William Paterson (1658-1719) is most famous for founding the Bank of England, but he also organised one of the world’s most useless expeditions. Seeing England grow rich because of the East India Company, Paterson came up with the Darien Scheme, an attempt to make Scotland a global trading power by establishing a colony called âCaledonia’ on the Isthmus of Panama. The ambitious scheme attracted a Â£400, 000 investment, 20% of Scotland’s entire wealth, and a rag-tag group of famished Highlanders and soldiers discharged after the Glen Coe Massacre boarded a fleet of ships to become the first settlers in 1698.
Unfortunately, Darien was only known through the unsubstantiated reports of sailors, and the settlement was an unmitigated disaster. Reaching the mosquito-ridden land of Darien, the first task for the squabbling pioneers was to dig graves for those who died on the voyage, including Paterson’s wife. They had very limited supplies, disease broke out, and the pioneers were attacked by the Spanish, who were already trading in the area. Despite the locals taking pity on the Scots and bringing them fruit and fish, a mere 7 months after landing 400 settlers were dead. The rest decided to call it a day.
But the story doesn’t end there. Unaware of what had happened, two other ships had already set sail for Darien to restock its supplies, and arrived to find hundreds of graves and abandoned huts. 1, 000 other settlers also made a voyage to the new colony, and were furious to find the original settlers waiting for them in the harbour, having escaped to New York and returned, demanding that they help rebuild New Edinburgh. The fort was promptly destroyed by the Spanish. In total, around 2, 000 people died on Darien or sailing home, and the Scottish economy was ruined.
At last, on 11th July 1897, the wind was blowing north, and the balloon, named Eagle, was released. Conditions were appalling, and the crew were constantly jettisoning items to keep afloat. After several crashes, the Eagle was finally rendered useless on 14th July. Not to be deterred, despite the whole point of the expedition being to map the Arctic from the air, the men continued on foot, using the meagre safety supplies they had packed for just such an (inevitable) eventuality. Unfortunately, they had thrown away much of their food supplies, and so had to shoot and eat bears.
Percy Fawcett (1867-1925) worked as a cartographer, mapping the Brazilian Jungle for the Royal Geographic Society from 1906. Although he managed to produce the required maps, he also attracted ridicule when he claimed to have seen and shot a 62-foot long anaconda. With such a fantastic imagination, it is perhaps little surprise to learn that Fawcett is most famous for searching for the lost city of Z, whose existence he was convinced of from his own documentary research. He tried twice to find it, falling ill on the first attempt in 1920, and disappearing on the second attempt in 1925.
With his years of experience as a cartographer and âcompelling’ research, Fawcett managed to attract significant investment for his final attempt, on which he was accompanied by his son, a close friend, two Brazilian labourers, and horses. The search took him into uncharted rainforest across the Upper Xingu in the Matto Grosso state, and it is assumed that he died there. He was last heard from on 29th Mary 1925, when he sent a letter to his wife containing the hubristic words: âyou need have no fear of any failure’. His disappearance remains a mystery to this day.
It has been suggested that Fawcett was killed by Amazon tribesmen, despite his previous tact and good relations with locals. Various people have claimed to have anecdotal evidence that this was indeed his fate, including David Grann in his account of the mystery, The Lost City of Z. It is more likely that Fawcett was simply underprepared for exploring an uncharted area whose dangers and challenges he was simply unaware of or succumbed to disease and exhaustion. Despite all the theories, nothing has been proven, and many expeditions have failed to find the truth after trekking through Matto Grosso.
We finish back Down Under. Hamilton Hume (1797-1873) and William Hovell (1786-1875) were Australian explorers and, as you can tell by their life-spans, very successful ones. Their 1824 expedition is the stuff of legend, and discovered important grazing land in Australia’s forbidding interior (then, as now, most Australians lived around the edges). However, their discoveries are all the more impressive with hindsight when we acknowledge the level of incompetence, constant bickering, and downright slapstick moments that occurred on their expedition. Their example demonstrates that even the most successful expeditions in history still have plenty of room for stupidity.
Hamilton Hume was chosen to find the grazing land by the governor of New South Wales, Sir Thomas Brisbane, because of his experience of exploring the Outback. Though Hovell was more inexperienced, he was a former sea captain who had explored the area around Sydney since settling there in 1819, and his discovery of the Burragorang Valley in 1823 also suggested that he was a good choice. Unfortunately, despite their relative merits, the two men simply did not get along. Three weeks into their expedition, the two men went their separate ways after disagreeing about how to cross some mountains.
As they divided their belongings, Hume and Hovell first cut a tent in half, then argued over which should have a frying pan. The debate became a literal tug of war, and the frying pan broke apart in their hands, demonstrating an important moral if ever anything did, and each took their part away with them to stop the other having the full implement. The men (and the pan and its handle) were reunited shortly afterwards when Hovell realised he had made a navigational error. Relations however became so strained that Hume threatened to throw Hovell into the Murray River.
Hovell’s alarmingly poor sense of direction also led him to identify Corio Bay as Western Port Bay, which was actually 100km further east of their destination. When they returned shortly afterwards, they reported that excellent grazing land was to be had near Western Port Bay, and it was not until 18 months later that a subsequent expedition revealed their error. Hume and Hovell fostered a lifelong rivalry, constantly debating which man had played the greater part in the expedition and publishing pamphlets to make their point. The uncomfortable truth for both was that they had formed an effective team.
Where did we find this stuff? Here are our sources: