my contributions to round 18 of the popular ABC Wednesday meme.
The problem was, it didn’t exist. It was the invention of Gregor MacGregor, the soldier, adventurer and revolutionary who ranks alongside the likes of Bernie Madoff as one of history’s most audacious fraudsters.
MacGregor was born in 1786 at Glengyle, about 30 miles north of Glasgow, one of the Scottish clan MacGregor whose most famous member was his great-great-uncle Rob Roy, another scoundrel renowned for his debt-dodging antics.
Gregor MacGregor joined the British Army in 1803 at the age of sixteen and proved himself to be a capable soldier, being promoted to lieutenant after less than a year’s training, a process that would normally take three years.
This coincided with the start of the Napoleonic Wars and MacGregor was to serve in Gibraltar and then in Portugal in the Peninsular War, his regiment making its name as the Die-Hards at the Battle of Albuera.
MacGregor made much of his martial reputation when he returned to Edinburgh, touring the city in a brightly coloured coach, wearing the insignia of a Portuguese knight and adopting the title of Colonel. By 1811, he had moved to London and styling himself as Sir Gregor MacGregor with family ties to various dukes and earls, none of which had any basis in reality.
He had previously married Maria Bowater who he had met in 1804. She was the daughter of an admiral and came to him with a substantial dowry, but she died in 1811 which effectively cut off his main source of income and the support of her well-connected family, and he was to fall back on the only career he knew – soldiering and adventuring.
The Venezuelan revolutionary General Francisco de Miranda had visited London and may have met MacGregor. The colonies of South America were rebelling against Spanish rule and MacGreggor saw the unrest as an opportunity to find fame and fortune.
He landed in Venezuela early in 1812 and offered his services to Miranda. In his very first action, he led his cavalry to defeat royalist forces between Valencia and Caracas and by the end of June he had been promoted to brigadier-general and had married Doña Josefa Antonia Andrea Aristeguieta y Lovera, cousin of the revolutionary Simón Bolívar.
MacGregor had an extensive military career in the Americas that included the defence of Cartagena (in the present day Dominican Republic) and in Florida, but I am concentrating on his later frauds.
By 1820, MacGregor’s star had waned. He was wanted for piracy in Jamaica, was accused of treason by Bolivar and was the subject of a highly critical book, Memoirs of Gregor M’Gregor, published in London by Michael Rafter, brother of William Rafter who had been killed after being abandoned by MacGregor.
In April 1820, King George Frederic Augustus of the Mosquito Coast had granted MacGregor great swathes of his territory in exchange for rum and jewellery. MacGregor dubbed this land Poyais and in 1821 he appeared back in London calling himself the Cazique of Poyais (native chief) a title he claimed to have been given by the Mosquito king, but in fact both the title and Poyais were his own invention.
London society chose to ignore the criticism in Rafter’s book and instead welcomed the MacGregors who became ‘a great adornment for the dinner tables and ballrooms of sophisticated London’, even including an official reception at Guildhall from the Lord Mayor.
MacGregor said that he was attending the coronation of George IV and behalf of the people of Poyais and to find investment and colonists to a land that he claimed had a democratic government, civil service, an honours system, landed titles, a coat of arms, and which was ripe for development.
Many people bought into MacGregor’s fantasy as he embarked on an aggressive sales campaign, engaging publicists to write advertisements and leaflets, and even had Poyais-related ballads composed and sung on the streets of London, Edinburgh and Glasgow.
The claims made for the country became wilder and wilder and among the fictions were the ‘facts’ that Poyais:
- was a spa destination for sick colonists from the Caribbean;
- had soil so fertile that a farmer could have three maize harvests a year;
- had fish and game so plentiful a man could feed his family for a week in a single day’s fishing;
- and had rivers that contained ‘globules of pure gold’
Of the capital St Joseph, he said it was a flourishing seaside town of wide paved boulevards, colonnaded buildings and mansions and had a theatre, an opera house and a domed cathedral. There was also the Bank of Poyais, the Poyaisian houses of parliament and a royal palace.
Poyaisian land certificates were sold at two shillings and threepence per acre, about a working man’s daily wage at the time, but the cost rose to four shillings an acre by July 1822. Many of the buyers invested their life savings in the land and as one modern financial analyst observed, MacGregor became ‘the founding father of securities fraud’.
MacGregor deliberately targeted his fellow Scots to settle the verdant Poyais and the first colonists set sail in September 1822, having traded their savings for the Poyaisian dollars (left) which he had had printed.
Hundreds signed up to emigrate—enough to fill seven ships – and included a City of London banker called Mauger (who was to head the Bank of Poyais), doctors, civil servants, men who had bought them commissions in the Poyaisian Army and Navy, and an Edinburgh cobbler who accepted the post of Official Shoemaker to the Princess of Poyais.
The settlers arrived to find that Poyais was rather different to the land advertised by MacGregor. They set up camp on the shore in the forlorn expectation that they would be contacted by the Poyaisian authorities. Some explored inland and found St Joseph to be nothing more than a pile of rubble, but despite the evidence of their own eyes, they refused to believe that MacGregor had duped them and that it must all be some terrible misunderstanding.
Malaria and yellow fever became rife and the settlers sank into despair (the would-be royal shoemaker shot himself) and they were discovered in May 1823 by a schooner on its way to the Mosquito king’s court. King George Frederic Augustus was furious and revoked the land he had granted to MacGregor and announced that the settlers were there illegally and must leave unless they swore allegiance to him. Most did leave apart from 40 who were to ill to make the journey.
Word reached London, but not before five more ships had set sail. These were intercepted by the Royal Navy and the surviving colonists settled in America and British Honduras, while fewer than fifty returned to Britain.
Unsurprisingly, MacGregor left the country before they arrived. He said that he was taking Josefa to Italy for the sake of her health, but in fact his destination was Paris for the sake of his own. There he set about repeating his Poyaisian fantasy, persuading the Compagnie de la Nouvelle Neustrie, a firm of traders, to find investors and settlers in France.
Their ship was ready to depart, but French officials became suspicious at the number of people applying for passports for a country that they had never heard of and they ordered the ship to remain in port.
MacGregor went into hiding, but was eventually arrested in 1825. He attempted to claim some sort of diplomatic immunity which the French officials simply ignored and he stood trial in July 1826, accused of the complex conspiracy that he was clearly guilty of. Amazingly he was found not guilty on all counts.
MacGregor returned to England where the furore of his original scam had died down and set about variations of his Poyais fraud. Josefa died in Edinburgh in 1838 and her husband immediately returned to Venezuela where he cheekily asked for and got his back pay and pension from the Venezuelan Army. He became a respected member of society and received a burial with full military honours after he died in Caracas in 1845.
Over his lifetime, MacGregor fraudulently raised some £1.3 million in bonds alone, worth around £3.6 billion at today’s value, so he remains perhaps the greatest con man in history. And although this has been a very long ABC Wednesday post, I promise you that it does nothing more than scratch the surface of the career of a most remarkable rogue and I recommend the sources below for further reading.