Originally published December 2012.
The Poyais Scam
Gregor MacGregor (1786 – 1845) was a Scottish soldier, adventurer, land speculator, and colonizer who fought in the South American struggle for independence. He was born in the family house of Glengyle in Stirlingshire, Scotland. Aged 16 in 1803, he joined the British Army and served in the 57th Foot. In an unusually quick fashion he rose to the rank of lieutenant by 1804. He served with the 7th in Gibraltar where they trained until 1809 when they were sent to Portugal, as reinforcements for the Duke of Wellington’s second peninsular campaign to drive the French out of Spain.
Accounts of his service in the Peninsular Campaign vary, but it is clear that for a time he was seconded to the Portuguese army with the rank of major, and possibly due to disagreements with his British superiors he eventually sold out his commission in British Army in May 1810. MacGregor and his wife then went to Edinburgh, where he assumed the title of “Colonel”, but by 1811 they were in London and MacGregor was styling himself Sir Gregor MacGregor, while claiming falsely to have succeeded to the chieftainship of the clan MacGregor.
By the time of his wife’s death in 1811, he had begun hearing of independence movements in South America and so he sold his small Scottish estate and He talked General Francisco de Miranda, the Commander in Chief of the new Venezuelan Republic’s army, into appointing him a colonel in the army, and almost immediately he was involved in a series of skirmishes that resulted in his promotion to brigadier-general. A month or so later, when General Miranda was captured and handed over to the royalist forces by Simon Bolivar, MacGregor fled to Curaco on a British brig with his new wife. He continued fighting with rebel forces off and on in Venezuela and Columbia for a number of years, but was acquiring a reputation as a braggart and his. One official “I am sick and tired of this bluffer, or Quixote, or the devil knows what. This man can hardly serve us in New Granada without heaping ten thousand embarrassments upon us.” His career was troubled by accounts of error, incompetency, and just plain exaggeration on his part.
In 1817, claiming to have been commissioned by representatives of the revolting South American countries to liberate Florida from Spanish rule, he obtain American financial backers. He “invaded” with a mere 150 men in June of that year. He soon learned the garrison of Fort San Carlos at Fernandina on Amelia Island consisted of only 105 men and so spread a rumor that his own force was much larger. He divided his men into several units to encourage the illusion of overwhelming numbers and the Spanish commander fled with his men. MacGregor raised his flag, the “Green Cross of Florida” and proclaimed the “Republic of the Floridas. In spite of forming a committee to write a constitution, forming a post office and issuing a currency, the new “republic” was quickly running out of funds. When promised reinforcements never appeared, he gave up the plan and left on September 17th.
He then returned to London in 1820 and launched his most infamous plan. that he had been created “cacique” (highest authority or prince) of the non-existent Principality of Poyais, an independent nation on the Bay of Honduras. He claimed to have a land grant from a local Indian king in what would now be Belize, and created an entirely fictitious state with himself as ruler. To bolster his claims he invented detailed accounts not only of the country’s geography and economic resources but of its state coat of arms, military uniforms etc., including a national flag (the green cross from his failed invasion of Florida). British merchants were all too happy to hear of an opportunity to exploit the South American market that Spain had blocked them from reaching. London society welcomed MacGregor and his exotic Hispanic wife and he embellished upon his stories of adventure in the Peninsular War and during the rebellions in South America. He also published 350 page book called Sketch of the Mosquito Shore (supposedly written by someone else) which described the huge profits to be made in gold and silver mining, the fertile soil, the lack of tropical disease, the pro-British attitude of the natives, the beneficial weather patterns, lack of taxes, and the existing infrastructure founded by the first British settlers who he claimed arrived in 1730.
Eventually, MacGregor began to sell land rights to prospective settlers for 3 shillings and 3 pence per acre. In September 1822 a ship was chartered to deliver the first wave of 70 settlers to the Poyais. In January 1823, another 200 took sail. Of course when they arrive they found nearly virgin jungle. The supposed capital was just the ruined remains of an earlier failed settlement from the previous century. Their first ship was swept away by a storm and the second ship sailed off after depositing the settlers on the shore. Disease began to set in as they built rudimentary shelters and sought for a ship to rescue them from their plight.
Before being picked up, 180 of the 270 settlers died. But by then MacGregor had moved on to France to continue the hoax and seek out new investors and settlers. The French were more lucky however. French officials seized their ship before is sailed when the officials noticed a wave of passports being issued from a country for which they had no records. In Spite of being arrested at one point when he returned to England, MacGregor continued to travel and run his investment scams regarding Poyais through the 1830’s. He seems never to have been brought to justice. In 1839 this MacGregor finally sailed back to Venezuela where he requested and received not only citizenship, but also a pension as a general who had fought for their independence.