This little-known trickster is often regarded as the ‘King of Conmen’, the creator of a bogus nation, and he really is deserving of more notoriety than history has given him.
The essence of an excellent fraud is to make people believe in something that does not exist. The Nazi propaganda machine relied on the principle that the bigger the lie the more likely it is to be believed. Gregor MacGregor did not think small, and his scam is probably justly regarded as the greatest confidence trick of all time.
He was born on Christmas Eve of 1786 at the ancestral home of Clan MacGregor on the north shore of Loch Katrine. After a career in the British army, MacGregor made his way to South America to fight as a soldier of fortune in the Venezuelan War of Independence. He married Simón Bolivar’s cousin, and led a number of freebooting military campaigns to the Caribbean. While accumulating a rich stock of adventures, wealth seemed always to elude him, until one day he alighted upon a simple but brazen scheme. In 1820, he persuaded an indigenous king, George Frederic Augustus, to grant him title to 8 million acres of the Mosquito Coast, a vast tract of virgin jungle, and upon the basis of this he invented and entirely fictitious country.
In Mid-1921, McGregor was back in England, presenting himself in British society as the Cazique of Poyais, a princely title of a non-existent country which he portrayed as prosperous, heavily endowed with natural resources and begging for foreign investment. The native ‘Poyers’, he said, were a friendly and hardworking people, and the capital St Joseph a picturesque European settlement, with well-appointed civic buildings and an opera house. A deep water port offered easy access, and a pleasant climate negated the usual tropical diseases. Poyais was nothing less than a paradise on earth awaiting just the administrations of British capital.
All of this was brought to attention of a cash-flush English public through a finely crafted publicity campaign using guidebooks, testimonials, lavish illustrations, coats-of-arms, currency and flags. A great deal of fine salesmanship on the part of ‘His Highness Gregor’ did the rest. Prospective settlers purchased plots of 100 acres of pristine farmland for £11, while military men purchased commissions in the Poyais army for considerably more. Concessions to open banks and business were sold, and prospective civil servants offered comfortable contracts for the settlement of a small fee.
How much Gregor McGregor netted from this scam is usually put at about £200,000, which in the 1820s was utterly phenomenal. Various other bond market scams ran to about £1.3 million, which would probably be in the region of £3.6 billion today.
Needless to say, when the first boatload of settlers arrived in Poyais, they found a disease infested wilderness, and, of course, the Cazique slipped away and settled for a time in Paris. He died in Venezuela in 1845, astronomically wealthy, and never convicted of any crime.