In A Nutshell
In the early 1800s, a Scot named Gregor MacGregor appealed to the brave, adventurous side of his people in an attempt to get them to help him colonize a fertile, rich land that he had recently been made prince of. The land was Poyais, and there were promises of gold, silver, friendly natives, and riches for everyone. The only problem was that Poyais didn’t exist as he advertised, and that was only discovered after MacGregor raked in £3.6 billion ($5.8 billion) in today’s money and sent several ships of settlers off to the uncharted land.
The Whole Bushel
In 1786, a man with the rather unlikely name of Gregor MacGregor was born in Glengyle, Scotland. It was a time when Britain was at the peak of its expansion, and that meant there were countless citizens looking for new opportunities. It was a good time for MacGregor, and the perfect time to launch what would become one of the largest cons in history.
MacGregor’s military career was an important step in lending credence to what today might seem like an impossible claim. He had joined up with the Royal Navy in 1803, and had fought in then-exotic locales like Venezuela and Florida. When he returned to Europe, he was armed with a fantastic story and all the documentation he needed to back it up.
According to MacGregor, the generous King Frederic Augustus I of the Mosquito Shore and Nation had named him a prince. Officially, his title was now Cacique of the Principality of Poyais.
Poyais was an extremely fertile but undeveloped nation that sat on the Bay of Honduras (again, according to MacGregor).
Upon his return to Europe, MacGregor published a book called Sketch of the Mosquito Shore, including the Territory of Poyais. He was, of course, only publishing the book for its real author, a Captain Thomas Strangeways, who had been instrumental in the discovery of the nation and the founding of a capital city in the 1730s.
The book described in detail the exquisite treasures and untapped potential in the land that MacGregor was now conveniently a prince of. There were vast stretches of forests and uncut timber, there were silver mines, and there was fertile soil that could sustain multiple harvests every year, meaning that there was plenty for everyone to eat. There was a harbor that was just waiting for British ships, and clean, clear rivers and streams that had gold just waiting along the bottom. (Interestingly, he also touted the location near the Isthmus of Panama—a place, he said, that was great for a canal.)
And there were natives, too—friendly, happy natives that loved their new British friends. They were natives who had heard stories of Britain and would do anything they could to help establish such a wonderful world in their own fertile, fruitful land.
MacGregor’s only problem was that he didn’t have quite enough funds to start his projects.
So he began to sell bonds, promising a 6 percent return on everything that was purchased as an investment. Poyais was more than rich enough to pay back the loan, he promised: There were all those resources just lying around for the taking, remember? His pitch wasn’t just a small-scale operation, either. He opened offices in London, Glasgow, Edinburgh, and Stirling, all selling land interests, bonds, and even positions to those who were interested in emigrating to Poyais. He sold the position of shoemaker to the princesses, he sold positions as teachers, as bankers, and as civil servants.
In today’s money, MacGregor made about £3.6 billion ($5.8 billion) selling his story of a fantastic land in the Americas.
And that’s not even the end of the story.
MacGregor kept the ruse going. He chartered some ships to take the settlers to their new home in Poyais. The Honduras Packet left London on September 10, 1822 with 70 settlers bound for Poyais. Four months later, the Kennersley Castle followed, leaving from Scotland with about 200 people on board.
And they reached their new home, only to find nothing but inhospitable jungle, no precious metals, and certainly no friendly natives waving British flags. Of the 60 would-be settlers that survived the journey, 10 stayed and 50 returned to Britain, after an attempt to make the best of their one-way tickets and build their own civilization. A nice thought, and one that failed miserably.
MacGregor didn’t wait to see what their thoughts were on the real Poyais—instead, he fled to France and tried to start the whole scheme over again. The French government started to get suspicious when a good number of their citizens were applying for passage to a country that the government officials were pretty sure didn’t exist. They tried to convict MacGregor of fraud, but he got off and returned to England.
Not having learned to leave well enough alone, he tried to get his enterprise started yet again and was still on about Poyais as late as 1836, when he penned the Poyais Constitution.
No one was buying it this time, though.
He eventually returned to Venezuela, where he died on December 4, 1845.