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Review of Douglas Galbraith's The Rising Sun

Hazel Marshall

When 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 it’s 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 Scotland’s 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 Mackenzie’s 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, D’Azevedo.

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 to disintegrate.

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


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