In the 1690s the people of Scotland were encouraged to invest in a venture to set up a Scots colony in the isthmus of Panama that was guaranteed to make them all rich. A fleet of ships set off filled with new colonists and trade goods, and within a short time the whole Darien scheme collapsed. The people fell to disease, and the trade goods - linen underwear, wigs and bibles - though undoubtedly highly valued by the people of Scotland were scorned by potential traders. Scotland was bankrupt, and England bailing her out was an explicit condition for the 1707 treaty of Union. Ironically, the Bank of Scotland was used to receive the bail-out money from English taxpayers.
And it's the two Scottish banks, RBS and HBOS, that have again been most imprudent in this current scandal and again demand a bail-out by English taxpayers. And it doesn't end there. These banks are also the largest lenders to the world's collapsing shipping market, or the bulk goods and tanker fleet parts of it. Ports crowded with idle shipping don't make good news for the UK; half our food is imported, and while we're enjoying rock-bottom freight rates right now a halt to new shipbuilding will cause a shipping squeeze and higher food prices in the future.
When the Sony PS2 went into production, the world price of Tantalum, a metal used in making small capacitors, leapt from $49/lb to $275/lb. It's since reached as high as $400/lb. In the Congo, this caused thousands of schoolchildren to quit school and hordes of prostitutes to relocate.
Congo has some 80% of the world's known reserves, and though officially it produces only 1% of the Tantalum used on the international market, the unrecorded bulk of it thunders on huge trucks into Rwanda. Rwanda is a significant exporter of Tantalum. There is no Tantalum mined in Rwanda. The UN estimates that the Rwandan army makes up to $250 million a year from illegal sales of Congolese Tantalum.
The Tantalum in the Congo is illegally mined as an ore known locally as Coltan by thousands of men and boys digging in old river beds. The mining camps are rife with crime and disease, and HIV rates amongst the attendant prostitutes are high. The reason the Coltan beds are emptying the schools is simple; the average Congolese wage is $10 a month. A Coltan miner can earn from $10 - $50 a week.
The raw Coltan hits the coast and is loaded into ships for processing into Tantalum by one of only three plants in the world that can convert the raw material into a metal with a melting point of 3017º C; they are owned by Cabot Inc of the US, Germany's HC Starck and China's Nigncxia.
And if you're on your way into work on a train and reading the news about the Congo on an iPhone, or a Blackberry, or a Nokia the chances are you're holding Tantalum mined there, transported by a ship operated by a Greek and financed by RBS or HBOS, in which you're now a shareholder, but which only now exist because the Scots thought they could sell bibles, wigs and underpants to the world three hundred years ago.