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Ploughing the sea: Latin America observed

A Scotsman in Darien

Engraved plate depicting a female using the arrow from a bow and arrow to let blood from another female seated beneath a palm tree with her feet in a stream. With a dwelling and palm tree in the background.Indigenous methods of bloodletting as a medical practice.Lionel Wafer (d 1705), about whose early life very little is known, spent his boyhood in Scotland and Ireland. He had worked in the 1670s as a surgeon’s assistant on an East India Company vessel, although it is not clear when or how he acquired medical qualifications.

In 1680, a year after visiting Jamaica, he met the buccaneer and thrice global circumnavigator William Dampier (1651-1715) and with him and over 300 other privateers, sailed to the Isthmus of Darien in order to raid the town of Panama (which had been rebuilt in a different location following its seizure by Sir Henry Morgan ten years earlier).

Following a not unusual disagreement among the band, Wafer and 52 companions decided to defect from the others, who had sailed to Chile in search of fortune, and to return to Darien. During their march overland, an injury and the theft by a slave of his possessions left Wafer marooned among the Indians.

Because of this accidental encounter Wafer included some observations of Indians which are apparently still valuable to contemporary anthropologists, among which is his description of indigenous methods of bloodletting as a medical practice, as depicted in this illustration. He demonstrated a method of phlebotomy which was comparatively less painful than the use of an arrow.

Wafer’s advice was sought by the Darien Company, which had the task of planning and securing the projected Scottish colonisation of Darien in 1698, a colonisation which it was hoped would be the prelude to the collapse of Spanish power in the hemisphere.

Although this scheme failed spectacularly, the War of the Spanish Succession (1701-13) in effect hastened the decline of Spain as an imperial power. The offer of compensation from the English Treasury for those who had speculated on the failed scheme was one of the incentives for the Union of England and Scotland in 1707.

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