By 1695 the Scot had risen to master of the St. Jagoe of New England, successfully petitioning to return her crew home alongside a convoy heading to Barbados. Promotion was also tempered by adversity, Pincarton relating during his eventual trial in Seville that he had lost two successive ships and all his possessions to the French during the Nine Years’ War. Experiences with material loss, imprisonment and 17th-century bureaucracy would serve him well.

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About History Scotland

Five reasons not to miss July/August History Scotland * 19 archaeology projects to enjoy this summer * BRAND NEW research on the life of Margaret Tudor * Exclusive curator preview of the major new exhibition Wild and Majestic and National Museums Scotland * BONUS CONTENT Videos, interview * The unexpected Darien hero - Captain Robert Pincarton