“Clever as the Devil and twice as pretty.”
― Holly Black
Sir Gregor served in the Peninsula war in Spain before leaving Europe in 1811 to fight the Spanish in South America. Simon Bolivar, the Liberator of Latin America, was impressed by the Scotsman’s energy, bravery, and skill as a military leader and promoted him to general. Later he allowed him to marry his niece, Josefa.
Coming from a family with more history than money, it was the lure of riches that drove the increasingly impatient MacGregor. From 1817 to 1820, he lived the life of a pirate, attacking Spanish strongholds in the Caribbean and up the coast of Florida, then still in Spanish hands. His exploits included capturing and occupying Amelia Island off Florida in 1817.
MacGregor planned to sell off the land to the fledgling United States and then invade the rest of Florida. Left high and dry by the failure of his supposed American allies to send reinforcements, he was forced to sell the island to a pirate acquaintance before disappearing into the Caribbean once more.
In 1820 he hit upon the idea which was to bring him fame, fortune and – ultimately – disgrace. He sailed with his loyal retinue of followers to the unpromising-looking swampy part of Central America known as the Mosquito Coast. Here he befriended the local ’King’, George Frederic Augustus. At a meeting in April 1820, MacGregor plied his new friend with whisky and rum before the pair signed an extraordinary deal.
The Scotsman was to be granted more than eight million acres of land along the coast and far inland, apparently forever. In sober reflection, Frederick was to have a very different recollection of just what he’d given to MacGregor, but the deed was done. Armed with this huge area of land, MacGregor and his beautiful wife immediately set sail for Britain, where he announced himself in London with great pomp and ceremony as Gregor I, Cazique (or Chief) of Poyais, the name he had chosen for ‘his country’.
Such was the promotion’s success, that at least one ballad was sung in MacGregor’s praise; books and pamphlets extolled the merits of this fine new nation and an excited public clamoured to buy into this irresistible country led by its charismatic and heroic Prince. Buoyed by his success, MacGregor opened an official Poyaisian Legation to Britain in the City of London and opened land offices in Glasgow, Stirling and Edinburgh. Many poorer people, who could not afford to buy the expensive bonds, bought small parcels of land or signed up as shoemakers, shopkeepers, jewellers, teachers and clerks or other craftsmen, all with skills apparently much needed by the booming new state.His plan to make money from his ‘kingdom’ had two different approaches. One was to raise capital of £200 000 (millions in today’s money) by issuing 2,000 bearer bonds at £100 each, the other to sell land and commissions in Poyais. In this he was aided by a skilful and shameless marketing campaign promoting the virtues of what one marketeer called ‘this unsurpassed Utopia’. There were no half-measures in the hard sell. Poyais was extravagantly described as a land of cathedrals, public buildings and banks, with all the other trappings of a civilised nation. Its capital, St Joseph, was said to boast an opera house among its fine buildings. Meanwhile, the land itself was described as having unimaginable fertility and beauty, a land where gold nuggets and diamonds and pearls were as ‘plentiful as pebbles’ and where grain could grow without the need for sowing.
MacGregor – who often referred to himself as Sir Gregor, though no one knows who bestowed the title on him — even issued his own Poyais currency and sold commissions in the nation’s army. By the end of 1822, MacGregor had assumed the status of a Sovereign Prince and the bond and land sale schemes were making him, in today’s terms, a multi-millionaire. The whole elaborate edifice however, now threatened to become a victim of its very success.
Early In 1823, two ships — the Honduras Packet and the Kinnersley Castle – set sail from Leith, bound for Poyais. On board were some 240 excited emigrants, many of them Highlanders, eager to inhabit the wonderful land they had invested in with their life’s savings and possessions. They included a Mr. Gauger, a banker from the City of London who was excited at the prospect of becoming the first manager of the Bank of Poyais, and a Scottish shoemaker equally entranced at the thought that he was to be the Official Shoemaker to the Princess of Poyais.
The starry-eyed colonists were assured the only legal currency in their new home would be the Poyaisian dollar and so, before departing, they exchanged their old Scottish and English pounds for this exciting new currency. What did they care for old money from the old country anyway? A wonderful new world of plenty awaited them.
What the settlers thought when weeks later they arrived at their new home one can scarcely imagine. Indeed, it was reported that some of them insisted on sailing further up the coast, so sure were they that they had been taken to the wrong place.
But the truth soon became horribly apparent. As the hapless settlers rowed ashore a desolate, wretched scene confronted them. Standing where the towering buildings, opera house and banks of the shining capital of St Joseph were supposed to be were instead four tatty, rundown shacks, built amid the remains of a doomed British colony abandoned back in the 18th century. Where the rich fertile plains and gold nuggets were promised were instead inhospitable swampy forests, full of biting insects, venomous snakes and deadly disease.
There was no Poyaisian army, no royal family, no civil service, not even one solid building. The great, prosperous nation of Poyais had all been an elaborate illusion, a heartless fraud committed on men and women from hard-working backgrounds who had dared to hope for a better life in the Americas. They managed to send word of their plight to the British colony of Belize and a rescue mission was launched. Out of some 240 who left Leith harbour, barely 50 made it back to their homeland.
Quite how MacGregor had expected to get away with it once anyone arrived in his ‘paradise’ is unclear. Possibly he had planned to make an escape with his millions but was undone by the timing. Perhaps he had even begun to believe his own propaganda that such a place existed. Incredibly, MacGregor at first tried to bluff things out, blaming the Belize colony for interfering and even for the theft of Poyaisian belongings, and he tried to raise yet more money on a re-issue of the bonds.
By November the game was up. The bonds were worthless and there was growing public rage at the enormity of the fraud he had perpetrated, especially among his fellow Scots. His funds were also evaporating as he spent money on his retinue and trying to re-ignite interest in Poyais.
Late that year he, Josefa and their two small children, Gregorio and Josefa, followed the traditional route for British fraudsters, by fleeing to Boulogne in France and from there on to Paris where their third child, Constantino, was born. However, the world had still not heard the last of Gregor MacGregor and his fantasy kingdom. By 1825 he had repeated the entire hoax once again on the French public, raising thousands of pounds on the dream of Poyais. By now, though, his luck was failing him.
An associate in Paris was jailed for fraud and MacGregor himself spent some time in jail before he was released and acquitted on appeal. An impertinent return to London was ill-advised and once again he had to talk his way out of a prison sentence as angry investors sought his indictment. For some years he lived in Edinburgh, vainly trying to sell plots of land in a kingdom that didn’t exist, with land he didn’t own. However, by the time his loyal wife Josefa died in Scotland in 1838, MacGregor had become a lonely, broken man. He left Scotland quietly in 1839 to return to Venezuela, the scene of many of his epic military adventures. There at least he was treated with respect as a returning war hero and lived comfortably on a military pension until his death in 1845.
His name can still be seen on a giant monument, built in Caracas to honour Venezuela’s heroes of Independence. However, his legacy in his homeland is very different. His outrageous fraud cost more than just the livelihoods of those he fooled. It may have been a brilliant fraud by an often brilliant and courageous man, but Gregor MacGregor’s extraordinary life was overshadowed by the deaths of his poor, unfortunate victims.