MacGregor was a confidence trickster who attempted to draw investors and settlers to ‘Poyais’, a fictional Central American territory that he claimed to rule. MacGregor’s Poyais scheme has been called one of the most brazen confidence tricks in history, writes Peter Smith.
In 1820 a ship arrived in Britain carrying a certain Gregor MacGregor and his wife, a cousin of South American patriot Simon Bolivar. MacGregor had gained fame by helping Venezuela to gain independence from the Spanish and, on his arrival in London announced that he was ‘Cacique’, Prince of the Principality of Poyais, an area near the bay of Honduras.
This title, he claimed, had been bestowed on him by the King of Poyais, along with 13,000 square miles of land “ripe for development”.
London welcomed him, with the Lord Mayor hosting a reception for him at the Guildhall where MacGregor explained that Poyais was rich in natural resources but was in need of enterprising developers.
An elaborate publicity campaign followed inviting people to invest money and even emigrate to what, in reality, was a non-existent country. Bearer Bonds, of £100 were offered with an interest rate of 6% and land was available for the equivalent of 16p an acre.
That same year, 1882, a 350 page guide book to Poyais was published, allegedly written by a Captain Strangeway, but in reality by MacGregor. Poyais was an “ideal” place to settle with “unimaginable fertile soil” able to sustain 3 crops a year. Gold nuggets, pearls and diamonds were “as plentiful as pebbles” and the capital even had an Opera House!
As the money rolled in, a Legation of the Territory of Poyais was opened in London and ‘Land Offices’ established in Glasgow, Stirling and Edinburgh where small parcels of land could be purchased.
Before long, shopkeepers, teachers, clerks and other craftsmen had signed up to go to this land and MacGregor, now the ‘Sovereign Prince’ of Poyais was a multi-millionaire.
Early in 1823, two ships, the ‘Honduras Packet’ and ‘Kinnersley Castle’ set out from Leith in Edinburgh. Amongst the 250 on board were Lt. Col. Hector Hall , who was to become Governor General of Poyais, and a banker, Mr. Gauger, thrilled at the prospect of becoming the first ever Manager of the Bank of Poyais.
Two months later, they arrived in Poyais though many were convinced that they had arrived at the wrong place. Instead of the promised elegant houses and towering buildings, there were but four run-down shacks and the ‘fertile’ land was swampy jungle inhabited by biting insects and venomous snakes.
But worse was to follow. Prospects of returning to Europe were nil, they only had one-way tickets and both vessels had been destroyed during a hurricane. The local population scorned the Poyan ‘currency’ which was offered and insisted that any land-holding certificates were worthless.