Lest We Forget What Britain Has Done for Scotland

Let us hope we will continue to see the Union Jack flying high above Edinburgh Castle in Scotland. (Wikimedia)

EspañolBogotá offers a peculiar vantage point from which to observe the upcoming Scottish independence referendum.

In the first place, it was not too far from here, in the inhospitable Gulf of Darien now shared between Colombia and Panama (formerly part of Colombia), where Scottish colonists disembarked in 1698. Their hope was to found a commercial colony that would generate Croesus-like wealth by linking the trade between Europe and America with that of Asia. This would have made Scotland the type of small, “successful independent country” that Scottish Nationalist Party leader Alex Salmond now promises to deliver.

Things turned out somewhat differently: the Darien scheme ended two years later with hundreds of colonists dead from tropical disease, starvation, and a massive Spanish onslaught.

The Darien fiasco left Scotland in such a state of economic ruin that its parliament joined with England’s in 1707 in order to gain access to colonial markets. The Act of Union created the United Kingdom of Great Britain which, as Scottish historian Niall Ferguson succinctly puts it in the subtitle to his book Empire, made the modern world. Oddly for many on the outside, the Britain that ruled the waves and heroically withstood the Blitz might perish next week at the ballot box.

Seen from Colombia, such a rupture would be sad indeed, since we owe our independence to the British men — many of them Scottish and Irish — who fought as mercenaries under General Bolívar’s command.

My own third great-grandfather, James Fraser from Inverness, arrived in Isla Margarita as a 19-year-old in 1819 to join Bolívar’s famous British Legion. He served as Irish General John Devreux’s aide-de-camp and was later taken prisoner in a naval battle on the Orinoco River. He was eventually released in an armistice deal and given the rank of colonel.

One of James Fraser’s most significant contributions to the cause of independence was translating the British Army’s manual of infantry tactics into Spanish, as historian Rodrigo de J. García Estrada notes. This helped Bolívar turn his ragtag guerrilla forces into disciplined units capable of defeating Spanish armies.

Karl Marx had a somewhat different view. In an essay not once quoted by the neo-Marxist “Bolivarian” revolutionary Hugo Chávez, Marx maintained that Bolívar owed his military success strictly to the “well disciplined” foreign legion, which, comprised of several thousand men, “was more dreaded by the Spaniards than 10 times the number of Colombians.”

Bolívar himself gave credence to Marx’ theory. Once he had gained independence, he claimed that Luis López Mendez, who had recruited British troops in London for the rebels — possibly with the Duke of Wellington’s tacit support — was “America’s real liberator.”

James Fraser was one of the few British mercenaries who remained in the country he fought to create. He married the niece of General Santander, Bolívar’s former ally and successor as President of Nueva Granada, and settled in eastern Colombia. Although he became a Colombian citizen in the 1820s, his name being Hispanicized to Santiago, Fraser remained proud of his clan ancestry (je suis prest / amicum proba, hostem scito) for the rest of his life. In 1840, he wrote the following in a letter to his father, who lived in Jersey:

I thank God that during the whole of my military career I have been ever ready and never for one moment or from any cause did I excuse myself from the fulfilment of an order received or a duty required of me or of any body or individuals under my command.

Apart from his martial spirit and discipline — the qualities that, in Tim Stanley’s words, forged “a Union that wins wars” — Fraser’s Whiggish views are also on record. For instance, he reacted giddily to the news of Pope Gregory XVI’s death in 1846. As Professor Matthew Brown of the University of Bristol writes, Fraser was “well known as a Liberal in [the city of] Cúcuta in the 1830s.”

And it was those radical liberal ideals promoted by Fraser and others that forged Colombia’s federalist constitution of 1863, the most decentralizing, forward-looking constitution in this country’s history: it established free trade, freed the educational curriculum from Catholic dogma, and guaranteed personal liberties, such as press freedom and due process.

As Juan Carlos Henao explains, the nine sovereign states united under the 1863 constitution created a modern banking system, fostered a booming export sector, and linked it to the outside world by means of (now defunct) railways and a steam-powered fluvial transport system. And yet the experiment in modernity lasted only until the papist conservatives regained power in 1886.

The constitution decreed that year censured the liberty of thought and of the press, subjugated education to religion, and put an end to economic freedom: the 32nd article of the 1886 constitution declared that “the state will be in charge of the general direction of the economy,” which it “will rationalize and centrally plan in order to achieve full development.” Closed to the world, and with liberty of enterprise suffocated, it is hardly surprising that, throughout the entire 20th century, Colombia never lost its place among the world’s poor and backward nations.

James Fraser died in 1878, before the demise of the liberal republic which he served as Secretary of War in 1870, but his family — despite Lord Lovat Fraser’s role in the ‘45 — upheld the Whig ideals of free trade, free speech and Protestantism. Thus, when my paternal grandfather James Raisbeck, a Glaswegian lawyer, arrived in Bogotá in the 1930s, he didn’t go native completely. Rather, by marrying my protestant grandmother, he entered a family that maintained a British Whig tradition in its blood and in its outlook.

Britishness, in fact, is the vital part of this family’s story. My grandfather’s family had been in Scotland long before his birth in 1900, yet its origins are in Cumbria. I suppose it was the Industrial Revolution that brought them across the border, which must have seemed but an artificial, imaginary line to the Raisbecks who, mostly as private soldiers, sacrificed their lives for the freedom and greatness of Britain in the two world wars.

My father, though born in Colombia, is a British national. He visits Scotland every year, and I have often gone along. We both hope that, next time we stroll along Princes Street, we can still look up to the Union Jack flying high — and proudly — above Edinburgh Castle.

We owe too much to the United Kingdom of Great Britain to think otherwise.

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