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The Con Artist That Made Up An Entire Country And Made Himself A Prince

The Prince of Poyais, the Cazique, His Serene Highness Gregor, ‘El General Mac Gregor’, are just some of the names belonging to a Scottish soldier who became one of the most infamous confidence tricksters of his time.

He was born on 24th December 1786 to the Clan MacGregor who possessed a strong family tradition of fighting. His father was Daniel MacGregor, an East India Company sea captain, whilst his grandfather, who had been nicknamed “the beautiful”, had served with distinction in the Black Watch, 3rd Battalion, Royal Regiment of Scotland.

His extended relations also included the infamous Rob Roy who had been involved in the Jacobite Rising of 1715 and in 1745, sometimes thought of as the Scottish Robin Hood.

On March 20, 1823, after 2 gruelling months sailing across the Atlantic Ocean, passengers gathered on the deck of the Kennersley Castle for the first glimpse of their new lives in the country of Poyais.

The view was immaculate: Sun glistening in the shallow waters of a blue lagoon. Mahogany trees drooping over sandy beaches.

James Hastie, who was moving to Poyais with his wife and 2 children, thought the country “had a very beautiful appearance from the sea.”

Like many passengers, Hastie had signed a contract with the Poyaisian government to work as a laborer. Others, including doctors and lawyers, had cashed in their belongings in Europe for land in Poyais and the opportunity to establish themselves as a new upper crust in the Caribbean.

Rich or poor, it seemed impossible not to prosper. The myriad Poyais advertisements that circulated through Britain had promised fertile land, rivers stocked with fish, and forests teeming with deer.

But as Hastie and the others soon discovered, Poyais was not a country at all. It was one of the most elaborate — and deadliest — frauds in history.

The Rise of a Scammer

Raised by a privileged Scottish family on the periphery of the aristocracy, Gregor MacGregor tasted enough wealth to know how good it would feel to have more.

MacGregor went to top schools and, at 16, he joined the British army, a haven for status-seeking young men. But his real coup was winning the heart of Maria Bowater, a daughter of a navy admiral who ran in Britain’s finest social circles.

A portrait of a young MacGregor in the British army

Armed with Bowater’s family wealth and prestige, military life suddenly got easier for MacGregor.

He paid £900 (~£72k today) to become captain of his regiment — a promotion that would have otherwise taken several years — and was on the fast track toward general, the highest distinction in the army.

But the money didn’t make MacGregor competent at his job. After a fight with a superior officer, he was forced to resign.

Then, in 1811, Bowater died, and her embarrassed in-laws cut off MacGregor from their fortune. His supply of old money gone dry, MacGregor seemed destined for obscurity.

And yet he managed to fail upward.

After spending several years as a hapless leader in Venezuela’s revolution against Spain — which included deserting his troops during 2 key battles — MacGregor returned to England in 1821 with instant credibility because of his ties to the decorated politician Francisco de Miranda.

It also helped that he married rich again, this time to a cousin of the famed revolutionary Simón Bolívar. The duo became a power couple, wined and dined by London’s lord mayor.

MacGregor stikes another pose for an 1825 portrait

Not everyone was swooning.

In 1820, the brother of one of MacGregor’s charges in Venezuela released a 418-page book that detailed MacGregor’s military mishaps, more or less eviscerating him as a leader.

“That any person could be induced again to join him in his desperate projects,” wrote Michael Rafter, “would be to conceive a degree of madness and folly of which human nature, however fallen, is incapable.”

Unbeknownst to Rafter, MacGregor had a cunning trick up his sleeve.

The Dot-Com Bubble Of The Early 19th Century

In 1820s England, no phrase excited investors more than “South America.”

Britain was swimming in cash and optimism after the end of the Napoleonic Wars. But there was no more war to finance, and the interest rates of the most popular British-backed securities declined, tempting record numbers of people trying to time the market for maximum profit to find something stronger and riskier.

South America — a catch-all for what is now Latin America — was the inevitable target.

Several countries had gained independence from Spain and were floating bonds to finance their incipient governments. Countries like Colombia and Chile sold bonds totalling ~£100m-£200m in today’s money, promising 6% in annual returns by tapping into profits from state-run agriculture and mineral industries.

So began a craze akin to the dot-com bubble: Investors who knew basically nothing about the inner workings of South American countries went on a buying spree, inflating the value of the bonds and creating an intense resale market.

A one-thousand peso Republica de Colombia bond from 1827

In this speculative environment, MacGregor crafted an insidious plan.

During his South American misadventures, he’d befriended George Frederic August I — the king of the Mosquito Coast Territory (present-day Honduras and Nicaragua) — and had been gifted 8 million acres on the eastern shore of Honduras, an area roughly the size of Maryland.

The land belonged to MacGregor, but it was under the dominion of the British-aligned Mosquito government. Of course, nobody in Europe knew these details.

So back in London, at various society events, MacGregor presented his land as the independent country of Poyais — and cast himself as the ruling “Cazique.”

In short order, MacGregor set about marketing the territory as a real country:

  • He designed a national flag and a coat of arms for Poyais featuring two unicorns.

  • He got British papers to detail bond prices for Poyais just as they did for legitimate countries.

  • Outside offices in Edinburgh, Glasgow, and London, he and his representatives handed out brochures and sang songs about Poyais.

To top it off, there was a book about Poyais that concluded the new country “would rapidly advance in prosperity and civilization.” (This ruse perhaps should have been obvious — the pseudonymous author’s name was “Thomas Strangeways.”)

MacGregor advertised Poyaisian land and estates in papers throughout Scotland and England.

As 1822 wore on, the excitement spread, and MacGregor steadily increased the price of land from 1 shilling per acre to 4 shillings per acre (£6 to £24 per acre today). In the fall, investors snapped up £200k of bonds (~£24m today) at a 6% rate of return.

They believed they were financing a building boom in a developing country. In reality, the money lined MacGregor’s pockets.

There was just one major concern, according to David Sinclair’s book The Land That Never Was: How would Poyais pay the interest?

Without any current revenues to describe, MacGregor assured the investors that funding would come from future inhabitants.

This meant Poyais needed settlers — and fast.

Fortunately for MacGregor, hundreds of British had fallen for the marketing hype, exchanging their life savings for Poyaisian money and land grants. The first ~70 settlers left from England in fall 1822 on the Honduras Packet. Another ~180 set sail from Scotland in January 1823 on the Kennersley Castle.

Before the 2nd group departed, MacGregor greeted them aboard the Kennersley Castle and offered free passage for all the women and children. The future Poyais residents were elated at his generosity.