MacGregor was born on Christmas Eve
1786, the grandson of Gregor the Beautiful, the clan chief. But Scotland
could not contain the headstrong MacGregor, who served in the Peninsula
war in Spain before leaving Europe in 1811 to fight the Spanish in South
It was here he met the Liberator of
Latin America, Simon Bolivar who was hugely impressed by the Scotsman’s
energy; bravery and skill as a military leader, and eventually promoted
him to general. The handsome adventurer was later permitted to marry
Bolivar’s attractive niece, Josefa.
MacGregor’s fame as a military man
and his exploits were known to a British public eager to lap up news of
the exotic Spanish Americas.
But fame did not guarantee wealth,
and coming from a family with more history than money, it was the lure of
riches that drove the increasingly impatient MacGregor. From 1817 to 1820,
he lived the life of a pirate, attacking Spanish strongholds in the
Caribbean and up the coast of Florida, then still in Spanish hands. His
exploits included capturing and occupying Amelia Island off Florida in
1817, backed by a motley ‘army’ of young boys and toothless old men.
MacGregor's plan to sell off the
land to the fledgling United States and then invade the rest of Florida
came to little. Left high and dry by the failure of his supposed American
allies to send reinforcements, he was forced to sell the island to a
pirate acquaintance before disappearing into the Caribbean once more.
His plan to make money from his
‘kingdom’ had two different approaches. One was to raise capital of Ł200
000 (millions in today’s money) by issuing 2,000 bearer bonds at Ł100
each, the other to sell land and commissions in Poyals. In this he was
aided by a skilful and shameless marketing campaign promoting the virtues
of what one marketeer called ‘this unsurpassed Utopia’. There were no
half-measures in the hard sell. Poyals was extravagantly described as a
land of cathedrals, public buildings and banks, with all the other
trappings of a civilised nation. Its capital, St Joseph, was said to boast
an opera house among its fine buildings. Meanwhile, the land itself was
described as having unimaginable fertility and beauty, a land where gold
nuggets and diamonds and pearls were as ‘plentiful as pebbles’ and where
grain could grow without the need for sowing.
Such was the promotion’s success,
that at least one ballad was sung in MacGregor’s praise; books and
pamphlets extolled the merits of this fine new nation and an excited
public clamoured to buy into this irresistible country led by its
charismatic and heroic Prince. Buoyed by his success, MacGregor opened an
official Poyalsian Legation to Britain in the City of London and opened
land offices in Glasgow, Stirling and Edinburgh. Many poorer people, who
could not afford to buy the expensive bonds, bought small parcels of land
or signed up as shoemakers, shopkeepers, jewellers, teachers and clerks or
other craftsmen, all with skills apparently much needed by the booming new
state. MacGregor - who often referred to himself as Sir Gregor, though no
one knows who bestowed the title on him — even issued his own Poyals
currency and sold commissions in the nation’s army. By the end of 1822,
MacGregor had assumed the status of a Sovereign Prince and the bond and
land sale schemes were making him, in today’s terms, a multi-millionaire.
The whole elaborate edifice however, now threatened to become a victim of
its very success.
Early In 1823, two ships — the
Honduras Packet and the Kinnersley Castle - set sail from Leith, bound for
Poyals. On board were some 240 excited emigrants, many of them
Highlanders, eager to inhabit the wonderful land they had invested in with
their life’s savings and possessions. They included a Mr Gauger, a banker
from the City of London who was excited at the prospect of becoming the
first manager of the Bank of Poyals, and a Scottish shoemaker equally
entranced at the thought that he was to be the Official Shoemaker to the
Princess of Poyals.
The starry-eyed colonists were
assured the only legal currency in their new home would be the Poyalsian
dollar and so, before departing, they exchanged their old Scottish and
English pounds for this exciting new currency. What did they care for old
money from the old country anyway? A wonderful new world of plenty awaited
What the settlers thought when weeks
later they arrived at their new home one can scarcely imagine. Indeed, it
was reported that some of them insisted on sailing further up the coast,
so sure were they that they had been taken to the wrong place.
