Gregor McGregor, the Cacique of Poyais
One of the most incredible fraudsters of the 19th century was Naval veteran, Gregor McGregor, who on his return to London in 1820 after fighting in the Venezuelan War of Independence, announced that he had been named Cacique or prince of the principality of Poyais. The honour had been bestowed on him, he claimed, by the native chief, King Augustus I. And where was Poyais? According to McGregor it was located on the Bay of Honduras.
To promote this land of milk and honey he had a book published, ostensibly written by Captain Thomas Strangeways, called Sketch of the Mosquito Shore including the Territory of Poyais. It told of a fantastic land with untapped gold and silver mines, fertile soil, an established civil service, a democratic government and natives who were eager to work for British masters. St Joseph, the capital, had been founded in 1730 by British settlers – strange that very few people had seemed to have heard of it.
Having piqued the nation’s interest McGregor rolled out his investment scheme. For the rich on October 23rd 1822 he offered 2,000 bonds at £100 each, requiring a deposit of £80 and offering interest of 3%. They were fully subscribed. For the poor he sold land at 3 shillings and threepence an acre – about a day’s pay. He even sold places in his military and positions in the government. Naturally, he devised and issued his own currency.
The Poysian Legation opened offices in London and Scotland and McGregor and his associates made hay selling land, investments and other opportunities. So successful was the enterprise that by 1823 McGregor was in today’s terms a multi-millionaire.
The problem was that this land of milk and honey didn’t exist. True enough, King Augustus did grant McGregor land in a drunken stupor but all it consisted of was four run-down buildings and uninhabitable jungle. There was not a sniff of gold or silver. But, as we know, facts never get in the way of a fraudster or politician.
What would have been an elaborate and successful fraud had McGregor left it at that took a rather surprising turn when the Poysian legation, for reasons best known to itself, decided to send two boatloads of settlers to the non-existent land. On 1oth September 1822 the Honduras Packet left London with 70 settlers and on January 22nd 1823 the Kennersley Castle left Leith Harbour with almost 200 settlers. When they landed, they realised they had been conned. Sadly, only 50 survived to return to England.
When the survivors made it to London, their story hit the newspapers and McGregor, sensing which way the wind was blowing, scarpered to France. But McGregor wasn’t done with his golden egg that was Poyais just yet and started selling investment opportunities to the French, repeating his trick of issuing bonds and making pockets of land available. The French authorities took less of a laissez-faire attitude than their British equivalents and started to investigate this racket, McGregor being arrested in December 1825. Despite facing two trials he was acquitted but deciding that Paris was too hot for comfort, made his way back to Blighty.
Incredibly, he was at it again, opening an office at 23, Threadneedle Street and trying to issue Poyais bonds in 1827, albeit with little success. In 1828 he was selling land in the mythical territory for 5 shillings an acre and during the 1830s by which time he was now President of the Poyaisian republic he made several attempts to resuscitate interest in his fraudulent scheme.
Miraculously, though, he evaded justice and emigrated to Venezuela in 1839 where he died six years later.