Review of Douglas Galbraith's The Rising Sun
I studied Scottish history in the late eighties the Darien Scheme
was whizzed over in the short ten minutes that it took to explain
what happened in the years preceding the 1707 Union with England.
Why? Surely this scheme, more than any other in Scottish history,
sums up Scotland. That need to better our neighbour (the Company
of Scotland was meant to rival the East India Company); a brave
idea not thought out properly and not taking into account the worldwide
repercussions (did they really think that they would just be left
to get on with it); the insane competitiveness engendered within
different factions in Scottish life and ultimately, the pettiness,
lack of direction and downright brutality within the colony itself.
I had always wondered why there had never been a fiction book about
the Darien Scheme as it seemed to cry out for one. After all, there
are plenty about the South Sea Bubble. But maybe its because
it was waiting for Douglas Galbraith to do it the justice it deserved.
So what was
the Darien Scheme? Well, in the dying years of the 17th century a great
venture was proposed in Scotland, one that would bring wealth and prosperity
on a nation which had suffered famine and massacres in the preceding
years. Scotland would create its very own colony on the Panamanian Peninsula
and thus control the trade links between the East and the West. Needless
to say, there were reasons why this had not been done before but the
Company of Scotland ignored these and instead sold the idea as a marvellous
plan, one that would solve all Scotlands financial woes.
The book is narrated by one Roderick Mackenzie, Superintendant of Cargoes
on The Rising Sun, a naive young man whose one burning desire from the
day he heard about the scheme was to set sail in one of the ships and
be a founding member of the colony.
The journey over the Atlantic is created in incredible detail in Mackenzies
diary, interspersed with him looking back to his first days in Edinburgh
and his first taste of work and women. Late seventeenth century Edinburgh
is brought gloriously to life with its winding alleyways and coffee
shops filled with adventurers and prospectors, such as those who set
up the Company of Scotland. There, Roderick meets with a range characters
such as his wily employer, Colquhoun, religious Baillie Ritchie with
whom he lodges and Widow Gilbert and her welcoming (for a price) girls.
He wangles himself into a job with the Company of Scotland and there
meets with Mr Paterson and the mysterious Jewish merchant, DAzevedo.
During the journey across the Atlantic Roderick meets the people who
will affect life in the colony - the enigmatic Captain Galt, militaristic
Captain Drummond, seen-it-all-before Dr Munro and, again, the charismatic
Mr Paterson. Almost as soon as the voyage begins Roderick is asked to
choose his side and he is amazed for, in his idealism, he had thought
everyone was looking for the same thing - a success.
In the colony the feuds and factions develop further. And there are
the added complications of disease, Spanish soldiers and the native
peoples. But most importantly of all, there is no trade, no one will
stop at their colony and so, day by day, success recedes and failure
becomes the one word that everyone thinks but no one will say. The minutia
of everyday life in a restricted area, with a mainly male population,
with little prospect of success and warring factions is evoked piece
by piece as Roderick becomes aware of each problem and the colony begins
The book is slightly difficult to read in the beginning but definitely
worth persevering with. After all, if the narrator could struggle across
the Atlantic, then we can certainly struggle for the first fifty pages.
Having said that, the first couple of pages flow with the rhythm of
poetry and hooked me right in and it is a fantastic read. This is a
wonderful book, historically accurate and brimming with the sights and
smells of the time, both in Edinburgh and Panama. Read it and weep for
a lost dream.
Hardcover - 520 pages (25 August, 2000) Picador; ISBN: 0330372971
© Hazel Marshall 2001
< About the Author
< Reply to this Article