But the truth soon became horribly
apparent. As the hapless settlers rowed ashore a desolate, wretched scene
confronted them. Standing where the towering buildings, opera house and
banks of the shining capital of St Joseph were supposed to be were instead
four tatty, rundown shacks, built amid the remains of a doomed British
colony abandoned back in the 18th century. Where the rich fertile plains
and gold nuggets were promised were instead inhospitable swampy forests,
full of biting insects, venomous snakes and deadly disease.
There was no Poyalsian army, no
royal family no civil service, not even one solid building. The great,
prosperous nation of Poyals had all been an elaborate illusion, a
heartless fraud committed on men and women from hard-working backgrounds
who had dared to hope for a better life in the Americas.
The obvious next move for the
settlers would have been to clamber back aboard and set sail immediately
for Scotland. But their misfortunes were just beginning. Shortly after
their arrival, a hurricane blew through Central America, wrecking their
two ships and destroying any immediate hope of getting home. The days and
weeks that followed were full of misery and tragedy. Many of the 240, who
included elderly people, began to succumb to tropical diseases. Starvation
set in among people who were totally unsuited for survival in tropical
swamplands. The local people refused to help, scorning their Poyals
currency and pointing out that their King, George Frederic, insisted the
white settlers had no legal right to be there anyway.
The situation appeared hopeless. The
shoemaker, who had dreamed of fame at the Poyals court, lay down in his
hammock and shot himself. Others drowned trying to escape. Eventually, as
starvation and disease threatened to wipe out the entire colony, they
managed to send word of their plight to the British colony of Belize and a
rescue mission was launched.
Out of some 240 who left Leith
harbour, barely 50 made it back to their homeland. When news of the
calamity in Poyals and the true story of the state of that kingdom reached
Britain in August 1823, the reaction was predictable.
Quite how MacGregor had expected to
get away with it once anyone arrived in his ‘paradise’ is unclear.
Possibly he had planned to make an escape with his millions but was undone
by the timing. Perhaps he had even begun to believe his own propaganda
that such a place existed. Incredibly, MacGregor at first tried to bluff
things out, blaming the Belize colony for interfering and even for the
theft of Poyalsian belongings, and he tried to raise yet more money on a
re-issue of the bonds.
By November the game was up. The
bonds were worthless and there was growing public rage at the enormity of
the fraud he had perpetrated, especially among his fellow Scots. His funds
were also evaporating as he spent money on his retinue and trying to
re-ignite interest in Poyals.
Late that year he, Josefa and their
two small children, Gregorio and Josefa, followed the traditional route
for British fraudsters, by fleeing to Boulogne in France and from there on
to Paris where their third child, Constantino, was born. However, the
world had still not heard the last of Gregor MacGregor and his fantasy
kingdom. By 1825 he had repeated the entire hoax once again on the French
public, raising thousands of pounds on the dream of Poyals. By now,
though, his luck was failing him.
An associate in Paris was jailed for
fraud and MacGregor himself spent some time in jail before he was released
and acquitted on appeal. An impertinent return to London was ill-advised
and once again he had to talk his way out of a prison sentence as angry
investors sought his indictment. For some years he lived in Edinburgh,
vainly trying to sell plots of land in a kingdom that didn’t exist, with
land he didn’t own. However, by the time his loyal wife Josefa died in
Scotland in 1838, MacGregor had become a lonely, broken man. He left
Scotland quietly in 1839 to return to Venezuela, the scene of many of his
epic military adventures. There at least he was treated with respect as a
returning war hero and lived comfortably on a military pension until his
death in 1845.
His name can still be seen on a
giant monument, built in Caracas to honour Venezuela’s heroes of
Independence. However, his legacy in his homeland is very different. His
outrageous fraud cost more than just the livelihoods of those he fooled.
It may have been a brilliant fraud by an often brilliant and courageous
man, but Gregor MacGregor’s extraordinary life was overshadowed by the
deaths of his poor, unfortunate victims.